Engaging with Civil Engineering students at QUT

Recently Envision was asked to address the Civil Engineering students at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) on the subject of driving Construction Project Efficiency with data from a Lean perspective.

Founders message on why we created Envision

The Envision co-founders, Dr Adrian Smith and Hugh Hofmeister with their collective experiences responded to a need in the market when they started out, back in 2010.

The “Good Oil” on construction data

The analogy between oil and data is credited to Clive Humby in 2006. Clive is a British mathematician who established Tesco’s Clubcard loyalty program. Humby highlighted the fact that, although inherently valuable, data needs processing, just as oil needs refining before its true value can be unlocked.

Since then, the analogy has been widely used in marketing materials to bring attention to the value of data and the potential economic impacts the control and use of data can have.

An important aspect of the analogy that is often overlooked, is that data (like oil) needs refinement before it can be usefully interpreted. And that refinement (or processing) must occur quickly enough for the insights to be useful when acted upon.

It is much more important to know that your project is not achieving the target cost or production rates daily than monthly because there is time to react and change work practices. This is especially true if you are running a large construction project that is spending more than $1M per day – you want fast feedback.

Construction data – much more than drawings and documents

Construction data is far more than simply drawings and documents. While these are important and communicate intent, there are many other types of data.

Consider these examples which might occur on a daily or even hourly basis.

  • Actuals (start and finish dates)
  • Site attendance records
  • Site supervisor diary
  • Weather records
  • Equipment engine run hours
  • Weigh-bridge records
  • Material delivery dockets
  • Material test results
  • Truck count sheets
  • GPS and Telemetry from fixed and mobile plant
  • Safety inspections
  • Progress records (quantity, rule of credit, …)
  • Unplanned project events (scope, site conditions, material defects, equipment breakdowns, …)

Simply converting paper data or documents into a scanned digital rendition will only solve some problems. What we need to do is capture the contained data in a structured form, that can be easily transmitted and interpreted.

Because of the wide variety of data formats, significant human effort is required to gather, enter and process the above data. Furthermore, the above data can represent conflicting information that requires human effort to resolve.

Unfortunately, the effort required to generate the information can be so large that we lose sight of the need to use the information to make better project decisions.

Using this data we routinely need to generate construction information such as:

  • Daily cost and production rates
  • Accrued costs
  • Percentage complete
  • Actuals (start and finish dates)
  • Earned value and other metrics like CPI and SPI
  • Progress claims
  • Commercial notices and claims …

And furthermore, we combine the above data and information together to generate internal and external reports.

At Envision we are seeing new construction projects every week and are helping these project teams grapple with data and information challenges. Overwhelmingly we see paper dockets, paper timesheets, paper diaries and reporting spreadsheets as the standard tools that many teams are working with.

Paper has obvious limitations and in that the data must be transcribed into an electronic system. While this takes time, it also limits the speed in which this data can be used, reviewed and enriched for other purposes.

The humble site docket

The paper docket typically used on sites involving subcontract workforce might seem best captured as paper, then passed to a supervisor for approval, then passed to an admin person to enter into the cost control system and then passed to site engineers for entry into a progress spreadsheet.

However, a docket is actually the source of many other pieces of information and supports a wide range of downstream processes.

  • Person/Equipment/Material
  • Start time, End Time, Breaks
  • Quantity
  • Prestart checks
  • Signature
  • Company, Date, Unique identifier, …
  • But the humble docket supports a wide range of downstream processes including:
  • Record of attendance on site, accrued cost, approval of work, material placement, …
  • Safety exposure hours, completion of prestart checks, …
  • Physical progress (load counts, amount of material moved, …)

So when a docket is captured electronically, it enables these processes to occur in almost real-time instead of waiting to be passed between teams. When accumulated, these inherent delays mean that the information being gathered is less valuable because it is less current.

Spreadsheets

Spreadsheets have been long understood as a huge risk for large businesses, but they have become ubiquitous for many industries, including construction.

