Perspectives 03.18.2021

An Evolving Game Plan: Adapting our Blueprint for Project Success

“Plan the work, work the plan.” This ethos, says Mark Walsh, our firm’s Global Director of Technical Design, is the key to successful project outcomes. When we kick off each project phase with a coordinated plan, we build consensus with our team, consultants, and clients, and ensure clarity around shared goals.

This approach, known as pull planning, stems from the philosophy of lean construction, which centers on optimizing design and construction by continually improving processes, communication, and efficiency. While we didn’t invent pull planning, we’re advancing it in our own way—and in doing so, giving time back to our teams and our clients.

When gathering in a room was possible, we'd convene all project stakeholders—including the team, consultants, and owner—to build consensus about each phase's tasks and milestones.

The purpose of a pull planning session is to identify and schedule a project’s significant milestones so the team can progress efficiently. For all its import, the activity used to begin rather humbly—with a stack of blank Post-its in a conference room. Over the course of four to eight hours, a team, along with the owner, would identify all the tasks in a single phase, write them on the Post-its, and move them around on a wall to align with designated weeks in the schedule. “Because it was so time-consuming, it almost never happened,” says Walsh.

“There are big pieces of the puzzle, and you have to see how they fit together. The benefit of the session is that it got us on the same page and allowed us to start to gel more as a team.” - Mika Frank, Senior Staff Project Manager at Kohler

Shift one: Cutting the meeting time in half (or more)

Three years ago, Walsh and small team of designers in the Chicago studio set to out to streamline the activity. Their goal? Eliminate the onerous task of identifying all the project milestones in the meeting. They printed a set of cards with standard project tasks, color-coded the cards by discipline, and laminated them with dry-erase film so they could be marked up and re-used. Cards went into bespoke kits for each project phase—schematic design, design development, and construction documents—along with dry-erase pens, pins, and drafting dots. Boxes were then dispatched to 12 studios.

Beyond a true labor of love (Walsh handmade each box in his woodshop), these kits changed the game, taking the session duration from four-to-eight hours to just under two. “When you don’t have the mental load of having to think about what all the tasks are, you’re 75% there and just left the project-specific things,” says Walsh. At the conclusion of a pull planning meeting, the team transfers the card information into a spreadsheet, distributes this “living” document to the team and client, and then revisits it regularly.

Bespoke pull planning kits containing cards, pins, and markers were shipped to a dozen studios to facilitate more efficient pull planning meetings.

Efficiencies aside, the upfront meeting establishes accountability. Clients report that it helps them better understand their role in meeting milestones. In 2017, we assembled a pull planning session to kick off the design of a new headquarters for Kohler—a large, complex project with many stakeholders. “There are big pieces of the puzzle, and you have to see how they fit together,” says Mika Frank, Senior Staff Project Manager at Kohler, one of our clients. “The benefit of the session is that it got us on the same page and allowed us to start to gel more as a team.”


Shift two: From analog to virtual

At the onset of the pandemic, when assembling upward of 20 people in a conference room was no longer possible, we accelerated a reimagining of the process that was already underway. Walsh, along with Design Applications Manager Daniel Prager and Senior Project Architect Kristin Rosebrough, both in our Chicago studio, officially migrated pull planning to Microsoft Teams, a digital platform.

In the Teams Planner application, they created a template with the same pre-populated project activities for each phase. All stakeholders now must do pre-work, placing their “cards” on the Teams board prior to the meeting. With that activity complete, the virtual meeting becomes an exercise in getting collective buy-in on the tasks and schedule. “One of the things it surfaces are critical points at which we need owner decisions,” says Walsh. “This shows clients that we can help them manage their decision-making.”

As in our analog approach, Teams allows us to color-code, assign, and move tasks around to different weeks.

The shift to virtual was more than a band-aid solution. Rather, it’s true progress. Using Teams, the board is accessible on all devices and therefore easily referenced at say, a project site. With no requirement to gather in person, it also makes pull planning viable for multi-studio projects. Though it no longer includes the face-to-face meeting that helps build rapport, it can alleviate stress. “This method has had more success because you’re letting the individual partners contribute their thoughts without the pressure of everyone else watching them,” says Prager.

Finally, because this virtual approach removes the need to translate the physical (the cards) to the digital (the spreadsheet), there’s additional time savings. “Before COVID, we saw a giant disconnect and a lot of re-work that had to happen between the pin-up and Excel. We were trying to figure out how to make it virtual and a living document that people can continually reference,’ says Prager.

With the prospect of gathering in person on the horizon, Prager says we won’t revert back to the old way—nor will we solely rely on Teams. More likely, we’ll tailor the method to the project and consider a hybrid approach that blends the in-person meeting with documentation in Teams. “Virtual pull planning is an example of not adapting to COVID—but evolving our methodology,” says Prager. “We didn’t ‘MacGyver’ a solution. COVID was a catalyst for a better product.”