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Collaboration in Action

For those of you who follow my work on the Baltimore CSI Chapter's blog, Felt Tips, you may recall a series I've written across the last few years detailing a formal collaboration program I've been involved in on a project our firm currently has under construction. If you've seen me present on collaboration recently, that same project was a major part of those presentations. The project is a biomedical research facility for a public university in the middle Atlantic region and is $220M, 430,000 GSF of labs, support spaces and offices. My firm is the associate architect with a large, international design firm as architect of record. There is a complex A/E team, complex contracting team and an owner who is very active in every facet of the project.

This particular university has been using "partnering" to help build their project teams for some time. This collaboration program is a natural evolution of the partnering that has been practiced in our region for the past decade or more. It was mandated that the construction manager lead this effort and this CM has a psychologist on their staff who acts as moderator for these types of programs. Its been a different wrinkle to the usual "one-and-done" partnering events I've been involved with in the past.

We've been meeting quarterly for nearly three years. The meetings have gotten a bit formulaic lately, but a recent one had a different tone. That was in part based on our moderator being absent. When we set the date for this meeting at our last meeting, he told us he was unavailable, but we decided to meet anyway. Being a psychologist, I think the moderator thought we might need to be on our own for once and wanted to see what happened. Even though he is employed by the construction management firm, he remains larger impartial in our meetings.

The meeting opened with the usual review of our quarterly survey results. For an in depth discussion of the survey, read here.

During review of the three "free response" questions, the "What is Going Well" responses revolved around communication and cooperation improving and the notion that some field issues are being handled better by the construction manager. Kudos were given to the owner for providing additional personnel to process change orders. Its a large job and there have been a large number of change orders, some due to owner changes and some due to the fast-track bidding process. However, many change orders have languished for a long enough time where the trade contractors feel that they are financing the job. That was a welcomed comment that the owner is moving these things through so the builders can get paid for work already performed.

The biggest issue under "What is Not Going Well" relate to RFI's and decision making. As I said, there have been a large number of owner requested changes and this owner seems ill-equipped to make decisions as there are far too many players involved in each decision. Between operations & maintenance staff, project management and end user personnel, it is not out of the ordinary to have 12 or more individual players involved from the owner's team. That has dramatically slowed the decision making process.

That poor decision making carried over into the "What Needs to Be Improved?" conversation. However, another notion was put forth during these discussions. The team was urged to not forget what this team has accomplished. The A/E team started design in June 2012. The CM came on board shortly after that and the design-assist trade contractors joined the team in September 2013. In October 2013, we started these collaboration sessions. We are now more than 3-1/2 years removed from that start and the building is almost in the dry, much of the systems have been installed and finish work is starting. The building is a beautiful addition to the city skyline and can been seen from a major interstate highway nearby. The team was urged to look at all they had accomplished and imagine what can be accomplished if we buckle down and finish the work.

I agree with that sentiment and used it to challenge myself to do three things:

1. Review the RFI's that come in each day and give my "2-cents" to the rest of the A/E team. I am the lead CA professional on the project, but given my other responsibilities, the day-to-day processing of the RFI's falls to others. I need to review them, be up on the issues and help push them through the system.

This will help the team by moving things forward through the A/E and on to the owner. If the RFI's bottle-neck with the owner, so be it. Getting the RFI's through the A/E team as quickly as possible will show the construction team that we are trying our hardest to keep their work flow as efficient as possible.

2. I am responsible for reviewing all change orders on behalf of the A/E team. They come in sporadically and tend to come in clumps of three to five at a time. I should review them on the day they come in and respond with comments immediately where possible or send them off to other team members that day with a hard deadline of review in two business days. I must then follow up with them after those two business days and get the comments back to the owner.

This will help the owner process the change orders more quickly and get them to the procurement department which takes several weeks to finalize the change order. It will also help our owner's project manager keep himself organized. I've observed that when several weeks transpire between his sending the change order to us and our return of comments, the paperwork is not top of mind and we have to repeat ourselves and lose more time in the process. If we continue to show progress in getting the contractors paid for change order work, everyone is happier.

3. There is a co-location office where the construction manager, major trade contractors and A/E team all have desks. My colleague and myself are there every day of the week, but my participation tends to be attending meetings. I intend to redouble my efforts to use the space for its intended, collaborative purpose. If there's a change order I don't understand, I'll discuss it with the construction manager and trade contractor. Same with RFI's or anything else going on. By increasing face-to-face communication, I think we can finish this project strong and we'll all be happier.

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