The world of design and construction of buildings is getting more complex by the day. With innovations in technology, there is not a single person on a new project that understands 100% of all the building systems and how they work together. For complex projects, we are best served to hire a team of diverse experts and find a way to facilitate collaboration and communication between them.

If you are picking an expert in your own life, such as a medical doctor or a dentist, how do you go about selecting them? I would guess you probably develop a relationship with them and make sure you communicate directly. Or, do you hire someone else to bid out their services, let them select the firm based on the lowest price and then also manage all direct communication with them?

Big rooms are opening owners’ eyes to the enormity of decisions and value that take place at the design engineer and trade partner level.

Owners and their teams often take the latter approach to hiring experts when they put a project team together. There is a cascading set of bids and or RFPs that go out from designers and builders to select the next tier of subcontractors/designers and then the cycle continues. The owner does not maintain communication deep into their supply chain.

At a recent Lean Construction Institute event in Northern California focused on how firms develop their supply chains, Mark Napier of Southland Industries asked the group how far they typically communicate within their supply chains.

I was surprised to hear that much of the room said they typically deal with companies that they have a direct contract with and not further into the supply chain. For example, owners said they talk with the architect and the general contractor, the general contractors said they talk to their primary subs, and the subcontractors work directly with their unions (labor pools) and their direct suppliers.

Even knowing that the building systems are incredibly complicated, there isn’t much of an interest in knowing who is on the team and why they are the right company/group of individuals for the job.

A subtle, but incredibly important part of the lean construction movement is the use of the term “trade partner” instead of “subcontractor”.  With the ability to model and coordinate in 3D (or 4D, 5D, 6D, etc), fabricate directly from a model and deliver just in time for installation, our trade partners bring more to the table than ever before. In the growing complexity of building projects, our trade partners also manage a diverse and complex supply chain that is rarely seen by the owner and even many general contractors.

“In my experience, it has been invaluable to have a direct relationship with the 2nd tier (only from a contract point of view) suppliers as an owner. This means working with the primary architect and general contractor, and actively engaging with the design engineers and trade partners.”

In my experience, it has been invaluable to have a direct relationship with the second tier (second, only from a contract point of view) suppliers as an owner. This means working with the primary architect and general contractor, and actively engaging with the design engineers and trade partners. Integrated project delivery (IPD) and co-location/big rooms are opening owners’ eyes to the enormity of decisions and value that take place at the design engineer and trade partner level.

Personally, I find that with sophisticated trade partners who can design, coordinate, fabricate and install their product in a lean manner, projects are successful. They can also quickly provide cost and design options in the design to help the project stay on budget.

Even with a general contractor who doesn’t have people with experience in the product type or lean philosophies, we will get the job done successfully. On the other hand, with a very competent general contractor who is knowledgeable of the product type and lean philosophies, the delivery of the project is significantly at risk with unsophisticated trade partners (we’ll call them subcontractors in this case) selected based primarily on being the cheapest.

With the ever-increasing complexity of buildings, deep and complicated supply chains, and an ever-increasing challenge to keep projects on time and on budget, one of the riskiest things you can do is not pick the best partners available to you. Once you select these partners, you can leverage their knowledge of their scope and supply chain to optimize the project overall.

While many claim their procurement laws don’t allow it, in almost all instances, there are ways to participate in the selection process and not focus purely on price if you are willing to do the research.  Just like you wouldn’t let someone else pick your dentist for you based on lowest cost, why would you do this on a construction project?

If you want better outcomes on your projects, get to know your supply chain and pick the best partners you can get on your teams.

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  • James Pease

    Regional Manager - Integrated Project Delivery, Sutter Health

    James Pease is an expert in the setup and structure of large, complex construction projects using Lean and Integrated Project Delivery to drive highly reliable results. He has negotiated IPD contracts and delivered over $650M in complex healthcare projects as an owner's representative with multiparty contracts, aligned team incentives and collaborative delivery models. He is the executive editor of the IPD focused website leanipd.com, an LCI NorCal Core Team Member and cofounder of the COAA California Chapter. James has a BS in Management Science from UC San Diego and is a CA Licensed General Contractor.

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