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How to Keep Construction Jobs on Track Before They Start

Article-How to Keep Construction Jobs on Track Before They Start

Pitinan Piyavatin/Alamy Stock Photo Group of executives working on Project management schedule for construction job
Two key steps inspired by animation giant Pixar can help set your projects up to stay on time and on budget.

There is a great book available now that every contractor should read: “How Big Things Get Done” by Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner. The authors discuss the Iron Law of Megaprojects, which they define as “over time, over budget, under benefits, over and over again.” Essentially, the law is that megaprojects will fail. 

The authors’ insights apply to more than just large, billion-dollar projects; they can be immensely helpful for businesses with projects of all sizes and in all industries, especially construction.  

Think of it this way: A megaproject for the average contractor might not be anywhere near $1 billion, but it is one of the biggest jobs you’ve even taken. After analyzing thousands of projects over time, Flyvbjerg and Gardner concluded that “projects don't go wrong; they start wrong.”  

My business partner Dennis Engelbrecht observed this a decade ago: Construction projects lose most of their time in the first third of the job. There's little urgency at the outset. That means that on the back end of the job, you've got trade stacked on trade stacked on trade, and everybody is at their wit’s end trying to finish on time.  

One of the success stories Flyvbjerg and Gardner examine is the movie studio Pixar. Producing a movie is a project with a beginning, a middle, an end and a budget—not dissimilar from construction jobs. Additionally, Pixar has an impressive success record. “They came on my radar because they’ve had 20-plus blockbuster hits in a row,” Flyvbjerg told The Washington Post. “No Hollywood studio has ever done that. This is statistical evidence that something is going on that is not just chance.” 

Here are two key strategies for a successful project, inspired by Pixar’s practices, to implement on your next construction job—whether big or small: 

1. Consider the project from all angles.   

Before Pixar releases a movie, they work to address the various ways the project could go. If we change this? What if we do that? It sounds exhausting, but it makes sense because, using this strategy, they can find many of the likely problems, opportunities, bugs and inconsistencies, and they can refine the project before they are too deep into it.  

Spending time on the front end to think through your project can save time, effort and money later on. In construction, it is inevitable that problems will arise. If you can predict ahead of time when and how they will likely manifest and at what stage of the project, you can preemptively put mitigation procedures in place. 

2. Ensure everyone involved understands the purpose and execution plan.  

Flyvbjerg and Gardner used the example of presenting someone with a simple drawing of a bicycle and asking them to explain how it works. It’s often much harder than expected; people think they understand complex things like erecting buildings, paving highways or making movies much more than they actually do. Working to ensure each team member knows the purpose and plan of execution for an upcoming project gets everyone on the same page early in the process.  

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