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Steel and Sticky Notes Part 1: Alignment

The steel skeleton of the Tschannen Eye InstituteThe value of any framework - Scrum or otherwise - is very easy to measure. All you have to do is answer one question, “Does it deliver in the real world?” Theories are fun for our analytical minds to toy with, but if they don’t lead to better results they’re just that - mental toys.

This leads us to the growing use of the Scrum framework in the Design and Construction industry. 

More and more companies are implementing Scrum because it is driving the outcomes they seek. Projects are coming in on-time and on-budget or BETTER. They can quickly adapt to changes, overcome obstacles, and remove bottlenecks. The work is more aligned and collaborative. Problems get solved fast and profits and employee satisfaction grow. All these are reasons that early adopters of Scrum in the field of Design and Construction are gaining a market advantage

There are, however, those who would like to launch a Scrum implementation but aren’t sure how or even where to start. That is the purpose of this series - to highlight how one early adopter is using Scrum for Design and Construction in the real world. Throughout this series we’ll explore several topics - all told through the lens of a massive project being built now on the Sacramento campus of U.C. Davis Health.

McCarthy and “A Place for Medical Miracles

Founded in 1864 (a year before the end of the U.S. civil war), McCarthy Building Companies is steeped in history. The Design and Construction industry as a whole is known for specialized, siloed skill sets and strict hierarchies. Yet, McCarthy has earned a reputation for embracing the right kind of change. So when they sent me an invitation to visit one of their large-scale project sites in Sacramento, California earlier this year, I enthusiastically accepted. 

Sign describing and artist rendering of the Tschannen eye instituteThis is a big build. 58,000 square feet of new construction for a state of the art medical facility plus 17,500 square feet of renovations to an adjacent existing facility. The overall contract is worth tens of millions of dollars. 

A sign out front announces that this will be the home of the Ernest E. Tschannen Eye Institute “A place for medical miracles.” This is much more than your corner optometrist office. 

After attending the site safety briefing I meet up with Felipe Engineer-Manriquez, Lean Director at McCarthy (thank you again Felipe!). You’ll hear more from him in future posts.

Felipe walks me out to the job site where a massive steel skeleton now stands. 

Solving for the "Complicated and Complex" of Construction

Modern construction projects are both complicated and complex. A lack of understanding about both can lead to inefficiencies, delays, and cost overruns. Let me explain:Interior of the McCarthy trailer. The Scrum Board is on the right wall

  • Complicated projects have a lot of pieces and parts that need to fit together to drive a job to done. Think of a 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. Or the raw materials needed to build a medical facility plus the skilled workers and laborers who do the work.
  • Complex projects are those that must pivot and adapt to uncertainty and change. Imagine if the pieces of that same complicated jigsaw puzzle kept shifting every few minutes. These uncertainties can come in many forms in Design and Construction; price increases or scarcity of supplies or workers, unforeseen bottlenecks, even the weather. 

Scrum helps solve both the complicated and the complex. One way it does this is by aligning teams and teams-of-teams on the priority work that needs to be done and makes the progress of that work visible. 

At the McCarthy job site, the company is using a Design-Build approach and Pull Planning.  But Project Superintendent Casey Cowan wanted to go further. Cowan has more than 20 years of experience, he has seen a lot of jobs, work, and crews. Cowan knows the value of alignment on a project. 

The site’s construction trailer is proof.  Everyone is welcomed in - and when they enter they see a series of large panels covered in grids and color-coded sticky notes filling a long wall.

It’s a giant, DIY Last Planner / Scrum Board.

Every column represents a workday. Each row a trade. Individual sticky notes represent a piece of work to be done and are placed on the board by the McCarthy team or the subcontractors - that becomes the backlog

When work is completed, a diagonal slash is made on the sticky note.  

Once that work is inspected, accepted, and approved a second slash is added for a visualization of work completed & accepted = DONE.  This is how they know the work meets the Acceptance Criteria and Definition of Done. 


Aligning to Solve A Complex Build

Cowan makes sure the work is visible.  Visible for ALL to see - owner, architects, his crew, and the subcontractors.

But alignment isn’t just about visibility. People need to see how the work fits into the bigger picture. 

This board also helps everyone to see, in real-time, what work is coming up and - perhaps more importantly - what may be stopping the flow of work. 

Every morning, Cowan gathers representation around the board, and he walks through what was done yesterday, what is happening today, and what is planned for tomorrow.  The groupCasey Cowan Stands in front of his Scrum Board discusses their work, dependences, and what may prevent them from moving forward.  In other words, they collaborate and make changes, together, as needed.  

Mind-blowing?  Nope!

 Scrum calls this a Scaled Daily Scrum (SDS). After the event, each subcontractor representative shares the information with the subcontractor teams. 

 Walking this board every day ensures alignment across all teams, trades, and functions.  

There is a plan for the day, every day including how to address what might get in the way of getting work done. Quality inspections can take place collaboratively leading to issues being resolved within hours instead of days.   

I also want to point out the work that Casey Cowan and McCarthy are doing to change the culture that is often experienced on a traditional construction site.  He encourages all members of the project to speak up, be curious and feel safe in doing so. This type of openness and psychological safety is going a long way to increasing individual & team motivation, quality of work, and job site safety. 

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