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Executing the Challenging Project:

Focus on Opportunities as a Team


A major renovation to an operating hospital is about as challenging a project as you can find. And the Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital was no exception. Owner changes and major unforeseen existing conditions had put this $28 million project well behind schedule and over budget.

Playing the “blame game” or the “you should have….” game when dealing with unavoidable project circumstances such as the above is a lose-lose situation. And having a project team focuse solely on ‘fixing problems’ is as well. They both at best it lead to defensiveness, reactivity, and “e-mail tennis,” all of which exacerbate not only the existing problems but also the team’s ability to deal with future problems. The ultimate consequence can too often be loss of trust, unwarranted stress and mediocre project results at best.

The Salinas team led by Justin Gilsoul of Hensel Phelps Construction, an AGC member in multiple states, and Michelle Malone, executive director for hospital construction, looked for a better way.

They asked, “Given where we are today and what we now know about this job, what is really, really important to the end users?” The end users were the medical staff and, of course, ultimately the patients. It was quickly acknowledged that getting the operating rooms renovated and running with supporting HVAC was the top priority. With that, the design team determined that this could be done prior to the original contract date – with the remainder of the job to follow after that date.

In short order they came up with a ‘partnership goal’ to expedite completion of the operating rooms. The team was aligned and focused with a meaningful purpose.

Peter Drucker, perhaps the leading management guru of the 20th century said, “Results are obtained by focusing on opportunities, not problems.” Opportunities on a construction project are invariably obscured by day-to-day problems which are all too real and pressing.

The Salinas team then developed their action plan. A major challenge was dealing with unforeseen conditions once a wall was opened up. There was no telling what they would find and who then should do what to expedite either a change, RFI or direction to proceed. The problem was that resolving these unforeseen conditions led to significant delay and too often remained unresolved in terms of accountability.

With a common, compelling goal the team now focused on how to expedite resolution of unforeseen conditions to support their goal.

Led by the structural engineer of record, Jackie Vinkler of John A. Martin and Associates, the team resolved to expedite resolution – i.e., be in action with a solution – within 24 hours of opening a wall. The ‘how to’ involved having designer, subcontractor, owner and Hensel Phelps reps on-site when a wall was opened to make a quick, verbal determination of the fix and a ROM of cost, if any. If a written RFI was called for, it was written up on the spot to memorialize the team’s determination. If they could not reach verbal agreement, the issue was to be elevated to the next level of management with a verbal, followed up by a written, ‘direction to proceed.’ The job in either case did not stop.

The opportunity was, in this case, defined by the team as “keeping the job moving at all times,” which leads to another advantage: opportunities for true project teamwork, coming together and verbally creating innovative solutions that support a compelling common goal.

All construction projects can be viewed as opportunities for teamwork and creative solutions by creating compelling goals that, while acknowledging current project reality, really address end-user intent. Which, as most of us know, is rarely expressed in the contract documents or specifications.

On a different project, the County of Los Angeles Rancho Los Amigos Hospital, the initial concern, or problem, was minimizing patient and staff complaints. The project team came up with the opportunity to make the project a positive experience for patients and staff during construction. How so? Contests for patients and staff; tours; a model in the existing facility with talks once a week on progress; turkeys to some 30 residents along a major access route; and, during Christmas of one year, everyone on-site ‘adopted a kid’ and the team collected over $8,000 and bought gifts.

Summary & Tips

Creating opportunity on a challenging construction project is both a mindset and a process. The mindset needs to be led and reinforced by senior management. It’s a leadership attitude and a conviction that enables project team members to see, as one project executive said, “possibility where there is none.”

Distinguish between circumstances on a project and then how the team deals with those circumstances as a team. Project teams ‘beat themselves up’ for circumstances that they could neither have prevented nor mitigated.

Have the team focus on what’s really important to the owner’s real intent today. That can be operation rooms in a hospital rehab, one loop of a cloverleaf on a highway interchange job, or an early move in of one wing or floor of a school or hotel project.

Turn opportunities into a project team goal(s) that are measurable and have the commitment of all team members. Note: These should have no contractual obligation attached to them. Only then focus on the ‘how do we make it happen.’ See below.

Employ a process that taps the creative potential of the whole team. One approach we’ve found effective is breaking the project team, including key subcontractors and designers, into small three to five person mixed teams. Give each team no more than seven to eight minutes to come up with at least one really big idea to take time and or cost out of the job. The team with the best idea receives a prize. This process typically generates ideas that take at least five to 10 percent out of project schedule or cost.

One protocol project teams adopt is “no e-mails or letters except to memorialize or confirm a verbal understanding.” What does this do? It creates the possibility to pursue opportunities as a team. E-mails and letter writing are one-way communication processes that states a case, makes a determination or judgement. Can you ever recall a flurry of e-mails generating a truly creative solution on a construction project?

Sure, there will always be problems on a construction project. But what distinguishes leadership from management is the context with which a project team approaches them.

Jim Eisenhart is president of the Ventura Consulting Group with offices in Ventura, CA and Houston, TX. He was the inaugural recipient of the “Excellence in Partnering Facilitation” award given in 2012 by the International Partnering Institute. He is also the author of “Raising the Bar on Construction Project Teamwork: From Good to World Class”, Force10 Press, 2011.


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