Research shows that over 90% of spreadsheets contained errors and 23% contained serious errors. This is because it is very difficult to find and fix errors. Hence calculation errors are commonplace, but still, Engineers rely upon them for everyday work – even when alternatives exist.

The European Spreadsheet Risks Interest Group documents these risks and details significant errors that have resulted. A couple of interesting examples include:

  1. Vote counting in a Malaysian election
  2. Financial reporting to London stock exchange
  3. Misinterpretation of human genome data

Information decay and decision delay

The combined effect of slow and unreliable information is that the time taken to make a decision is delayed. In isolation, a delay of 7 days may not be significant, but when this becomes the norm and is happening for the majority of data being captured from the site, it becomes a constant drag on decision making.

Cognitive bias and data-informed decisions

As a result, decisions are made based on anecdotes or gut feel, instead of being informed by data. When we make decisions based on instinct and gut feel, we become more susceptible to cognitive bias. Some common examples that affect our decisions include:

  1. Confirmation bias – our tendency to search for and favour information that confirms our beliefs while simultaneously ignoring or devaluing information that contradicts our beliefs.
  2. Availability heuristic – a common mistake that our brains make by assuming that the examples which come to mind easily are also the most important or prevalent things.
  3. Anchoring – our tendency to stubbornly cling to a number once we hear it and evaluate all other offers based on that previous number, even if that isn’t the most relevant bit of information.
  4. Sunk cost fallacy – once we’ve invested time and/or money in something, we become vastly less likely to abandon it, even once it should be clear that the project will ultimately fail.
  5. Survivorship Bias – our tendency to focus on the winners and try to learn from them while completely forgetting about the losers who are employing the same strategy.

Data-driven decision making

Being informed by data help be objective about the decisions we make and minimises the effect of confirmation bias.

A great example of using data to inform decision making in demonstrated in the film “Moneyball” in which the process for selecting baseball players is challenged using a data-first approach instead of the traditional gut feel approach.

If you’re not familiar with Moneyball, Michael Lewis details the surprising success of the small-market baseball team, the Oakland Athletics, which competes against large-market teams with much deeper pockets such as the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox.

In order to maximize his player budget (a fifth of the size of larger teams’ budgets), Oakland A’s General Manager, Billy Beane, broke with tradition and applied an analytical approach to baseball’s flawed and subjective scouting system. His staff drafted young, inexpensive players and obtained unwanted, affordable veterans with high on-base percentages as well as unorthodox pitchers who generated a lot of ground outs. Using statistical analysis known as sabermetrics, the Oakland A’s were able to level the playing field and proceed to outsmart and outperform much richer teams. All of the MLB teams had access to the same data; however, the Oakland A’s identified inefficiencies in how the data was being used and capitalized on them.

Another fantastic example of a work practice that uses data to inform decisions is from the father of Lean Thinking – W. Edwards Deming.

Deming was an American Mathematician who pioneered the use of statistics in manufacturing process control and continuous improvement helped revolutionize the Japanese manufacturing industry post World War 2 using the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle. Born from this work is the Toyota Production System and Lean.

When we capture data either paper, electronic or otherwise, the value of the data depends on how easily when can extract, link, transform, interpret and reuse.

The health care industry has tackled these issues over recent years and anyone who has visited the hospital may have noticed the transformation to digital medical records. The construction industry may be able to leverage some of these learnings.

Principles for improving data capture

Here are some guiding principles that can help improve your data maturity:

  • Capture electronically close in person, place and time
  • Plan the master/reference data to align with how the project performance is to be measured and align with the financial system.
  • Use reference codes/identifiers/geolocation for resources (people, equipment, materials, companies) to allow easy cross-referencing
  • Express data in self-describing formats where possible
  • Exchange data in neutral file formats – avoid proprietary file formats
  • Agree a “source of truth” for core data like budgets, people, equipment, …
  • Organise and store for ease of accessibility
  • Favour less high-quality data over more unreliable data
  • Balance detail (granularity) against the cost of capture
  • Convert data into information and drive decision making

Tackling the above challenges is not easy, especially in an environment where systems are fragmented and each party in the supply chain is not always incentivised to share information freely.

