Let’s talk about spreadsheets and sticky notes for a moment. Isn’t it crazy that it’s 2023, and weekly planning of the world’s biggest construction projects is still done with sticky notes, notebooks and spreadsheets?
And yet, step into the trailer on any modern construction site and that’s what you’ll see: the site team huddled around a bunch of papers and sticky notes, trying to plan out the upcoming work week. Someone frantically moving papers about on a whiteboard representing the various tasks and their sequencing.
Or spreadsheets — they’re used even more. In a typical planning session you might see a PM poring over a screen, typing in details of upcoming tasks, timelines and dependencies, colour-coding cells to denote task priority level and constantly zooming in and out to understand where things are at.
As the meeting progresses, team members debate which tasks need to be done first, how to allocate resources and how to ensure that everything gets done on time. Meanwhile they’re moving notes around, adding new ones or inserting spreadsheet information.
It is not that this process is necessarily complex. But even from my description you might be able to tell that using these planning tools in conjunction with the necessary back-and-forth between the various team members is both time consuming and cumbersome.
We (the product team at Disperse) felt there had to be a better way. How could it be that the core construction process of the most valuable building projects on earth are still run by means of such comparatively clunky tools?
The question is not actually that hard to answer. Because despite some of their drawbacks, those generic methods still work better than many other proposed solutions.
The other part of the reason is that spreadsheets and sticky notes are embedded in the industry so deeply, that you cannot just replace them with something else. Everybody is used to working with Excel. And it is the de facto standard. If you plan in Excel and you want to share your plan, it better be Excel compatible.
So when we started looking at how we could solve the issue of inefficient planning, we were acutely aware of this huge danger. If we would try to build an “Excel-killer” we would almost certainly fail.
Digital building tools have disappointed time and time again in terms of functionality and ease of use.
In construction, specifically, many proposed solutions have just been too complex, or have required too much effort on the part of the people using it. Because let’s be honest, when a construction leader is faced with a choice between tending to an issue on-site that requires their immediate attention, and gathering some input data to feed their construction management app, it’s obvious what they will choose.
Technology vendors have consistently failed to grapple with this reality. They have delivered comparatively underwhelming outputs while requiring too much input from the project team. The complexity of their proposed solutions in combination with a distorted value balance has made their software end up as shelf- or zombieware, respectively. Their platforms are either no longer used at all, or are still deployed on-site but are kept only minimally up to date, mostly because of contractual obligations.
In either case, the technologies end up not being used: they simply make adoption too painful.
So we decided on a different approach.
We carefully looked at how both sticky notes and spreadsheets have their advantages and disadvantages for the short term planning process. And we created a solution that combined the strengths (the intuitiveness of sticky notes and the scalability of spreadsheets) of both methods into one. The result is called Lookahead, a new weekly planning app for construction. It makes planning several times faster by removing existing inefficiencies and includes some novel features that help accelerate most current workflows.
In order to make sure that people would use our new solution, the holy assignment we set ourselves that the tool should be 10x easier to use than the methods that people are used to. And I believe we have achieved that aim quite gloriously.
Lookahead is as intuitive as a whiteboard with sticky notes (but way more scalable.) And it works in much the same way: just drag and drop task cards onto spaces. As simple as that. At the same time it is a flexible solution that enables users to resequence work on the fly and requires almost no manual input. Just drag, drop, and that’s it.
But we did not stop there. It would not have been enough to just create something that is as easy as sticky notes but on a computer screen. We needed to address the other great drawback of existing solutions as well: they’re generic; they’re not made specifically for construction.
And that is where Disperse’s unique approach to construction technology comes in.
You must know that Disperse is not a technology vendor in the traditional sense. We don’t sell software applications, deliver a bit of training, and then leave the customer to fend for themselves.
No, we actually partner with the construction team. We tailor our solutions on a project-specific basis to the requirements of the team. Then we continue to provide hands-on support throughout the lifetime of the project, taking care of as many requirements as possible, for our applications to deliver the most reliable outputs to the construction team.
