For the want of a nail the shoe was lost, 

For the want of a shoe the horse was lost, 

For the want of a horse the rider was lost, 

For the want of a rider the battle was lost, 

For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost... And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.

Who knew Ben Franklin's quote would apply so well in distressed construction projects - and yet it does. 

Although problem projects will suffer a number of ailments there is almost always a ‘big-ticket’ lever to be pulled - an 80-20 improvement that will double front line productivity and unclog a bottleneck that no-one knew was there. Think about the typical response to an end-of-the-month report indicating that a trade is late or less productive than planned: ‘add resources and/or increase the workforce’. Often little thought is given on where the actual bottleneck is. 

Below is a real life example of how a successful high-rise office project in the Middle East almost suffered massive losses for the sake of a few colour-coding tapes and welding material: 

When an improvement consultant arrived on the project, poor productivity had already led to cost overruns and delays. The site was congested with a lot of incomplete work and rework incidents were common. The project team was approaching planning and execution like another day in the office through a Critical Path Method (CPM  program). 

With no time to perform a full project diagnostic, the improvement consultant focused on the critical path. They took a step back and observed that the bottleneck in the critical path was square on the welding. After a series of stop-watch studies and interviews it turned out that the welders were in fact performing effective welding work only 6% of the time, while idle times and waits accounted for more than 30%. Rework/repairs and reallocation of materials accounted for another 10%. 

Through a series of improvements in supervision, material colour coding and pre-positioning the welder's effective productivity was increased to 23% - almost doubling overall front-end productivity and reducing the final time to completion to ~65% of pre-intervention projections. This client was risking massive losses - all for the want of a few colour-coding tapes and some welding material.

The lesson?

No doubt there are a number of levers to pull in improving project productivity. However, be sure to always start by taking time to identify the major culprit - there is always one. Don't lose a kingdom for the want of a horseshoe nail.