Culture Matters in Design and Construction

In the choosing, developing and managing of design and construction teams, the collaborative project delivery approach consciously seeks out teams of individuals that embrace certain core beliefs. The first core belief is that the current system is dysfunctional and doesn’t work well, that it is replete with waste and redundancy and that therefore it can be redesigned to perform better. This is a gateway belief—people will be unwilling to accept changing the project delivery paradigm if they don’t believe something is wrong with it.

The second is that teams build projects, not individuals or individual companies. Despite contractual limitations, silo creating borders have to be crossed by individuals to develop and deliver a workable project.

Third, individuals have to be open to the kinds of behaviors required to design and build effective projects and they have to be willing to make changes in their own behavior to accommodate this behavioral necessity. They must be empowered by their companies to engage in beneficial behaviors that are project oriented, rather than directed at protecting each company’s interest. This commitment is based on the second fundamental idea that teams build projects. Participating companies have to have confidence that by empowering their individuals to act as project first team members, the outcome for the company will almost always be better and in no circumstances worse than traditional delivery.

The Core Values: What are the behaviors we’re looking for in developing these teams? The behaviors are incorporated in and representative of the six core values of any collaborative project:

· Visibility and transparency: The participants on a project must be willing to have all information on the project visible and transparent to the project team. Visibility means that the trailer walls contain all the information that is important to the mission of the team—the project plan, the budget, the schedule, the current state of the project, pending constraints, and other important information that allows the participants to know at any moment what is happening on the team. Transparency means that all information necessary for the team to know is freely shared including costs incurred by participants, profit amounts, man power loads, predicted efficiencies of teams and all costs of peripheral or “add on” programs that the project is expected to pay. As individuals, this also means that there are no secret agendas, that everyone’s commitment to making the project successful is manifest and clear and exhibited by their behaviors every day.

· Collaboration: Once true visibility and transparency have occurred; the team is free to “collaborate”— “the action of working with someone to produce or create something.” Collaboration starts with sharing information and knowledge across the team and then proceeds to the human interaction of making sense of that knowledge, of working together to develop the best project plan within the applicable budget, schedule and quality constraints. True collaboration requires the face to face, hand to hand working together in a collaborative space that makes all ideas visible, allows all voices to be heard and develops several options to problem solving that allow for choices among competing ideas for all aspects of the project. This kind of collaboration inevitably leads to innovation. It also has another, equally important benefit: it allows trust to develop.

· Trust: Trust is the most important ingredient on project teams. It is something that is purposefully missing from the current project delivery paradigm. Our “competitive” processes for arriving at a correct project budget and a deliverable schedule are replete with mistrust, lack of information sharing, massive assumptions not grounded in reality and an incentive system that rewards opacity, obfuscation and secrecy. Visibility and transparency open up the process, but collaboration puts the individuals on the project face to face to explore ideas and run assumptions to ground. This constant exchange develops faith in the ability of others on the project to be open, candid, innovative, original, truthful and interactive. As these relationships build, people begin to trust one another on the project and the team starts to cohere. People start believing (with good reason) that other team members have their backs, other team members are creative and thoughtful and have the best interests of the project in mind. It also exposes those members whose behaviors are not necessarily open and constructive and makes it clear where members may have to be replaced. The ability to develop this relationship, face the possibility of replacing team members and the ability to rely upon those remaining on the team is at the heart of trust based teams. It also leads to the next important behavior—the making and keeping of commitments.

· Commitment: Design and especially construction are among the most difficult industries and processes where we try to ask people to make commitments. Design is an iterative process that doesn’t happen “on schedule,” or overnight. It requires the development and challenging of ideas and the ability to piece complicated systems into a single facility while also appealing to the ethic and value system of a particular client. This is a complex process—not just a complicated process. Likewise, each of the builders on a project implement complicated processes but the project itself is the complex process of making sure all those complicated pieces work together. Asking designers and builders to “commit” to dates or tasks or outcomes is necessarily dependent on each of them knowing the context of their commitment.

The reliability of their commitment is completely dependent on the reliability of the preceding commitment. Because the making and keeping of commitments is at the heart of project completion, the team members need to trust one another that preceding commitments will be reliably kept before it is fair to ask them to make their own commitments. Thus, you cannot have a project that is based on a network of commitments unless the participants trust that all preceding commitments will be kept. This is at the heart of doing work that releases work--you first have to commit to doing the work. The making and keeping of commitments naturally leads to achieving the project's goals.

· Achievement: The accomplishment of purpose is an important goal for all humans. It is most easily seen and realized on projects where the ideas and vision of the owner have been realized in a facility that represents their values, works according to client needs, and represents a strong return on their investment. Recent research makes it clear that “positive inner work life promotes better performance. This is the inner work life effect: people do better work when they are happy, have positive views of the organization and its people and are motivated primarily by the work itself.”[1] The achievement of good work is its own incentive—something Daniel Pink calls “intrinsic motivation.”[2] Achievement is possible where people are respected—where they can simultaneously act autonomously, empowered to determine the work they think should done and the way it ought to be done and yet connected to others with like goals. Ibid. Trusting and empowering people, making all assumptions known and available for vetting and concrete solutions, collaborating around solution sets in a trusting environment where ideas are respected, and innovating through commitments what work is done and seeing it accomplished—all these combined lead to achievement. That is the reason we believe that collaborative, integrated project delivery allows projects to be delivered at the right price, at the right time with the right quality without having to sacrifice one or more of those for the others. And, important to our business, we deliver those projects with much greater safety and substantial client satisfaction.