In the case of Impulse we actually capture all of the input data required, and in the case of Lookahead we do still need input from the people using it, but we try to take as much of the burden of input away as we can, while still ensuring maximum control and freedom for the creative planning and decision-making process to take place.
What we can currently do with Lookahead is powerful and saves a ton of time for our users. When we first configure our application we have a meeting with the project team and agree with them on the initial task sequences. Or, if they already have existing sequences in place and want to keep them, we can take those sequences and work with those, too.
The next step – and this is where a chunk of that time saving comes in – is that we propagate unique task sequences with their variations across the relevant spaces in the building.
In the near future we will be able to dynamically suggest ‘ideal’ task sequences. But already now we are able to provide the site team with a significant head start.
Practically speaking, unique task sequences will already be loaded into the planning system. And the user no longer has to manually type, write or copy-paste like they would need to in a spreadsheet or sticky note-system.
Lookahead will do this for each of your project spaces. Have 500 apartment units that need a light fixture task? No problem. Have 70 different types of hospital rooms that each need a nurse call panel? Done.
It is also possible to deliver Lookahead integrated with Impulse, our construction tracking solution. One of the things that Impulse captures is progress states. And when we feed those states into Lookahead, the prepolulated task sequences are also updated so the upcoming ones are automatically on deck.
In other words, Project Managers now no longer need to get progress state information from their subs or trade managers and can dive right into planning, and the things that need to be done next simply appear in the app at the right time.
Obviously, this saves a ton of time. In a tiny initial test, we asked a user to plan some tasks in Lookahead and then try to do the same in Excel. What took him 20 minutes in Excel took him just five minutes with our application.
That's the scheduling aspect of it. But what makes construction planning unique is the sheer amount of stuff that happens that was unintended, and that disrupts the ongoing flow. With Lookahead, we have created a simple way to capture those blockers and we present them front and centre.
This helps PMs be more clear and deliberate about everything that's stuck. It takes a lot of the work they usually wrestle with in their head, out of their head and in front of their nose. This way, they have a better overview and solve things more effectively instead of being swayed by the loudest voice in the trailer.
Another advantage of capturing disruptions this way is that over time we can do root cause analysis to prevent similar blockers from occurring in the future.
With Lookahead, we have carefully determined all of the aspects that cause friction and take time in the weekly planning process, and we found that there is much we could do to remove them.
But it's a fine line. Because building a system that forces a structure on the user is all too easy. And in construction, it means you will probably lose the user because it frustrates them. So we are always mindful of suggesting too much, and about keeping decision making power very solidly in the hands of the user.
In Lookahead we’ve made it possible for the user to reorder the tasks that are in the sequence, add ad-hoc tasks to it, or overwrite automatically updated progress states as they see fit.
And users need that flexibility, too: it should always be possible to resequence the work on the fly, or override things easily if the situation demands it.
User needs always come first. And it’s hard to overstate the importance of working with customers and listening to the people that the solution is meant to support.
In developing Lookahead we have spent much time on our customer's construction sites, joining their planning meetings, observing their workflows, and understanding their pain points.
The client should be able to speak their mind. And we, as providers, must not try to force our solution on them or try to sell them on a big vision that may or may not materialise. We are realistic about what we can do. And we make sure that whenever we ask the client for their time, we have something valuable for them in return.
This ensures we can bring them our rough sketches and lo-fi prototypes and get genuine feedback about what's working and what isn't.
The most valuable thing in this process is to keep an open mind. We have continuously operated on the assumption that we might be utterly wrong, and that’s guided our whole product discovery process.
That’s really the Disperse way. While we have a clear vision of the future we want to bring about, we are under no illusion it will happen magically and at once. Instead, we take a real problem, solve it and then move on to the next one, step by step, adapting to new learnings as we go.
This grounded, collaborative approach to product development has been absolutely critical to our current success with Looakahead. And if you’re a construction professional that wants to improve their core short term planning workflow as well, I can’t wait for you to take the solution through its paces and tell us what you think.
Thanks for reading.
Nikolina Majic, Sr. Product Manager at Disperse
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