Lean Agile in Construction Projects – 9/11/11 – 10 Years Later

I spent 2 fulfilling hours watching Discovery Channel‘s show on building the new Tower 1 of the World Trade Center called “Rising.” The commercial free special was especially poignant because of the many stories of individuals effected by the 9/11/2011 twin towers falling, and their calling to help re-build Ground Zero.

“The whole world is looking at us and our response to the tragedy.”

Essentially, the story revolved around the contruction of Tower 1 and the goal of building it up to 1000 feet  before 9/11/2011 (1776 feet at completion in 2013).

  • They have to build 1 floor per week. – Sounds perfect for iterative development...
  • 8 different construction contractor gangs work on every floor. – Team dependencies...
  • The Iron Workers start with the work, led by Mike and Tommy from the Raising Gang and the Mohawk Indians who have been building the New York skyline since the 1880’s.
  • Steve Plate, the Director of WTC Construction, oversees all of the construction. He lost 84 co-workers on 9/11/11. – He is the Uber Product Owner.

“Failure is not an option.” – Steve Plate

While watching this TV special, I absolutely had to open up my laptop and take notes (am I an Agile-nut or what)? My thoughts, through the entire show were:

“I want to see how they built this thing! I want to know if they took an Agile/Lean approach!!!”

After watching the entire special, they had not fully revealed their build process, so I decided to do some research on whether Agile and Lean techniques work in construction projects. I did:

“To be agile an enterprise or project must be structured appropriately to proactively and quickly adapt to change, seizing such opportunities to enhance value outcomes. It should be noted here that ‘lean construction’ contains some aspects of both lean and agile production and the ‘Last Planner’ method (Ballard, 2000) can even be seen as partially agile. An alternative and interesting view of merging lean and agile techniques (‘leagile’) has been proffered (Naim and Barlow, 2003); however, this only considers the ‘pull’ nature of agile customer demand on the lean construction supply chain and does not embrace APM holistically.” – Robert Owen, Lauri Koskela, Guilherme Henrich and Ricardo Codinhoto on “Is Agile Project Management Applicable to Construction?”

So, does Agile and Lean work in Construction Projects?

Yes. It can.


Within the construction industry, it is possible to consider the pre-design, design and actual construction phases separately. These have been mapped against the APM analysis in order to assess the degree to which APM (Agile Project Management) might be useful to the industry, taken from aforementioned white paper.

  • Remember the Victims of 9/11

    Philosophy. In the pre-design phase, a considerable number of issues are in a flux, and the whole process is emergent. Thus, process metaphysics can advantageously be used as a basis for conceptualizing this phase.

  • Attitude to Chaordic change. New opportunities constantly emerge (Blomberg, 1998) and new risks are constantly identified; thus the situation is characterized by chaordic change.
  • Management style/work group structure. It is advisable to organize through an empowered team any large and complex pre-design effort, with frequent mutual communication. Hierarchical decision making has been found to cause problems, for example in the pre-design phase of primary healthcare facilities (Tzortzopoulos et al., 2006).
  • Customer involvement. As requirements capture is a central task in the pre-design phase, customer involvement is clearly highly recommended, if not essential.
  • Nature of planning. Due to the complexities and uncertainties involved in the pre-design phase, anything other than lightweight planning is probably nugatory. Indeed, Blomberg (1998) finds very little formal planning in the early phases of successful projects.
  • Development approach. Due to the needs for integration and customer involvement, an iterative and incremental development approach can be – and is often recommended for the pre-design phase.
  • Requirements capture. The distinction between stable requirements (to be captured upfront), volatile requirements (for which options need to be kept open) and evolving requirements (for which learning is to be cultivated) is highly relevant in construction projects. Consequences of failures to categorize requirements in this way and reliance on immature requirements are reported by Tzortzopoulos, et al. (2006).

With these things in mind, the study finds that Agile methods can and cannot work in different facets of construction:

  • Philosophy. In the design phase, contemporary methods and approaches, such as Concurrent Engineering and Last Planner are essentially based in delivering value throughout the process (Kamara et al, 1997); (Codinhoto, 2003). Issues regarding the identification of trade-offs, processes of analysis and synthesis, and also decision-making are in flux. Therefore, process metaphysics is the appropriate basis for conceptualizing this phase (Koskela; Kagioglou, 2005).

    The New World Trade Center Buildings
  • Organizational Attitudes and Practices. The construction industry, in general is characterized by the establishment of a new team of companies for each new project. Therefore, the design team varies from project to project and the categories Y, X and Z can not easily be applied in construction. However, it is possible to say that some Type Z characteristics e.g. collective decision making and improved employee-employer relationships can be observed in some long-term partnerships (Kamara; et al, 1997); also observed in the Heathrow airport Terminal 5 project (College, 2005).
  • Regarding iterative and incremental development of value, it seems that this is a natural process in the design phase. However, to delay decisions to the ‘last responsible moment’ would prove problematic in the construction setting, as currently structured with its discrete phases. Such an attitude might also imply difficulties in product development coordination (Clark and Fujimoto, 1991). The design process is highly interactive and before any change the design team should consider the impact of the change on the product, and also on the design process itself (Crawford and Benedetto, 2000).
  • Planning. Design planning has been considerably investigated in manufacturing and in construction. Approaches, methods and tools vary greatly. Therefore, there is a range of solutions that fit into one of the two categories “light” and “heavyweight”. On the one hand, Design Structure Matrix (DSM) and Analytical Design Plan Technique (ADePT) (Austin et al., 2000) constitute examples of heavyweight planning. On the other hand Last Planner (Ballard, 2000) can be considered lightweight.
  • Regarding the client requirements capture in the design phase, it seems that a considerable number of methods, e.g. Quality Function Deployment (QFD) are focused in detailing the requirements exhaustively and at the beginning. Studies as presented (Miron and Formoso, 2003) show that there is still a gap regarding the process of requirements capture during the whole design phase, indeed, research shows that, as late as the start of construction, significant uncertainty remains as to what is to be constructed (Howell et al., 1993).
  • Finally, the use of work breakdown structures is the current basis of work package structures in construction. The division of the tasks according to products and sub-products to be delivered is a common practice in construction. The process protocol developed by Salford University (Kagioglou et al., 1998) is one example.
  • Execution. Regarding the approach to development, the design phase can be either sequential or iterative. The adoption of one or another will vary according to the project as discussed by Kamara et al (1997). On the one hand, the adoption of iterative approaches will result in frequent value delivery for clients. On the other hand, sequential approaches are characterized by product delivery at the end; as a consequence errors and corrections are frequent (Prasad, 1996). Also quality is delivered considering both the perception of value by the customer and other stake holders, and defect reduction (e.g. Design for Manufacturing and constructability analysis). Client involvement during the design phase is common practice in construction.
  • Control and Learning. The construction design is constantly measured according to different types of metrics, for instance, cost, maintainability and sustainability of solutions. However, the relations between different metrics are not completely understood. Regarding attitude to learning, the process will vary within each new project. Therefore, it is substantially based on change management within the temporary organisation, with knowledge retained largely at the individual, rather than wider organisational level.

