Construction Delays: Curses and Blessings

New Pioneer opened the doors of its second grocery store in February, 2001 in Coralville. It's a beautiful store, tightly packed with fixtures, equipment and product. It is quite efficient from an operations standpoint, and feedback says it provides a very pleasant space for shoppers and staff. (See the story in CG #94, May-June 2001.)

If you have attended workshops on expansion or have read about other expansion ventures, you will have noted that each project has its own unique challenges during the process. New Pioneer's project involved turning a stand-alone four-bay movie theater into a retail grocery and bakery production facility. The building owner/contractor added onto the original footprint. This addition houses the kitchen and bakery productions and a private residence above. Also part of the project was the relocation of the New Pioneer Bakehouse opened in Coralville in 1995 as a bakery production site and small retail outlet.

This article focuses on three aspects of project development that I think are key:

  • Capacity: the ability of those involved in site development to contribute in accordance with their professional role;
  • Collaboration: constructive relations among key players in the project; and
  • Coordination: managing the flow of project tasks and events.

I am using New Pioneer's expansion for examples. They by no means cover the breadth of the project and primarily concern site development.

From a project manager, details on implementing an expansion and a look at how one co-op, New Pioneer, handled major delays in its project timeline.

Capacity

By capacity I mean the ability of those involved to carry out their roles as they relates to site development. As examples, I am including the roles of the contractor, architect and systems people (HVAC, plumbing and electrical) because these are major areas of a project that have a great deal of influence on it.

It was agreed upon in the beginning of the New Pioneer project that the owner would also be the contractor. The building architect New Pioneer selected had worked with the contractor and would be working on his apartment. New Pioneer also contracted him for the interior and fixture design work.

The initial plan was to contract the major systems on a design-and-build basis. This did happen with the HVAC (heating/ventilation/air conditioning), where the interview process led to the selection of Taylor Industries based in Des Moines, Iowa. The decision was largely based on three factors: Taylor's experience with the special needs of operations that involved extensive refrigeration equipment, the size of projects they had been involved in, and the fact that they had been chosen to supply most of the refrigeration equipment.

A list of possible contractors for the electrical and plumbing work was developed. The list included local companies that did commercial work, had been recommended by the contractor or had done previous work for New Pioneer, and could work within the stated timeline. As it turned out, the companies contracted were not on this list.

The design component was the most problematic and indicated this project's lack of capacity from that standpoint. Eventually, both systems would be designed by engineer-consulting firms and the work put out for bids.

At the point of selecting the plumber and electrician, the construction process was well into the demolition stage but well beyond the contractor's initial timeline. This phase of the project was turning out to be more complicated than anticipated, and the contractor's site supervisior was having difficulty projecting a timeline beyond a few weeks. The capacity of the subcontractors to be "timeline" flexible took on greater importance. This became part of the criteria used in the final selection, and it turned out to be a very beneficial aspect as the project unfolded.

Another issue of capacity we encountered concerned the architect chosen for the interior design and fixture work. We felt he would work well in the group decision-making process we wanted, and the work he had done for other area businesses reflected his ability to produce something that was functional, aesthetic and unique. The end result was great. However, working on the building architecture and the interior work that included designing eight fixture units (produce dry tables, customer service counter, juice bar, etc.) was a significant undertaking for one person with no support staff. At times, this resulted in a hurried and harried decision-making process with the contractor waiting, with little or no time to ensure the most cost-effective solution.

Twelve months into the project and four months past the original opening date, the construction timeline had not stabilized. The owner made a major shift, changing the site supervisor, adding personnel, and pretty much halting work on the apartment project. In other words, this project tested the capacity of the contractor, both in judging the scope of the project and putting the necessary resources in place.

Sharing these experiences is not meant to be an exercise in finger-pointing. This was the largest and most complex project I had undertaken. It surely tested my capacity to work through the many construction-related issues. The points I have articulated here are just a few parts of the whole expansion process. But in my view, they are vital because of how they can impact the construction process, which in turn affects almost every other aspect of the project.

