Project Teams Working Together

The annual LCI conference in Orlando was, as usual, a real learning experience – especially the training days. I personally started out on Monday attending Rex Miller’s full-day workshop on Creating High Performing Teams. With almost all of our industry’s attention focused on increasing the technical skills of employees, Rex reminded us that (according to a Harvard study) 85% of a team’s success is based on social skills. Basically, how a team is organized and the rules (informal and formal) that guide their interactions, count the most in determining successful outcomes. Almost no other industry would dare to gather together – usually for the first time – hundreds or even thousands of individuals from different companies to create projects costing millions or even billions of dollars. Team members, often in spite of their best efforts, can become “Accidental Adversaries” when interests don’t align. It really reinforced for me that how we organize our project teams and how we build social capital can make or break our projects. This is a great lesson for owners who hire these teams and hope for innovative, cost-effective solutions to their building challenges.

I emphasized many of these lessons when teaching another full-day course on the Last Planner System on Tuesday. We divided the class into four enthusiastic Villego teams who competed through building Lego houses. In the first round, they are free to organize their teams however they see fit. In the second round, we assist them in employing the Last Planner System to build a second house. It is always one of my favorite courses, and it provides a great first look at how a team can organize for the best affect.

We know that many of our students regard Last Planner as either just pull planning sessions, or a series of spreadsheets to fill out listing commitments to remove constraints or weekly work tasks. But my colleague Klaus and I like to emphasize that the key to getting maximum value out of these simple spreadsheets is the conversations the team has when filling them out.

No project that requires the work of more than one person has ever been accomplished without conversation; conversations open up new possibilities for action and bring multiple perspectives to bear on a problem. It is through conversation that we share our assessments of a situation, back up those assessments with facts, and make plans and commitments to find a solution together. How we handle and document those conversations is the subject of “Language Action,” a formal way of understanding language not just as a way to exchange information and make reports, but as a way to facilitate collaboration, build trust, coordinate action, nurture relationships, and create the future.

As we work in teams, each of us becomes at different times a customer, making requests of others on our team, and a performer, offering to fulfill promises to our team members and executing tasks. For example, an architect needs information from the structural engineer on column placement and truss sizes, and the engineer needs information from the architect about floor dimensions and equipment locations. If the team has decided that the electrical sub will follow the framer and the plumbing contractor will follow the electrical sub, the electrical sub is the customer of the framer and the performer for the plumber. Together, customers and performers negotiate the conditions of satisfaction of every handoff between them. It is these conversations that are documented in Last Planner spreadsheets. How we interact, how we speak to each other, is key to team performance and the innovative outcomes owners expect.

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