Searching for the Lost “Art of Milestones” by Perry L. Thompson
Milestones, we all know what they are and what we are supposed to do with them, right? Well, from this trade partner’s perspective, the significance of milestones has been forgotten, and is a lost art. Unless, of course, we are talking about the “end date” milestone. Some would argue the “start date” is just as problematic and essential, but I would suggest the “start date” seems to have much more wiggle room than the “end date.” Both these dates are important, but everyone knows we cannot miss the “end date.” Tornadoes erupt, volcanoes explode, and when the general superintendent finishes trying to get trades to motivate, the crap hits the fan. Nobody wants this to happen, but all too often, project teams are pressing up against this “end date,” which cannot be late. Some projects, not all, have a master schedule generated by historical data and sent out with a request for proposal, then never updated. Many projects that we are on, never update this schedule, and many projects never bring it up again unless referring to the “end date.”
Welcome, Last Planner System® (LPS®)
Some project teams do this well, it is usually when teams have an LPS coach or an experienced LPS superintendent. Unfortunately, the lion’s share of the projects we are on as a trade partner; this is not the case. We are all over the board from project to project, whether this crucial milestone vetting is taking place or not. Often, milestones are left solely up to the general contractor to establish by themselves, rendering them irrelevant. I have heard trade foremen say to one another, “Let them put their schedule together in the office, and we’ll go build the building.” There is no trust in the whole traditional scheduling process, and only a bit more trust in this new generation of project teams learning LPS. Unfortunately, there are far too many projects using LPS that are not getting at this part of the scheduling process. When teams don’t collaboratively work through their milestones, they are robbed of their ability to deliver the results they are truly capable of achieving with properly vetted milestones.
It may sound like I’m confusing LPS projects with traditionally managed projects. I am not. I have been on well-managed traditional projects where milestones are properly vetted or at least artfully used to drive and manage results. To properly manage through milestones takes a thoughtful, collaborative planning and a disciplined leader on any type of project. Teams that work together to develop and understand their milestones, will create the order and flow needed to get the project completed efficiently. Milestones help focus the team on what’s important. Milestones are deliverable and should be a roadmap to the project’s success.
Who Owns the Milestones?
The Last Planner System, can help us overcome the deficiency of milestone vetting, if coached properly. Once they are agreed upon, it takes a project leader to hold everyone accountable weekly. On well-driven projects this is the general contractor’s superintendent, or an experienced scheduler working with the superintendent. Unfortunately, all too often, the project team is still relying on the general contractor to have this figured out, and trade partners revert to their old habits of working where they can and almost seem to prefer to jump and hop to whatever direction the general superintendent sets. They believe they don’t have time to work through or on milestones that “nobody is going to follow anyway.” On some projects, the only one attempting to advance to one milestone is the general superintendent because the “end date” must be kept, and in some cases, at considerable additional cost to everyone.
A trade partner will often say, “It is their job to do this anyway. We’ll go to work where we are directed.” This insufficient concern to invest time and energy into milestones or weekly work plans is a serious cultural problem, which each project team must overcome to achieve improved results that work for all stakeholders. Milestones are everyone’s responsibility and should be everyone’s concern, the reason they should be worked on together and agreed upon as a team. They should be vetted and managed as a team. They should be visually displayed and talked about and updated weekly along with the details of the schedule. The best teams we have been on do this well.
Trades Doing Something Better
As a trade partner, it has been a worthwhile effort to get our foremen to plan and think about their milestones for the work they must compete throughout the life of the project. We have come to realize the importance of knowing our milestones for our work, and how to align them with the general contractors. When we are fortunate enough to be on a team striving to be a “lean team” or an “advance lean team,” using the Last Planner System, we are better prepared to have a milestone planning session, (if they have them) if we have worked out our own first. If they don’t have a milestone schedule, we do, and we are better prepared to execute our work. We are on projects all the time when many are falling off the “overrun costing” cliff, due to project chaos that usually happens on ill-planned projects that lack collaboratively vetted milestones. We can keep ourselves from going over the edge with them by understanding our milestones, and we can help manage them through the storm. The reason in some situations we can help the team because we have milestones with properly vetted “conditions of satisfaction.” This allows us to articulate a visual way a cohesive plan for the entire team, which gets everyone talking and trying to help each other. Without milestones, we all drift.
When project teams managed their milestones well, they had an early milestone planning session. This session it to figure out what each important milestone is and who owns it, and they figure out what “done, done” looks like for each milestone. It also means figuring out what the constraints are, and what we can do to prevent them. Once everyone agrees to them, they should post them somewhere highly visible to the team. The project team should have milestone discussions, weekly or biweekly, to ensure everyone is beating to the same drum, and to make adjustments where necessary. Trade partners have many sub-milestones or minor-milestones to help achieve critical project milestones, and they should show them and articulate them to the project team visually. Our experience has been when these kinds of milestone discussions and planning sessions are in place; it helps teams stay focused and drives successful outcomes. Teams that manage their milestones well have found the “lost art of milestones.”