Projects that have converted the above process into a digital process by applying the above principles realise significant benefits. Not only in the administration effort saved, but also in having transparency of accrued costs available for performance analysis usually by the next day.

A project team that adopts a data-driven mindset and starts using that information to inform decisions will naturally improve project performance.

The data we collect (and the way we collected it) is an asset and can be used to improve the productivity of projects. We already have the capability and existing technology to collect and refine the data into useful information. What we need to is to challenge the old habits for data collection and processing and to get smarter about what we do.

Refining our construction data relies on being able to process and link with other information so that we can make informed decisions.

 

Seasons greetings – 2018

Reflecting back on 2018, Envision would like to thank our clients and friends for their support and we extend our well wishes for the upcoming festive season.

The year 2018 has built on previous consolidations which have provided the platform to grow our teams, our R&D investments and our go-to-market initiatives.

We have big expectations with new team members joining us and new offices very soon. Collectively we wish you every success for 2019.

Celebrating 250 projects

Envision would like to take a moment to say a huge thank you to our clients who over the last 8 years have used Envision to deliver more than 250 projects.

On this journey our clients have been instrumental in shaping the solutions we have today and helping our organisation evolve. We’ve been involved in more projects than most would experience in a lifetime and developed both strong industry incites and relationships along the way.

For us, it is a moment to pause and reflect as we celebrate.

Below are some reflections from the co-founders Hugh Hofmeister and Adrian Smith.

In the late 2000’s Adrian and Hugh had already agreed to start business together and began playing with ideas and developing software after hours while holding down day jobs, often coding in the early hours of the morning. Their first efforts were a piping fabrication and quality system which modelled the connection of components of a pipe spool and estimated time to install.

With aerospace backgrounds, they both valued the 3D model and thought it would be the panacea the construction industry was looking for. They set a new BIM direction using Google Sketch-up to visualise a construction model in 3D in the cloud. This early incarnation of Envision was thwarted by industry handover practices at the time. Deliverables from design to construction were in the form of unintelligent 2D drawings and documents even though 3D intelligence was in use for design.

Through this market engagement it became clear that there was an opportunity to improve project time capture and the capture of events that had the potential to lead to project time and cost variations.

This was the foundation of Envision (engineering vision), with the first client and project joining in the middle of 2010, with the next being 18 months later.

Initially, the projects were in the Industrial sector on the Queensland Oil and Gas projects and as that market changed adoption began in the Infrastructure sector.

Many project leaders have now moved onto their 5th and 6th generation projects and are taking Envision to overseas projects. At the same time, we seeing mid-tier and smaller construction companies joining the Envision family at an increasing rate.

At this juncture, we are excited to be restructuring our organisation and investing in response to client demand and new opportunities.

Our company vision is:

“Drive project performance within the civil infrastructure and resources sectors worldwide so that humanity’s needs can be met by building infrastructure safer, faster and more sustainably”

This vision together with the same principles of transparency and client focus will guide us into the next phase.

2018 Future Infrastructure Summit

The Future Infrastructure Summit was buzzing with a good combination of delegate enthusiasm and real-world technology that’s making an impact now, all bundled into Lean & Digital Engineering forum with a strong agenda to shape the future. It was a great outcome for the good work done by the organising team.

Solutions geared to drive value

As the construction industry continues to deliver significant infrastructure and resources projects, under greater delivery pressures and stakeholder demands, Envision has been continually developing new advancements, behind the scenes, to help clients respond with greater efficiency.

Particularly in the last two years, our team has brought on line a range of new and extended features designed in collaboration with our clients to ensure our solutions add practical value.

