Who's got the time? Making construction planning work for busy teams
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an engineer in possession of lots of spare time...doesn’t exist!
Successful construction projects rely on bridging the gap between the master schedule and the work that actually happens on site each day. Telling a team on the ground that they ‘have to lay all the foundations’ for a £300 million project spanning 6 miles isn’t really enough to go off of. In an ideal world those big picture plans, or master schedules, would be broken down into well maintained, short-term plans so that high level targets are achieved by successfully delivering on the constituent parts. After all, the secret to finishing a month of construction work on schedule is the 30 days completed on schedule. If you’re reading this blog, you probably know this already. But, it’s one of our fundamental beliefs at Aphex that building and readying short term plans is the backbone of the whole planning process, and engineers are right at the heart of this.
Not Enough Hours in the Day
As part of the Customer Success team at Aphex, talking to our users is the bread and butter of my day. Our team understood the reasons teams were apprehensive to try out a new software mirrored the same issues we were aiming to resolve!
For engineers, being forced to work off of the same ever expanding gantt chart as the rest of the project just isn’t feasible in most cases. Trying to find and accurately update their work within the 30 or 40 A3 pages is a waste of time. This mega plan might work for the planners working somewhere in an office, but site teams and engineers don’t want to navigate a WBS and complex software.
Yes, I am referring to engineers that update and plan their own lookahead plans. For those reading this and crying out, ‘Isn’t updating the plan for planners?’, let me quickly hop onto my soapbox for a sec... ahem… even if you’ve not had to stand a whole crew down because of issues with paperwork not being ready, I’m sure you’ve experienced infuriating situations like subcontractors turning up on the wrong day, or teams turning up for a shift only to find that the previous work is still underway so they can’t get started. This all comes down to planning and… in our view, the total lack of availability of tools to help construction teams build reliable lookahead plans in a decentralised way.
If your project’s one of those rare mythical entities that don’t regularly experience these “headache inducing scenarios”, there is a fair chance it's because someone (usually a planner or a proactive engineer) is spending hours of their week centrally coordinating your project’s lookahead planning. Frantically orchestrating multiple collaborative planning meetings so that engineers and foremen can explain what their teams are doing to all the other teams in the hope that everyone listening will be mentally validating any interfaces they might have. Once they do that, these planning heroes then burn the midnight oil trying to piece together versions of spreadsheets of the everyone’s lookaheads, all with different resource details to try and standardise everyone into one language. Is ‘Big Alan’ the same contractor as ‘Al’s Structures’? How many different ways are there to spell Alan? Aaln? Ally?
Don’t Treat the Symptom, Address the Cause
So why, if the nature of construction projects are chaotic, prone to change, and time sensitive, are the processes and tools that our teams rely on equally chaotic, rigid, and time intensive?!
We think that these familiar issues around planning and communicating work are symptomatic of wider inefficiencies across construction as this McKinsey study delves into, and so, can lead to the familiar outcomes of increased costs, delay and high levels of stress all round. Whilst no-one knows your project or your team quite like you do, at Aphex we want to help by simplifying the problems, and focusing attention to the things that are actually important. Ultimately to put you back in control of your work, and your time.
A lot of these issues can be tackled by removing siloed working. Building and readying lookahead plans each week is a key crossover point between the work of an engineer and that of a planner. Successful lookahead planning is not a process owned or executed by any one person or role on a project, but a project-wide joint venture (if you’re in construction I know you know what I mean here).
So how can we connect everyone to the work that happens every day, in the least confusing way, whilst also ensuring that the quality and consistency of the plans are heightened?
Perfecting Your Short Term Lookaheads in Aphex
Our goal here is simple. We want you to be able to easily build plans that can be trusted and understood. Our method is also simple, focus on three key areas:
If you’ve been with us for a while, and are a bit of an OG, then most of the new Aphex will feel familiar. Seriously, we’ve just taken away the confusion. Remember Oversee and Deliver modes? We’ve changed it up a bit, so there’s no more jumping between the two.
In Aphex, you start by deciding how much work you want to see, and how you want this to be grouped together so you can navigate around the plan. By default, you start in your own Workspace. Just like on Google Maps, where you land at your own house and have the option to pan out to see the wider landscape. Check out your own tasks, before deciding if you want to see Alan’s tasks next to yours, or the whole team’s, or even the whole project. Alongside this, pick from structuring through a WBS, or through Packages. Planners might be able to recount the WBS codes in their sleep, and need to see everything grouped in this hierarchy. An engineer will probably want to see their work grouped into blocks that represent how they talk about things on site every day. In Aphex, this is called Packages. Remember that nightmare trying to find Electrical work in part 126.96.36.199.66? Now, it’s clearly labelled in the ‘Electrical’ package, and all the related work is right there. We definitely felt sparks fly with this update!