In conclusion, the adoption of APM principles in the design phase is very appropriate to the challenges that face the construction industry, for instance, the development of high quality and complex products at lowest possible cost. However, its adoption will vary according with the complexity and uncertainty related to the project; it would be particularly appropriate where solutions to requirements evolve or are likely to change through the project. Therefore, the projects that will gain more benefit from APM are projects in which a considerable number of clients are involved, requirements are conflicting and constantly generate trade-offs, and early delivery of value is a priority.

The current construction as of 8/26/2011

For the entire article see below:


Some Images To Remember

[Click for larger view]

Remember 9/11


 In Memory of 9-11

September 11, 2001 – Remember the Fallen!

A Look Towards the Future

[Click for full size]

[HT: University of Salford]

[HT: Discovery Channel]

27 Replies to “Lean Agile in Construction Projects – 9/11/11 – 10 Years Later”

  1. Pingback: Lean Agile in Construction Projects – 9/11/11... | Agile | Syngu
  2. they have done little if anything to prevent another of the same type attack,and that I find disturbing.People have this false sense of safety,ask them what steps were taken to prevent another attack.

    1. If you watch the show, you’ll see how they’ve reinforced things here and there. Make sure that stairwells were better constructed as well as thicker concrete walls etc.

      I, however, know nothing about security measures in this regard, so it would be up to an expert to figure out if this is even safer!

  3. Pingback: At one of many Granta readings across the nation… « The Polyglottal

  5. Greetings ~
    I used an image off this post for my facebook profile picture. I hope that’s ok. I didn’t see any photo credits or anything. Anyway, if that’s not ok, please email me and I’ll take it down straight away. Thanks.

  6. Firstly, I can remember hearing from a good friend who was visiting Washington during the Pentagon attack – his description was absolutely horrifying and you feel for all those who suffered and continue to do so.
    Thanks for resurrecting one of my very early PhD papers! This was a response to my tasking by Prof Koskela to investigate whether I could take my agile project management learning from the defence industry into construction and, in essence, my response was NO; UNLESS….
    Since then I have become familiar with the concept of combining lean construction, integrated project delivery and, above all (the then ‘missing link’), Building Information Modelling and Management (BIMM) to create collaborative information-linked processes previously substantially absent in the construction sector. Now that these issues have some serious solutions there are a growing number of exemplar (and agile) projects; some USA exemplars include DPR in California and John Tocci in Boston.
    On the back of this work the University of Salford recently co-hosted the global launch of the Balfour Beatty Group (including Parsons Brinckerhoff) BIMM/ VDCO (Virtual Design, Construction and Operation) initiative and have been named as Training and Innovation Partners.
    I now also lead a global research programme for the CIB (World Bank initiated International Council
    for Research and Innovation in Building and Construction) into Integrated Design and Delivery Solutions – the White Paper for which can be found at cibworld.xs4all.nl/dl/publications/IDDS_White_Paper.pdf. The UK is also creating their own Integrated Project Delivery model to support the Government BIM initiative and I have been invited to contribute.
    Can construction now become both lean and agile: absolutely! Case studies vary in their asessments but typically ranged from 2-3% to 60% savings. Ignoring the top end, even at 2-3% the savings of total construction spend (typically averaging roughly 20% GDP around the world) is really worth saving.
    (P.S. the UK Government has scrapped our research funding at the end of 2011, so here is my LinkedIn page linkedin.com/profile/view?id=18683475&authType=name&authToken=Dr-L&locale=en_US&pvs=pp&trk=ppro_viewmore, so that I can either tackle a new problem or take this one to the next level ;-))

    1. Awesome man!!! Thanks so much for all your hard work on this and all the best with CIB!
      Looks promising that lean and agile can work in construction. 60% savings is a great number!

  7. hi, came across your photos and site while looking for photos to do a 9-11 assignment.

    love your well chosen photos of WTC – past, present & future.

    your flag draped graphic memorial encapsulates everything dear to those who love the good that America stands for and who witnessed it, even from afar.

    as one who worked with Scouts, my special prayer this 9-11 comes from Isaiah 60:20 –
    May the LORD will be your everlasting light,
    and your days of sorrow will end.

    thanks for sharing your pix!

  8. I am in the UK but visited NY site A couple of years ago when they were building the new towers. I think it’s amazing how you have all come together after such a God awful day in American history. God bless you all.

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