Many recent trends in construction aim to improve teamwork: collaborative delivery methods, lean construction practices and virtual design and construction. But those tools and processes, in and of themselves, do not ensure excellence, says Jim Eisenhart, president of Ventura Consulting Group Inc., a Ventura, Calif-based firm that helps contractors improve their efficiency on tough projects.

“You can’t contract for human performance,” he says. “Those tools make it easier to engage in real time, but [teamwork] is by no means ensured.”

Eisenhart, a partnering facilitator who has worked on more than 1,000 projects worldwide, says he has seen the role of partnering evolve from a way to head off litigation to a means of fostering the collaborative relationships expected on projects today.

“What were once alternative delivery methods are more mainstream now, and many owners don’t have to accept the low bidder anymore,” he says. “How you play together matters. Smart contractors realize that relationships count.”

Brian Cahill, president of the California division of Balfour Beatty Construction, says he advocates for partnering on projects whenever possible. “At kick-off meetings, the typical questions are: What are the challenges on this job and how would you address them? One of my first responses is to suggest we begin with partnering.”

After more than 20 years of involvement in partnering sessions, Cahill says the basic elements remain the same: get the stakeholders together, define success, define roles, establish lines of communication and set up a process to manage daily challenges. Still, he sees that partnering techniques have gotten more sophisticated in recent years as teams find ways to implement the practice on a wider variety of projects. “Just about any project with an element of complexity to it can benefit from some form of partnering,” he adds.

On Balfour Beatty’s Las Colinas Detention and Re-entry Facility project for the county of San Diego, Cahill credits partnering with preventing delays that could have added millions of dollars to the budget. The four-year, $221.5-million facility finished on time and on budget with zero punch-list requests at turnover. “You can imagine all of the elements that come into play in a detention facility, especially with all of the state and county entities involved,” he says. “There’s no way that can be accomplished without partnering.”

One of the tougher aspects of the project was working with the state fire marshal while staying on schedule. “The design team and the various agencies [involved in the project] had to work closely to meet the requirements, systems, protocols and inspection processes within the time line” he says. “That’s a major coordination effort.”

By avoiding delays, Cahill says the investment in partnering paid off quickly. “On a job that size, you’re talking about general conditions of about a half-million dollars a month,” he says. “You look at the cost [of partnering sessions] and it’s a $20,000 investment with another $10,000 every three to four months. Look what happens if [the project] goes one month late—you’ll spend a half million on general conditions.”

But the payoff of partnering can be realized on much smaller projects as well, Cahill adds. “You can run into a whole lot of problems on a $5-million job,” he says. “On that job, you’re probably looking at general conditions of $60,000 per month. If you save a month, you paid for partnering three times over.”

Although partnering isn’t used on all projects, Cahill says Balfour Beatty employs “mini-partnering” on most projects through its SmartStart program. The program brings in key team members at the beginning of a project to help understand the client’s notion of value and to determine how best to align and integrate the team to avoid potential issues.

One of the techniques it has developed through SmartStart is the use of personality tests. “It’s engaging and eye-opening,” he says. “Not everyone is the same, but we understand where everyone is coming from.”

Derivative Partnering

While large full-team partnering sessions are typical in the industry, adding more targeted sessions has also proven successful on some recent projects. On the recently opened $1.5-billion Exposition Light Rail Transit Phase 2 project, the Skanska-Rados team used a technique called “derivative partnering” to maximize results. The 6.6-mile rail project in California extends from Culver City to Santa Monica, crossing multiple jurisdictions and intersecting with the infrastructure of several utilities.

In addition to its typical full-team sessions, the team decided to conduct several smaller sessions with a facilitator that focused on specific challenges, says Mike Aparicio, executive vice president of the Western region at Skanska USA Civil, part of a Skanska-Rados joint venture on the project.

“These were usually about two-hour sessions,” he says. “They were very focused, very rapid and very participative. Literally, the work plans were fashioned at those sessions.”

In one example, power-supplier Southern California Edison required that an entirely new system be built in one section of the track alignment. The team conducted five independent partnering sessions to tackle issues with the power company.

“It was not anticipated during the life of the job that we’d have to go in and do a multimillion-dollar, complete reconstruction—new vaults, new facilities, new conduit—but through the derivative sessions we had very nitty-gritty, detailed partnering,” he says. “It got a sense of buy-in and participation from that key stakeholder.”

Aparicio estimates that without successful partnering, the Southern California Edison scope could have added nearly a year to the project schedule.

In another example, the team used derivative partnering to help streamline track and systems work, says Eric Olson, chief project officer with the Exposition Construction Authority. “We had big issues as far as getting the track work installed so the systems folks could come in and do what they do,” he says.

“We brought in all of the groups associated with it. We were able to break the job into three segments and come up with a sequence that allowed the work to be done in segments, versus all as one project. That saved us six to 12 months,” Olson says.

Olson says that although the team averaged three to four partnering sessions per quarter, the value was clear. “It seems time consuming and costly at the time, but I swear by it. We couldn’t have done it any other way.”

Mike Williamson, president of Pacific Coast Iron, saw the potential benefits of partnering during his 29-year career with the Navy, including stints as vice commander of Naval Facilities Command Pacific, and as commanding officer of Naval Facilities Engineering Command Hawaii. Among his successes was the Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton Naval Hospital, which was delivered six months early and $100 million under budget.

While he says the proven techniques of partnering are well established, there are opportunities for it to evolve. For example, Williamson sees the potential to fuse partnering and lean construction. “I’d love to see partnering become less touchy-feely and more data driven,” he says. “There are tools out there to do that. If you can see without a doubt what progress is being made, that would help dictate how often you have to do [partnering] follow-up sessions. It would foreshadow what you need to work on in a follow-up session.

“The integration of partnering, which brings people together to brainstorm ideas, with the lean piece of executing in the field and measuring how you’re doing—I think that would bring partnering to a new level,” Williamson says.