In your workspace, you have a few ways of building up work. You can create tasks in the gantt directly. This will be a familiar process if you’re planning from a bottom up approach, or if your team often adds in new tasks to an imported section from a master schedule as part of a top down approach to planning. I won’t emphasise this too much, but there’s a big blue button that says ‘Add Task’. No prizes for guessing what this does…
If you are on a project that’s importing, there’s one extra step here that really brings the planners and engineers together. An import from a master schedule pulls in high level tasks directly from software like P6 or Microsoft Project, into Aphex for engineers to run with and detail. In previous iterations of Aphex, this used to land directly in the plan. After some feedback, and some face-palming on our end, we realised that it’s pretty stressful to log in and see that a whole host of new tasks have slammed into your carefully maintained lookahead. From now on, any imported work enters Aphex in an isolated space. We can dive into this to review and organise everything, before moving it into the live project and our plan. Though it’s simple to view in this separate space, it’s key to underline that this is a separate, “staging” space! If you leave work in your backlog, it’s not in the plan. You’ll be alerted to this through in-app banners, emails and alerts...and I’m sure your planner might mention it to you too.
Deciding whether your project wants to take a top-down approach needs some thought. Benefits include greater understanding of the overall plan for everyone involved, and autofilling location and calendar fields saving time in building out and detailing tasks.
The Devil is in the Detail
A small but mighty change in the new Aphex is how you add details and data into your plan. This information still sits in those familiar column drawers, and you have the same range of data, or assets, to add in your plan like resources, work area, shift etc. One of the key updates is that we’ve taken manual input and resource creation and locked these in at a project level. This might feel a bit different, but you still hold complete ownership of your plan, it’s just that now the ownership of assets falls to the Project Administrator. Essentially, this means there is no more Alan, Al, Aaln for the same subcontractor... Instead, a standardised name for each subby set at a project level. This not only increases the quality of the plan, but it also means that everyone can understand what’s going on. He might be Big Al to you, but he’s Alan’s Roofing Ltd to everyone else.
By giving everyone the same blocks to build up their plan, detailing out a task or sequence only takes as long as clicking an option from a drop down. It also ensures consistent, standardised plans, and consistent, standardised performance data too.
Are you Ready? Are you Ready for...the Deadline?
With the new Aphex, ensuring quality and consistency while building plans in Aphex is simple and reliable across your Project. This tackles those headaches around how to communicate the plan between engineers, and has also put everything in one collaborative space while getting everyone using the same data fields, or project assets. So, planners know what the plans mean, and even though we have specialised people on specialised work packages like electrical, civil and fit out, Aphex hosts all of these in one collaborative space.
We also now keep you posted of when your publishing deadline is, so you know the goalposts you're aiming for, and how much detail the plan has to have by these points. All that needs to be done then is to let the team know your Plan is ready. In other words, take a moment in the constant chaos of a project to pause and let the team know that you’ve reviewed the plan for the coming lookahead and it’s up to par. Then, other engineers know they can trust your plan, and the planner can publish the overall Plan in one swift click, wholly confident in its accuracy.
Scoffing that we’ve overlooked people just logging in, clicking ‘ready’ and not actually updating anything? I hate to break it to you, but that loophole has been filled! In Aphex, we automatically check the plan when you click that tempting ‘ready my plan’ button. You will be met with a list of any missing information, or points in your plan that have work scheduled in the same place at the same time out on site - what we call clashes.
This only takes a moment to fix, as you can click directly from these alerts to those specific parts of the plan. Shaving off minutes here, gives you more time to consider how best to rectify these issues, and makes emergency clash resolution meetings with other teams the exception rather than the norm, as re-sequencing work in-app is simple, guided and hassle free.
Put really simply, we learn from the required level of detail your Project has set as necessary, as well as the publication deadline each week. Using this we can direct you exactly to any missing information, clashes or points to refine before you ready the plan. We’ve pulled these parts of engineer’s and planner’s responsibility together in the Building and Readying workflow which ultimately gives everyone a bit more breathing space in their weeks, and arms the whole team with consistently accurate and understandable plans ready to share with confidence. Not to sound like a movie villain, but you’ve got unlimited power now!
The Beginning of...the Beginning
A recap then. We want to put teams back in control of how they plan and communicate work. It’s no surprise that projects avoid lookahead planning in tools like P6 because it takes a long time, and can feel overwhelmingly complex. But at the other end of the scale, individually working in simpler environments like excel spreadsheets makes it impossible to know if our work physically clashes with someone else's, if there’s enough resources, or what those resources actually are.
So, our approach is to remove the complexity of large programmes and let teams plan in their own workspace. Alongside this, we take the burden of tracking what's happening across the wider project, whilst also providing the right information at the right time that teams need to make decisions about the plan.
We want to connect everyone on a project to the plan - specifically the part of the plan they care about. We have started down this path by leaning into the differences between what planners and engineers seek to achieve, while also understanding how the two are consistently connected. Aphex empowers you to work in that sweet spot of being able to focus on your own work, whilst feeling reassured that we will keep on top of checking the plan for missing information, clashes and how everyone’s plans fit together. It’s now quick and easy to update your short term lookahead, to a consistently high standard. Alerting the whole team when it’s ready flows seamlessly from this in Aphex too. The dream.
I know I’m excited to see where we go next to make it even easier for everyone on a project to feel connected to the plan, and in control of creating and sharing their plans. Do get in touch with any ideas you have on this, because as much as I keep mentioning collaboration in your team - we want to collaborate too, and make Aphex the absolute best it can be.
If you want a visual recap of Building & Readying Plans on Aphex, check out our Get To Know Aphex Youtube series. I think these videos are a great way to get stuck in... but maybe I am a bit biased!
Thanks for reading, and as always - Happy Planning.