Combining long-standing features, new features and industry-firsts, we are proud to provide field-based solutions that connect construction projects with the information they need to drive performance.

  • Daily diaries and reports – a standardised solution and central source for daily records, using fully integrated data to provide rapid access to a rolled-up view of project activities.
  • Photo management – a disciplined approach to project photos that turns them into readily usable assets for reports and other key project documents.
  • Events and notices – placing responsibility as close to the action as possible by enabling any team member to record events in real-time and set in motion a clear, defined workflow, best positioning projects to stay on track.
  • Program/schedule collaboration – the only construction platform that directly integrates programs, safely sharing them with entire project teams to dramatically increase information sources and opportunities to collaborate, re-prioritise and improve.
  • Progress measurement – enabling the daily tracking of progress across a wide range of inputs and metrics, giving quick visibility to support efficient and effective decision-making.
  • Timesheets/timecards – a digital solution that saves time and reduces input errors, while creating a powerful record of the quantum of resources booked against project activities.
  • Plant and equipment tracking – an easy way to track plant and equipment to minimise idle or poorly utilised plant, improve use and identify savings.
  • Attendance and competency – using existing hardware, paired with the Envision app, supervisors can scan in their crews from anywhere in the field, or create easy mobile kiosks.
  • Subcontractor dockets – an electronic solution that enables flexible mobile docket capture by subcontractors, with data immediately allocated to appropriate cost codes, improving accuracy and responsiveness, and delivering a win for all project parties.

In the coming months, we’ll be launching three new solutions on progress claim verification, daily cost and production, and earned value/performance management.

In the meantime, click here to browse our solutions including screenshots of key workflow stages.

What every CFO needs to know about digitising construction timesheets

As an historically slow adopter of digital tech, the construction industry is going through a digital revolution. According to StartupAUS, there is unprecedented activity and investment (an estimated $98+ million since the start of 2016) in the Australian construction tech start-up space and they suggest full-scale digitisation in the Australian construction sector could add value in the order of “$25 billion year on year within the next decade”.

Despite this growth, many of the construction contractors I meet say they capture time in largely ad hoc, manual, paper or spreadsheet-based methods. This increases admin costs and makes timely, data-driven decision-making near impossible. Fortunately, there is growing demand from construction execs for digital solutions to this problem so they can reduce admin burden and make fast, informed decisions, in-the-field, to keep projects on track and profitable.

The prize is worth it. One project team, using Envision, reduced their timesheet administrators from eight to two, and reduced the cost data lag from six weeks (or more) to just a couple of days. You can read the case study here.

For CFOs and other executive stakeholders, the project and business value that can be derived from digitising construction timesheets is immense. We’ve covered some fundamentals on construction timesheet considerations here. Going further, there are key considerations we’ve learned over several years that can help you realise the full benefits available from digitising your construction timesheets.

Keys to success

    • Build a clear map of your current process so your new process can be designed to minimise the impacts of change on your end users
    • Map the needs of corporate, project and supply chain timesheet stakeholders (there are more than you may think!) so your digital solution can work for all
    • Ensure your digital solution will capture at least the same information as your manual process
    • Develop a transition strategy and consider whether a progressive transition may be best for your organisation and culture
    • Drive and communicate the change through your organisation, projects and supply chain from the top down
    • Train key people in the new process first so they can assist in wider training and embed the change – we find internal change champions can also help with this
    • Train your end users thoroughly and make sure your training and reference guides are easily accessible and user-friendly
    • At a nominated time, make it non-negotiable, where you stop accepting paper/manual timesheets, so you back your new process and create the right foundation for successful adoption

Choosing the right digital solution for your business

With your process and people considerations set, it comes down to selecting the right solution. Naturally, we believe Envision has the flexibility, scope and track record to support effectively any construction team. That being said, there are four considerations relevant to any quality solution.

