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Can WorkFace Planning Boost Your Field Performance?

First published at PMI online publication

What if I invite you to have a walk through any random construction site and observe the workers in action at the field? You may frequently encounter most of the workers waiting instead of building. That might sound unacceptable, but the truth is that experience and countless productivity studies have shown it to be common.

Across many construction industry segments--and in many parts of the world--labor productivity remains a serious issue, and one of the biggest challenges of the execution phase. Furthermore, compared to other non-farming industries, which have experienced tremendous improvements in their respective labor productivity numbers, the construction industry still suffers from low and stagnating labor productivity rates.

Construction projects are getting increasingly complex, and many of you might think “inherently” challenging. Yet one of the important focuses of the industry remains on the labor productivity issue and that is, in part, related to the fact that about 25% of all construction costs come from field labor.

While new strategies like modularization try to externalize as much scope as possible into a factory-like environment and reduce the amount of work needed in the field, these strategies do not fit every type of construction and--in all cases--field work remains inevitable.

For instance, in North America, construction crews spend on average only 37% of their time actually building; the remaining time is generally spent waiting for materials and equipment, traveling to the working area, taking breaks and planning how to do the work.

While the industry professionals tend to think of and deal with this as a labor issue (supply and demand, skills and trainings, safety, site conditions), the question remains: Is that the only perspective on the subject? And are there others to be explored?

Current field-execution planning methods present a framework in which inefficiencies are a construction reality. Revisiting these field-planning practices--and learning from the experience of innovative approaches to field planning practiced in different geographical regions--is a road that the industry can take to tame the productivity issue in the construction field. Therefore, this issue can also be seen as a “system” issue.

“Workface Planning” emerged as an innovative approach to field-execution planning. It was first successfully experienced in Western Canada and is increasingly getting popular in North America and in parts of Western Africa.

Workface planning is a process of organizing and delivering all the elements necessary for an installation work package (IWP), the latter being the frontline deliverable provided to crews on site for execution before the work is started. This is meant to address the major field management “system” issue in traditional execution planning for megaprojects--the delivery to foremen of big construction work packages (CWP), and relying on field supervision to convert those work packages into a list of assigned field tasks. With the increasing complexity of projects, a project management professional could easily detect that this exercise heavily relies on an unstable, unstandardized decision-making process. Therefore, it leads to issues.

Introducing rigor and system efficiency into the step of construction work packages conversion to field installation work packages is called workface planning. This is accomplished by breaking down construction work into discrete installation work packages that, together, completely describe the scope of work for a given project. More specifically, workface planning relies on the creation of small, well-defined work packages for the construction workforce with a typical rotation of work (five or 10 days) for one crew in one discipline. Generally, a scope of work associated with an IWP should be small enough that it could be completed by a single foreman and crew with a pre-defined block of work hours no more than 1,000 labor hours.

Preparing IWPs is based on an iterative process of incorporating communication, constraint checking, validation and final documentation. This is organized in a lifecycle process that consists of five distinct steps:

  • IWP creation

  • Document Control Interface

  • Issuance to the field

  • Control of IWP in the field

  • IWP closeout

Work packaging cannot be a new concept. Construction companies have been using field work packaging in one form or another to divide their projects' scope into manageable portions for execution. However, while both successes and challenges of WFP implementation have been reported, the question becomes: Will the industry be better off investing in revisiting improving its field planning systems? Or will it need to first rethink and confirm the impact of its front-end definition work packaging practices on field performance?

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