Agile Construction Management: Applying Agile Practices to the Construction Industry

Traditional software development follows a sequential approach to project management. Each stage of the process goes through a specific set of instructions and only after fulfilling the criteria does it get passed on to the next developmental phase.

Agile project management was introduced in 2001 when some of the top software engineers established the Agile manifesto. This publication revolutionized how businesses worked by breaking down the production process, to deliver working software faster. It quickly spread in the business world as it was adapted by many businesses in different industries.

The iterative and incremental nature of agile proved to be more efficient and productive than traditional project management. Although agile methodologies were popular with project managers from various industries, it posed the question of whether they could help in projects that were much more complex and constrained such as the construction industry.

A construction project emphasizes the need for strict quality control, tight planning, and a sequential approach. However, despite these restrictions, contrary to agile project management, the construction industry has seen positive results from applying agile methodologies. These results encouraged the growth of a subset of agile project management—agile construction.

In this article, we’ll discuss what agile construction is, the features of an agile construction roadmap, and how agile is applied to the construction industry.

What is Agile Construction?

Agile construction refers to an integrated system of agile principles and methods adopted by job sites in the construction industry. The agile model is aligned with the values and principles stated in the agile manifesto.

However, due to the complex nature of construction projects, these values cannot be implemented as is and need to be translated to fit within the framework of the construction industry. Thus the agile principles for a construction project may include the following:

  • Early delivery of functional systems into test and operation
  • Customer satisfaction and involvement
  • Value added delivery
  • A focus on delivering working systems rather than delivering specified contract deliverables
  • A team approach to construction projects
  • Continuous attention to the design, specifications, and work packages of the construction project to reduce delays and improve project delivery
  • Team reflection on issues, delays, and problems identified within the duration of the project and plan strategies to fix/prevent them

There are still some principles that cannot be applied to construction projects such as welcoming changing requirements. Once in its development stage, it can be near impossible to make changes as costs start to substantially increase.

Applying Agile Management to Construction Projects

Construction projects have always followed a linear approach with sequential steps. The typical construction process may be broken down into separate stages including a planning phase, design phase, development phase, and testing phase.

Input from stakeholders is usually considered in the planning and design phases because it can be difficult to incorporate feedback in later stages when the project is being constructed.

Since the project might be susceptible to change, an agile approach that considers the possibility of changes to construction projects can help improve productivity and provide more value to the end-user.

The construction industry is notorious for its strict planning, fixed budgeting, and detailed scheduling, all concepts that may be contradictory to agile project management. 

This poses the question: Is agile project management applicable to the construction industry?

Many efforts have been made to enhance construction project management through methods like lean construction and integrated project management (IPM). These have helped in managing construction projects by improving productivity with a minimum of resources wasted.

But before getting into further detail, we have to be familiar with the construction project lifecycle to identify where agile methods may be of most benefit.

Conceptualization

The project initiation or conceptualization stage is where construction teams sit down and share ideas on starting a project. They then translate ideas into actionable steps keeping in mind the project scope and goals.

Design

Once the project is determined and realistic goals have been established, construction teams move on to the design phase. At this stage, key stakeholders will suggest improvements to the initial plan and try to visualize the construction project. This visualization is done in the form of rough sketches which are later developed into proper blueprints of the final project.

Pre-construction

The pre-construction stage is a vital turning point in construction project management. Here construction teams create a schedule for project delivery and assign roles to team members. This stage involves:

  • Determining what tasks will be assigned to each team
  • Estimating what resources and permits are needed to initiate the construction project
  • Calculating the budget required for each project phase
  • Creating a clear timeline for deliverables and setting project milestones

Procurement

After a clear outline for the project is established, the procurement stage involves obtaining the resources to get started. The goal here is to get these resources in the most cost-effective and time-effective manner.

Established construction companies have a network of suppliers or may consult a procurement expert to find efficient supply chains to provide quality supplies throughout the construction project.

Construction

Now that the plan is finalized, construction teams have a good idea of what they need to do, how to do it, and when to do it. By this time, the construction team should also have the minimum resources required to initiate the process.

