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By bringing the ‘big room’ planning and scheduling environment online, visual collaboration software for distributed teams can save time and money on any construction project

By Barb Feldman

 

It seems very risky in today’s world that projects with budgets of millions of dollars are dependent on old-fashioned paper and whiteboard, says Stein Revelsby, CEO at Hoylu, a maker of visual collaboration software for distributed teams.

“Most construction companies, large and small, use digital tools, but still manage teams and projects with the use of analog whiteboards and paper sticky notes,” he said. “These companies typically have what you call a ‘big room’ environment,” with architectural plans, sketches and sticky notes all on paper, all around the walls.

However, video conferencing was introduced more than 30 years ago and there is no lack of advanced technology, he says. So why is it that, even today, “suddenly in the middle of [the] workflow, you still find a lot of whiteboards and sticky notes?”

Hoylu’s Connected Workspaces digital whiteboard platform doesn’t just replicate the analog ‘big room’ experience, says Revelsby, it improves on it by giving users the tool they’ll need to present and keep all information in the same space and in context, including project plans, digitized colour-coded sticky notes, schedules and any additional project information – with up to 50,000 whiteboards on one surface – and can be combined with Zoom for meetings or with any other video conferencing application.

“It’s easier as a communications tool because it’s visual,” said Revelsby. Users can drag and drop blueprints, renderings or documents into the workspace, link a specific activity to a sketch or image and then add a link to another website that exactly describes the product, or link to another tool – a third-party project-management tool, for example.

Mobile access to entire projects

“Typically, in a meeting, you take a picture of the whiteboard or somebody writes the minutes and then you save it into a folder,” Revelsby said. With Connected Workspaces “you have the whole history in the document ‘pot,’” allowing the whole crew to see the entire project in context, with all records documented day by day and week by week, easily accessible for use, analysis or audit, and available anytime on team members’ mobile devices.

“You can continue in the same workspace in subsequent meetings or copy part of the previous project and use that as a template for the next,” he said.

The Connected Workspaces dashboard lets users start with a blank workspace or choose any of a number of workspace templates for specific use cases, with the necessary tool-sets for that use and for that particular workflow – which allow for both text and drawn input – and gives users access to all the workspaces they’ve created and participated in.

Hoylu started field-testing its pull planning module (PPM), a scheduling tool for construction planning and project management, soon after introducing Connected Workspaces this past spring. Headquartered in Stockholm, Sweden, with offices in Kirkland, Wash., and Orlando, Fla., the company has worked with Scandinavian construction companies such as Skanska and AF Group, as well as Suffolk and Walbridge in the U.S., and incorporated some of the feedback from those large construction companies to customize the software modules to align better with those firms’ planning and workflow processes.

Industry feedback for a faster, more intuitive and easier to use platform

Delays and the consequences of missing deadlines were identified by construction companies as among their top challenges, says Revelsby. Pull planning, now commonly used for all sorts of construction projects, is one of the most effective ways to ensure projects flow smoothly and finish on schedule. Also known as “lean” or “last” planning, pull planning starts with the project deadline and then works backward by inputting all the various activities that need to happen in sequence to fulfil that deadline.

Up until now, “digital project management tools to fit the pull-planning process have been very limited for construction,” and most “require a lot of training and are too complicated for all of the team members to use,” he said. “So, typically, it’s one person who uses that tool, manages that application on behalf of the project, does all the updates at every meeting and types all the data into that system,” all manually.

Effective pull planning depends on timely and transparent communication – on an environment where team members and subcontractors have a clear idea of milestones and what steps are needed to be taken to achieve them, and one that enables them to work together to identify and avoid potential problems or to solve them as soon as they appear. Hoylu focused on designing a platform that is easier to use, faster and more intuitive than its competitors, says Revelsby, one that anyone can use on any digital device from anywhere. Hoylu’s PPM is a “smart” template with logic built in to fit with the process.

“Since a dependency activity, by definition, cannot start before the first activity has ended, you’ll get a highlight or warning if you try to pull a dependency before the main activity,” he said. When an incomplete task is entered, the people involved in those activities are notified instantly. If there’s a variance the reason must be recorded, “whether it’s bad weather or lack of materials or ‘we messed up’ – that’s the kind of logic we built into this app.”

The platform has been designed to be affordable for any size company, Revelsby says, with a range of prices including a free version and a subscription price of less than a U.S. dollar a day per user. “We also have an entry price of US$500 for smaller, shorter projects, for three months and three people,” and licenses are free for all subcontractors, he said.

Since efficient, timely and accurate communication between distributed teams or among different subcontractors saves time and money on any construction project by reducing redundancies and shortening the gap between them, keeping track of those dependencies can be critical, Revelsby says. The platform has been designed so that subcontractors are able to input their resources (such as how many days and how many people for each job), manage their own tasks and use their personal devices from any location to keep the contractor or superintendent and other subs up to date on their work in real time.

This helps to “avoid stupid things like a subcontractor driving to the site just to get the message, ‘No, we’re not ready – come back later,’” said Revelsby, or have the whole project stall because one subcontractor is not up to date.

Unlike purely cloud-based solutions, he says, the platform can also function offline.

“You can input information on the platform and once you’ve resumed online connectivity, the plan will update automatically.”

Everyone on the same page from one meeting to the next

It’s when teams work remotely that visual collaboration tools become indispensable, Revelsby says.

“Especially now with coronavirus, there may be restrictions on how many people can be on one floor or in a project room. Skanska, for example, used to have maybe 100 people in a project room. Now they can have 20,” he said. “So how do you communicate progress and priorities if you cannot be in the room?”

By enabling continuity in information and workflows, the platform keeps everybody on the same page from one in-person or online meeting to the next, improves alignment, engagement and broader participation, says Revesby.

“It also boosts productivity by wasting less time in meeting preparation – and in traffic.” 

 

 

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Piling Canada is the premier national voice for the Canadian deep foundation construction industry. Each issue is dedicated to providing readers with current and informative editorial, including project updates, company profiles, technological advancements, safety news, environmental information, HR advice, pertinent legal issues and more.