Collaboration

Collaboration, building and maintaining a positive working relationship and a collaborative intent with the site supervisor and trade sub-contractors, is also of primary importance. No matter how thoroughly plans have been made and reviewed, numerous opportunities exist for errors, misinterpretations, or changes for the better.

Participating in regular meetings called by the site supervisor and including the trade supervisors and others was vital for establishing and discussing the work at hand. These meetings allowed people to express concerns or gripes, discuss options and prioritize the work.

In the case of New Pioneer, a major timing snafu involved the relocation of the Bakehouse. Plans to dismantle, move and reassemble the 8-ton hearth oven, and vacate the leased Bakehouse space had been made according to an earlier timeline and could not be changed. But construction of the electrical and plumbing systems essentially started at the opposite end of the building, and the production area would be the last to be connected. The state of the project indicated this was weeks away if a normal progression were used.

Getting the bakery back into production was a priority for New Pioneer. Initially, people rolled their eyes, as they envisioned the work to be done in a compressed timeline. But once the question was asked, "What do you need to do your part?" productive discussion began. In the end a process was worked out. We benefited from working with companies that had the capacity to pull in additional labor and shift focus, along with a willingness to make it happen. Even though we couldn't avoid a longer down time than we had planned, the collaborative effort of everyone made what looked improbable a successful plan B.

Included in this effort were the building and health inspectors. It would be up to them to allow production while the rest of the building was still under construction. We had established the collaborative intent very early in the expansion process and continued to update the inspectors as we moved along. We requested periodic onsite visits and feedback so that by the time it came for the final inspections, they were completely informed.

Coordination

A third primary concern is coordination, effecting a smooth flow of tasks and events throughout a major project. By the end of the project dozens of people have played a part. Each one has a separate focus. Many are not aware of all the sequencing that has or is taking place unless it adversely affects them.

There is no substitute for communication. To communicate the proper information and in as timely a manner as possible some system for establishing and monitoring the process is vital. A written timeline is key. It lays out the sequencing of tasks and events and provides a cohesive element, tying the involvement of many into a unified whole. It starts out reflecting the "perfect" scenario. However, in most projects it changes fairly quickly. It needs to be a working document and maintaining it to reflect the reality of the project's progress is the only way to keep it useful.

As a timeline tool, the Microsoft Outlook calendar feature worked extemely well for this project. Almost all areas of the project were integrated into this one document, whether it concerned construction, equipment and fixtures, or telephone and computer systems. The calendar was monitored daily. At least once a week, it was used as a reality check with the site supervisor and trades and revised if necessary.

Using the calendar didn't prevent the delays in construction, and at times one wondered if it was worth the effort. Best laid plans went awry. But by and large, using it resolved or minimized many a potential conflict on and off the site.

Another major coordination effort is the selection, acquisition and placement of equipment and fixtures. Over 150 pieces were tracked in New Pioneer's case. For this project, P.J. Hoffman of Blooming Prairie Warehouse was the store planner and provided an Excel worksheet formatted for the purpose of developing a list and tracking this process. It was easily updated as equipment choices changed. Information provided included a label that tied it to its location in the store, a description and technical specifications, the source, the cost, and the acquisition status of the piece.

Review

Capacity, collaboration, coordination. This writing focused on site development using these keywords. They could also be used to discuss aspects of the rest of the organization's involvement and preparation that lead to a successful expansion project.

Certainly, an organizational assessment indicates the capacity of the organization to undertake an expansion project. The active participation of managers and staff in the decision-making processes that will result in the store or operation envisioned involves a great deal of collaboration. And to dovetail the timeline of preparatory activities of the organization with the construction timeline requires extensive coordination.

There are so many components, so much minutae to an expansion project. It is somewhat difficult to separate them for brief discussions because they are so interrelated. Cause and effect ripple through circumstances in an ongoing manner. Overall, it's important to constantly assess, review criteria and develop systems and processes that truly assist in managing a very dynamic situation.

See other articles from this issue: #096 September - October - 2001