Achievement also calls for recognition and celebration of our accomplishments. This is at the heart of encouraging behaviors that align with our teaming interests.

· Knowledge: As we achieve our goals, we do so through trial and error, exploring an ever increasing variety of possible solutions. Innovation requires creativity and collaboration on solution sets. True achievement requires deep planning and understanding of what we’re building before we build it. Because we are open to trying, we should be open to small failures to lead to large breakthroughs. We should also be cognizant of capturing how we attempted to solve problems and how well each attempt succeeded or failed. We develop extraordinary knowledge on projects that we rarely, if ever, share across the entire team. Most importantly, we rarely share what we’ve learned on projects back to the organizations that participated.

Knowledge capture includes the metrics we develop for measuring project success and progress and a later deep dive into whether those were the right metrics. It involves developing project delivery guides so we can share what we learned with future teams on future projects—so we can be building on our base of knowledge, ever increasing our capacity for creativity, innovation and effective delivery.

· Best Behaviors: Team culture is ultimately constructed around the values discussed above. Culture is defined by the organizational principles of a team working on a particular project, those things the team believes support the best outcomes. But ultimately, behaviors of team members are what we are trying to influence through our values. Behaviors deliver projects.

Contracts never have, and never can, actually influence the way work is done on a project. It is in fact the behaviors that are rewarded, commended and learned that deliver best best value.

Reviewing the values that we have enumerated allows us to catalog the kinds of behaviors that are both encouraged by those values and necessary to make them be true on projects. Some of the suggested behaviors include;
· Candid
· Communicative
· Cooperative
· Creative
· Curious
· Humorous
· Industrious
· Innovative
· Patient
· Respectful and loyal
· Skilled
· Transparent
· Truthful
· Trustworthy
· Willing to lead

How do we inculcate and encourage these kinds of behaviors on our team? We do it by creating an organized space where the space itself reflects our beliefs--a place where those are the behaviors that we encourage, that we incent and that we reward. These are the “values, attitudes, beliefs, orientations and underlying assumptions prevalent among” our team mates. In short, as Samuel Huntington defines it, “culture.”[3] Put another way, “[c]ulture is defined as a social domain that emphasizes the practices, discourses, and material expressions, which, over time, express the continuities and discontinuities of social meaning of a life held in common."[4] Culture is the “stuff” we believe in so much that we teach it to those that follow us. It forms the common, unspoken understanding of how we work together.

What this means for team development is that we need to develop a culture on and amongst the team that is supportive of our value system and that encourages the kinds of behaviors we know contribute substantially to project success. Each of the participants comes from a different company culture. It would be delightful if each company had the same type of culture with the same behaviors, attitudes, values and rules supporting and encouraging good practice.

However, in the absence of that Nirvana, we have the power to create and manage teams to develop a project team culture that allows a fully collaborative delivery model.

The Right Culture: The right project team culture requires more than just aspirational aphorisms to encourage a “positive attitude.” It requires space and tools and processes that allow the culture to develop and flourish. Those needs and the tools that help fulfill them are discussed in the next installment.

Join me for an upcoming Lean Construction Blog webinar on June 3, 2020 entitled "Why Lean Construction?". I will go over the Lean Construction movement, the problem that Lean solves, and how companies can benefit by adopting Lean.

[1] Amabile and Kramer, The Progress Principle (Harvard Business Review Press, Cambridge, 2011), pgs. 46-47.
[2] Pink, Drive, The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Riverhead Books, New York, 2012).
[3] [3]Huntington, Forward to Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress (Basic Books, 2000, New York), pg. xv.
[4]James, Paul; with Magee, Liam; Scerri, Andy; Steger, Manfred B. (2015). Urban Sustainability in Theory and Practice: Circles of Sustainability. London: Routledge. p. 53.

Featured Post


Builders - We Can Do Better

Project Managers hate rework. Owners hate rework. I assumed that everyone involved with a project hated rework but if that were the case then why is there so much of it?

Well rework doesn’t just happen, it happens for a reason, and usually the reason has to do with planning - i.e., lack of planning, late planning, ineffective planning, incomplete planning, etc. Whatever the case, if the planning had been thorough, well understood, and agreed-upon, the rework probably would not have happened. Time saved, money saved.

BIMRead more


How Visualizing Your Resources Can Lead to Better Flow and More Reliable Commitments

In an office, organizing the available resources and securing reliable commitments in the daily business is important. Especially in companies with different projects, an easy understandable overview of the resources allocation of the weekly work plan and the lookahead is very important. In our office we had a hard time organizing the team members that work on different projects away from the office. In some cases a team member becomes unavailable at short notice or there are changes in the projects which affect the allocation of staff.

Visual Management Read more


Why Lean? Why Now?

Lean project delivery has entered the mainstream of construction, yet Lean adoption lags among design professionals. Architects and engineers who transformed the industry by first pioneering sustainable design and later the use of Building Information Modeling (BIM) remain spectators while trade partners, construction managers, and some owners embrace Lean. As more owners expect and demand Lean, the hearts and minds of design professionals will soon follow. Change is difficult. Going “Lean” means abandoning the prevalent, “Robust” culture underlying design, operations and project delivery.

Teaching Lean    Lean Culture Read more

Copyright © 2015- Lean Construction Blog