Managing projects nowadays will inevitably lead to changes so it is best to keep a check on your plan and adjust where needed before construction has delved into the deeper stages.

Post-construction

Once the construction is complete, you’re not exactly done yet. Before the final closure of the project, you need to test and evaluate the process. This is a good time for teams to step back and reflect on the process and discuss what could’ve been improved.

Stakeholders may also get involved as teams may ask for feedback and criticism on the execution of the project.

How to Use Agile for Construction Planning

Now that we have an idea of what the construction process looks like, we have to identify where adjustments could be made to incorporate agile project management.

It’s also important to address concerns construction managers may have before the implementation of agile management. Construction isn’t the same as software, an industry where agile methodologies flourish.

The construction industry poses a higher risk than other industries and incorporating constant changes through an iterative and incremental framework can increase delays which translate to higher costs. But despite this, it’s possible to apply agile practices to optimize costs and improve value.

Agile processes can be applied to the following aspects of construction projects:

  • Planning phase
  • Execution phase
  • Conducting regular meetings
  • Defining deliverables

Let’s dive deeper into how it all looks in practice.

Planning phase

Agile planning involves a cross-functional collaboration of teams, constant feedback from stakeholders, and flexibility to change. Agile plans are developed through constant iteration of short planning sprints.

A plan is then presented to stakeholders for their feedback. Agile construction teams take that feedback and reiterate the plan to create a new plan. This is done until a final plan evolves that is in line with stakeholders’ requirements and the demands of the end-users.

This agile approach to planning is better than a traditional plan as it increases transparency, improves collaboration, and prevents further revisions in the construction project.

Execution phase

Agile projects streamline construction project management by creating an environment for continuous improvement. This builds up the skills of the team which correlates to improved quality standards. This is crucial since research suggests that quality limitations contribute to a 30% increase in costs.

Agile methods can be applied to most of the construction phases for decreasing costs, quickly creating high-value deliverables, and reducing the chances of failure. This may be difficult to implement in every construction project such as nuclear construction, which may involve higher risks, but modern agile methodologies and tools help in optimizing the project lifecycle and improving time management.

Conducting regular meetings

Conducting regular meetings is vital for agile construction project management. Meetings would involve multiple stakeholders to ensure everyone’s on the same page. Also, these meetings help agile construction teams to organize vital information and address key tasks.

The regular collaboration contributes to better work culture and promotes continual improvement of core processes.

Defining deliverables

Since agile projects thrive on the involvement of stakeholders, all tasks need to be well-defined and explained to end-users and product owners. This is a positive outcome for everyone since it makes both parties feel involved in the design process.

Benefits of Agile Construction Project Management Over Traditional Methods

Reduced Delays

Delays in construction projects are very common. A report from McKinsey research suggests that larger construction projects take 20% longer to complete than planned. Additionally, KPMG states that “just 25% of projects came within 10% of their original deadlines in the past 3 years.”

Tracking team performance through agile metrics such as lead time can help reduce delays whereas throughput data can show how much work is getting done. Similarly, Kanban boards may be used to track progress and clearly outline which projects are underperforming.

Improved Communication

Regular interaction between construction teams and stakeholders promotes a positive work culture, where cross-functional teams work together to achieve project goals. Communication is crucial in construction projects since minor misunderstandings can lead to delays and increased costs.

Breaks Down Complex Tasks

Agile construction breaks down the construction process into manageable epics and user stories. Compared to the waterfall model, this helps in making accurate time and budget estimates as individual tasks can be better interpreted than complex, broader tasks.

Also, since agile project management considers input from various stakeholders, it can help identify key tasks that need to be the highest priority, which helps the team keep track of which projects to work on first.

Conclusion – Is Agile Project Management Applicable to the Construction Industry?

As customer demands and business dynamics are constantly shifting, agility is becoming a dire need for businesses in various industries. The construction industry may seem like the last place to apply agile processes, but it has brought many positive results from lowering costs to improving overall project delivery.

Although it may be difficult for construction companies to be purely agile, agile principles can be altered to adapt to the complex and risky nature of the construction industry.