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Game Plan

HOW THE LAST PLANNER® SYSTEM PROMOTES A BETTER WAY TO WORK

BY MICHAEL GIUSTI

The first time Cade Keyes encountered the Last Planner® System, his team was doing an addition to an emergency department at a hospital.

Keyes, superintendent for Columbia Construction Co. in North Reading, Mass., an AGC of Massachusetts member, says that once he saw the efficiencies made possible by the Last Planner System, he knew it was going to drive the way he approached projects from that point on.

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“I immediately saw the value of it,” Keyes says.

At its core, the Last Planner System is a process-based system within the Lean Construction model of project management.

Last Planner puts a special emphasis on connecting the foreman and the trades in an ongoing collaborative communication cycle, as well as identifying project constraints and other workflow obstacles and effectively removing them to minimize delays.

“It’s really about looking out ahead and identifying constraints and resolving them before they impact the work taking place,” Keyes says.

James Johnston, president of Quality Dynamics Inc., and approved instructor for AGC of America, says Last Planner differs from the way construction projects were typically run in many ways, but specifically in how it handles the role of supervisor.

Historically projects have relied on project managers or superintendents to gather all the team members together, collect all their information, distill that information into a cohesive plan that uses all the resources effectively.

The traditional idea is that the superintendent has all the knowledge to come up with a plan and then needs to communicate the plan to stakeholders and hold everyone accountable, all the while still managing to report back issues that might come up.

“The more I talk about the traditional superintendent, the more tired I get,” Johnston says. “On the surface it just seems like an almost impossible job.”

On the other hand, Last Planner uses a multilevel system of planning, starting with a master schedule, but not the one many construction managers have become accustomed to. A Last Planner master schedule is typically not built with robust detail at the start, but instead focuses on establishing milestones and project promises.

Then, as the work evolves, the supervisor relies on a constant feedback loop with everyone on the project to fill in the details.

“The idea is to plan in greater detail the closer the work is set to begin,” Johnston says.

A visual way of thinking of Last Planner shows the project starting with “should,” moving to “can,” shifting to “will” and ending with “did.”

The traditional method of trying to plan everything through a command-and-control model right from the start didn’t have a high degree of success, with many pro-jects going over time and/or budget, Johnston says.

By contrast, the Last Planner relies on the trades to build the schedule.

“This is not just a superintendent getting input from trades,” Johnston says. “It is not just ‘reviewing plans.’”

James Johnston leads a Last Planner course.
PHOTO COURTESY OF JAMES JOHNSTON

The key to it working, he says, is having ongoing “connected conversations.”

“The role of superintendent changes from the person on top of the hill seeing all to more of a coach or leader to leverage all the knowledge and expertise and find ways to get those people to find information and in the end, make executable plans,” Johnston says.

The key to Last Planner’s philosophy is so-called “pull planning,” where you start at the end with a milestone and then work backward to see all the steps needed to get you there.

Each step of the way, everyone involved should see the next person in line as their “customer,” Johnston says.

“We found that if the trades understand that, they begin to look at the work they deliver in a different way,” Johnston says. “We want them to ask questions you ask of your customer — scope, quality fit, and finish. What is important? What is not?”

Another key is to set a laser focus on identifying constraints.

“What could possibly prevent us from doing a chunk of work? Let’s expose that a number of weeks before the work has to begin so it can start on time, and importantly, finish on time,” Johnston says.

Keyes says that in his experience, traditional command-and-control planning processes ended up incentivizing padding your schedule on the front end.

“Something that will take four days, they would say it will take five, so they don’t miss their dates. And while it sounds great to say you finished early, what you re-ally did was miss opportunities because the next guy may not be able to move in,” Keyes says. “Last Planner lets you anticipate that and move in and react in close-to real time.”

LEAN ON AGC
Everyone related to the construction process has an incentive to get the project done faster and at a lower cost — from the project owners who want to see results for their investment to the contractors and designers who want to do their job well and move on to the next project. Lean construction is based on the holistic pursuit of continuous improvements aimed at minimizing costs and maximizing value on a construction project: planning, design, construction, activation, operations, maintenance, salvaging and recycling.
To help contractors develop the knowledge needed to build Lean, AGC of America developed the Lean Construction Education Program (LCEP). Construction professionals at all experience levels will learn the building blocks necessary to transform their projects and companies into a Lean Operating System. For more information, please visit https://www.agc.org/learn/education-training/lean-construction-education-program.

While he is a Last Planner devotee, Keyes does say that its usefulness can be limited on projects with smaller scopes, with fewer people on the site and fewer people who need to interact and coordinate.

“The boards are great, but if you don’t have people in there looking at them, you don’t get a lot of benefit,” Keyes says, referring to the so-called Big Room with boards filled with pieces of paper laying out all aspects of the project.

At the larger end of the scale, the Last Planner system really shines.
“The bigger the project, the harder it is to see everything and manage all the working parts,” Johnston says.

It is important to do more than just pay lip service to the Last Planner System if you expect it to make a difference. Getting education on the system is the first step, but equally important is clearly communicating those goals and systems with everyone involved.

“You can’t just write contracts that say the trades have to behave a specific way,” Johnston says. “You really have to also provide guidance and support — let them know what is expected of them.”

It is also essential that key people on the team have had intimate experience on Last Planner projects before.

“You can’t just read a book. Someone has to have done it in the past or else you need to bring in a consultant,” Johnston says. He also stressed that the first time you roll it out should be on a project that is large enough to be significant, but not necessarily the biggest project on your books.

Keyes stresses that implementing Last Planner is part of a process of improvement that will be felt throughout the organization.

“It is less about the actual tool than it is about developing your team to continuously do better,” Keyes says.

Getting it right can pay major dividends.

Johnston says he has seen major firms move from having to regularly take financial write-downs on projects as a cost of doing business, to — after adopting Last Planner — going years without a write-down.

But getting there takes work.

“We are taking an industry that has been working the same for decades and changing the way they do business in a substantial way,” Johnston says. “I’m not saying everything we have always done is wrong — it’s not. Companies all over the world have done wonderful projects with reasonable success for a long time. But we are saying if you know better you will do better.”

Johnston says Last Planner represents a better way of working — collaboratively — and it uses all the expertise of the entire project team in the best way to reduce waste, control variation, improve reliability and stress predictably in the workflow.

“The message I always try to send is Lean is really just about trying to make things a little better every day,” Johnston says. “Success is more than just planning in the jobsite trailer.”