Professional Development: Open Dialogue
By Darren L. James, AIA
From the September 2013 issue of Today’s Facility Manager
There are numerous duplications and overlap in responsibilities from the various consultants that facility owners hire to manage complex projects from pre-project development to substantial completion or post-construction. The key to managing inefficiencies relies on clear communication and concise scope for each consultant. Often, it is the responsibility of the facility management (FM) professional involved to identify and properly manage touch points and overlaps to ensure a project runs smoothly. Forecasting and experience help FM professionals identify upcoming bottlenecks and manage (with minimal disruption) overall schedules or budgets.
Facility managers (fms) working on construction projects answer to many constituents who request various data in many formats. Each consultant on a project may be responsible for a portion of the final solution or data point, but the fm becomes ultimately responsible for synthesizing the information. This may sound incredibly wasteful and inefficient, but it is the reality of working with many moving parts. To help avoid potential schedule conflicts, fms can take a proactive approach to recognizing and preventing bottlenecks.
At various stages of the building process, the confluence of data is mandated and expected. However, for one consultant to provide resolution he or she may need data from another. It is incumbent on the fm to help parse and minimize this interaction unless the parties need to meet to resolve a complicated or delicate issue. The fm should act as facilitator and minimize direct interaction between the various parties to avoid communication loss in situations where the fm is outside of the communication flow.
This strategy is not meant to stifle team cohesion and collaboration, but rather is a means to remove obstacles that stymie efficient internal workflow. Collaboration and communication are key to any multi-faceted team, but touch points can devolve into marathon meetings or perpetual loops of non-answers or half answers. The fm should identify critical questions and push for timely and complete responses from all parties involved.
FM professionals need to plan effectively. Waste happens when a particular direction is taken and the response has to be discarded because the answer was not appropriately vetted or fully responsive to all variables and drivers. When a team has progressed to a project milestone but the direction has been changed due to a late change or a new response, the previous direction and relevant information must be discarded and replaced. Such inefficiencies cost valuable resources to rectify.
Regardless of who ultimately pays for redesign efforts, it is wasteful to spend extra time and resources when the old adage “measure twice, cut once” should apply instead. This quote can be modified to best fit this situation by saying instead, “ask twice, research, and provide succinct and factually accurate answers in a timely manner.”
The best way for fms to avoid ineffective communication is to encourage document control protocols that track and place similar information in a standard format. Fms should encourage open dialogue with tracking points so that the flow of communication is documented. Interactions between certain sets of consultants at predetermined intervals of a project follow a similar pattern. An fm can help aggregate interface points to maximize effectiveness and minimize the disparate or divergent conversations that contradict early decisions. Project teams are more effective when each member understands what is expected early enough to prepare proper responses. The fm should outline a schedule that acknowledges and addresses every expectation.
In one particular instance, acting as university architect our team designed a new multidisciplinary facility that would house five academic programs from multiple departments and colleges within the university. Each department had worked and functioned semi-autonomously over the last 15 to 20 years, and the new building would allow the Chancellor and Provost to foster a new paradigm of collaborative academics and shared resources. Essentially, the facility would closely emulate a professional healthcare environment. Each department chair and dean requested information specific and pertinent to his or her areas of expertise, and each requested space that was two or three times the size affordable within the budget. The design team and their various consultants had to request specific information from each of these departments simultaneously to facilitate a design that supported everyone’s needs.
The flow of information in both directions had the potential to create bottlenecks and other inefficiencies that could delay or financially drain the project. Our firm created communication protocols to expedite the flow of information. We also established a command tree and identified a single point in the university’s administration to make decisions when addressing conflicting goals, wishes, or desires. The Provost was tasked with breaking deadlocks and sticking points. A communication process was established that included weekly conferences to keep the project on target for both budget and schedule.
In terms of communication options, the biggest wildcard with the advent of e-mail is the expectation of instant gratification. Unfortunately, many are unable to work that way. Still, fms may be pulled in this direction with the advent of smart technologies and insistent people. Competing priorities may prevent owners from responding as quickly as an inquirer desires. Precious time is often wasted when a project team member belatedly responds to an e-mail with a divergent or contrary response. It is up to the fm to manage these expectations, and to find a mechanism that ensures all parties have responded to open questions prior to a specific direction. Fms must continually exhibit political astuteness, especially if the late responder is someone above him or her in the reporting structure of an organization.
Working through a complex capital project involves balancing the needs of many moving parts. It is the responsibility of the FM professional to employ mitigation strategies effectively. A mindful fm can project sticking points and plan ways to navigate around obstacles with minimal disruption. It is wise to concertedly seek alternative strategies to enhance any collaborative project venture.
James is president and COO of KAI Texas, a design-build firm headquartered in Dallas, TX. He is a noted architect, speaker, and author. He has had the privilege to share his views about educational facility design at multiple venues in the state of Texas.