Flexibility and configuration requirements

The pace of technology change continues to accelerate. Where possible, choose a technology platform that has the flexibility to grow and change with your business needs. Cloud and Software as a Service (SaaS) technologies are becoming very popular and well accepted. These are typically modern, very flexible and very user-friendly. They can get you a 90% fit-for-purpose solution far more cost-effectively than traditional ERP platforms that might get you the extra 10% but are configuration-heavy, time-consuming and expensive.

Integration options and open APIs

No solution can afford to work in a silo these days. Creating value in an organisation demands a flow of information across an organisation between teams and departments…not locking information into silos. Ken Panitz from CIMIC Group’s EIC Activities sums it up from his panel talk at the recent CTS2017. Ken’s strong belief is that technology providers should build their integration capability (API) first, rather than provide a siloed solution. A great digital construction timesheet solution should be like a lego block within your wider technology strategy, able to integrate with other business systems.

Ongoing development commitment by the provider

A solution with longevity will have an active roadmap and ongoing development strategy to ensure changing business and industry needs are met. Keeping any technology solution secure and working across various mobile devices and web browser platforms requires significant development effort – even before improving its functionality. Select a partner committed to proactive, continual development in response to your business needs and industry trends.

Implementation and ongoing operational support

Software is just part of the solution. Select a solution that will be well-supported by your chosen vendor, their partners or your internal business experts. Project set-ups and ongoing operational support often require scoping to meet project needs. On-site training as well as remote training documentation, videos and help guides are all key to ensuring adoption. Be wary of solutions that are not properly resourced with a team of appropriately-skilled people who can support rollouts across your business and projects.

Some pitfalls of internally-developed solutions

A final word on selecting your solution. When you look at commercial costs, you might wonder if it would be more cost effective to build your own solution. Before you go down this path, consider these hidden costs:

  • Software development is extremely iterative. Strong solutions take many evolutions and require wide exposure to different projects and businesses. This is time-consuming, expensive and very hard to achieve in-house.
  • Initial development costs are just the start. You need to allow for ongoing costs such as security maintenance, ongoing upgrades for device compatibility, testing/quality assurance for integrations (so new features don’t have backward compatibility issues), development and maintenance of user resources, support team capability, continuity and capacity

There is significant value – cost and time savings, faster decision-making, better issues management and more – available to companies that digitise their construction timesheets. Please get in touch with us if you’d like to discuss where you’re at today, what you want to achieve, and how we can help your digital transformation with certainty.

Real-time records prove value for Surat North project team

CPB Contractors’ work on the QCLNG Surat North Project involved the delivery of critical gas infrastructure by an experienced team with a long-standing history of supporting Shell QGC.

Envision was the primary reference for project data and progress information since the project’s inception in 2015.

On a daily basis, team members used Envision’s mobile and web platform to capture information, creating a real-time record of project data.

As the project’s single information source, leaders and managers referenced the same portal to drive decisions and client reporting, seeing benefits such as:

  • Fast-tracked weekly reports
  • A stronger foundation for forecasting
  • Improved project conversations
  • Clear line-of-sight regarding earned progress
  • Greater critical path visibility

While recording progress was the core desired function, over time, the team introduced features such as dockets for processing claims, roster and flight management, and monthly cost reconciliations – each time reducing administration burdens and streamlining project management.

Click here to read the full case study on the project that we’ve recently launched.

Digital construction technologies – what it takes to succeed

I was delighted to be invited by Aconex to share at the recent 2017 Construction Technology Summit as part of the panel on ‘Best practices in successfully introducing digital construction technologies’.

For a very well attended event, it was exciting to see the changes in play across the industry, and the desire from owners to contractors to consultants to software vendors around tackling the lagging digital technology adoption challenges of the sector. There’s no question that productivity gains are still hampered by a reluctance to change, as shown by McKinsey in one of their 2016 articles.

