"Plan the work and work the plan," contractors often say, but the strategy is often easier said than carried out. To improve productivity, some owners, engineers and contractors in the industrial sector are rethinking established planning concepts to remove constraints from the field, improve predictability and better enable crews to "work the plan." Through early alignment of engineering and construction planning, these firms carry better certainty from design through project execution, helping crews spend less time on non-productive tasks.

During the past three years, the Construction Industry Institute and the Construction Owners Association of Alberta have partnered to review case studies, collect best practices and standardize a model for implementing early planning techniques. Under the title "Advanced Work Packaging: Design Through Workface Execution," CII published its findings in late 2013 and showed how implementing its AWP model could yield remarkable results. Teams using AWP techniques have realized a 25% improvement in productivity, a 10% reduction in total installed cost and better safety performance on projects. Teams have claimed improvements in quality and better predictability of schedule and cost.

William O'Brien, an associate professor in the department of civil engineering at the University of Texas, Austin, who served as a principal investigator for the CII study, says that, in many ways, advanced work packaging is a "back to basics" approach. "Advanced work packaging adds extra discipline in the front-end planning phase to force you to very carefully think through your path of construction and your execution planning," he says. "It promotes an early alignment of engineering planning and construction planning. Many of these techniques shouldn't be unfamiliar to good practice, but we are offering a model to formalize that good practice and make sure it happens effectively."

O'Brien says projects often fail because engineering planning isn't optimized to support field execution. Ultimately, teams need to drive more detailed planning early in the process to reduce or eliminate incomplete portions—or clouds—in drawings. "In our lingo, an engineering work package is a deliverable to construction," he adds. "You want to manage the design process to support construction execution—that's where the money is spent and that's where you can win or lose a project."

Glen Warren, who has chaired research teams on work packaging with both CII and COAA, says the recent push to rethink planning processes was driven by a critical need to improve the performance on projects in the Alberta oil-sands region. Warren notes that moving manpower and materials is a major undertaking on multibillion-dollar projects, especially in remote locations with long, harsh winters. Any delays can be extremely costly. More than a decade ago, COAA and its industry partners looked to improve productivity by breaking down tasks at the jobsite level into work packages that could be given to a foreman on a shift—a model now known as "workface planning."

"After a few years, we found that [firms] could get a 25% boast in productivity from workface planning but not consistently," Warren adds. "Where it was breaking down was at the front end. They couldn't get the engineering deliverables, materials and equipment to construction [teams] as they were supposed to. We'd have engineering firms claim the design is 95% complete and that [designs] will be released in a month. Then months go by, and it's still at 95% because they are waiting on vendor data. If you mobilize crews from around the world based on that initial estimate, you're in trouble. That's a very costly mistake."

Standard Practice

Already, AWP has become standard practice at firms such as JV Driver, an industrial contractor based in Leduc, Alberta. Scott Wilson, a project manager in JV Driver's operations group, says its process is ultimately about supporting installation work packages in the field. "Quality, safety, project controls, scheduling, cost coding, materials—all of those departments support the construction team," he says. "If you have all of that information in the field, you can execute safely, on time, and give your crews more tool time."

Wilson maintains that the process can be compromised from the start without early alignment of engineering and construction. "People need to remember that an engineering work package is a piece of a construction package," he says. "I might have five different engineering work packages supporting one construction work package. That means I need all of those packages completed by the same end date so that I can get my CWP out by a set date."

This strategy allows the team to better monitor progress and control the process, Wilson says. By having the engineering team report on progress by individual EWPs, it gets the engineering disciplines "out of their silos and working together."