With these findings in mind, it’s no wonder I most connected with speakers who shared on how to best digitise the construction industry. While there is a lot of talk at the moment about AI, and how to leverage it to drive better outcomes on projects, as Andrew Newsome from Boston Consulting Group pointed out, without (digital) data, AI doesn’t work. The sector’s future is in better capturing digital and structured data, in part so it can leverage these other technologies.

Of course, that’s easier said than done, so here are three takeaways I particularly valued from Andrew Newsome, Kate Nelson (Head of Business Technology & Innovation, LendLease) and Ken Panitz (Principal Methods & Lean, EIC Activities).

1. Projects are good at avoiding new initiatives

Andrew talked about the fact that project and construction managers have numerous challenges on their to-do lists and are focused on delivering their projects. As he suggested, when you consider that a construction project may have a duration of as little as two years, it’s not long enough to generate a strong return on investment from new initiatives…certainly not on its own.

If you want a project to support new initiatives, Andrew’s advice was to:

  • Ensure the initiative is a priority at the highest levels of the company and project org charts
  • Allocate dedicated project resources to support and drive the new initiative

I touched on this in my panel session and discussion with Emma Shipley (CFO, Roberts Pizzarotti). In my experience, the best project outcomes for a new initiative come when there is engagement at both a corporate and project level – in contributing resources and guiding the direction of an initiative. It is critical to truly understand what’s going to make a difference at the coal face for a project when you’re setting up an initiative. At the other end, you need to ensure corporate goals are incorporated so value is generated not only at the project level, but also the corporate level.

2. The right people are essential to supporting change

Having the right people involved in a project can make the difference between success and failure. Kate Nelson summed it up when she spoke of the triple threat, below. These are definitely attributes I seek in the people I try to involve in digital initiatives on projects. As Kate put it, the triple threat is:

  1. Understanding how to use technology: this is self explanatory and essential to being able to evangelise and influence others to adopt new tech.
  2. Understanding engineering: if you’ve walked in the shoes of various key roles on engineering projects, and truly understand their pain and drivers, and can communicate and relate technology as it matters to them on a practical level, you’ve won half the battle. This is much more powerful than just taking someone a piece of tech and showing them how to use it. The value is in helping users know how to apply that tech to benefit their everyday work.
  3. Being an influencer (change agent) with strong IQ and EQ: we often refer to this as winning the hearts and minds of people on a project, meeting people where they are at and inspiring them to buy into the vision of the new initiative you’re introducing. That’s when they are more likely to champion it and become change agents themselves.

3. You need a strategy to speed up digitisation

Ken is championing digital disruption in construction through his role at EIC Activities. He made the point that there is no longer a single application that rules. The future is around flexibility, best of breed applications and the need for easy integration. He went as far as to say he won’t consider a solution without it first having an API. His message to software companies was, “build your API first…don’t have it as an item on your roadmap that’s coming soon”. Ken also shared how, at CIMIC, they are fostering innovation through a strategy of lowering requirements to trying new ideas; embracing that failure is okay; and limiting the investment and time to quickly show potential or fail fast. This is certainly a different approach to traditional big business cases and bureaucratic processes by being much more agile.

Our team’s recent work on the APLNG project with CPB Contractors underscores the importance of these considerations. The project team ultimately transitioned from having 600 paper dockets per day to 95% of those being electronically submitted. We worked with project leaders to address hurdles, like getting individuals to use a mobile device for project processes, getting subcontractors to let go of paper dockets, and getting engineers, supervisors and leading hands to adopt an unfamiliar digital process. We took learnings from a trial roll-out to streamline training and team engagement and it has ultimately been a huge success. Among a range of factors, I really saw the importance of:

  • Strong engagement from project leaders
  • Responsible champions with success linked to their KPIs
  • Consistent and ongoing communication with staff and subcontractors through the change.

In closing, there are learnings already available in the Australian construction sector when it comes to introducing new tech. For project leaders, seek software partners who have been there before and don’t be afraid to ask them for their learnings as well as successes to give you a running start.

Watch the session here