Collaboration — everyone talks about it, but few have actually mastered it. That’s because the concept of true collaboration is so difficult to implement. Often mistaken for teamwork, collaboration is more than simply being part of a team. It takes initiative and someone to grab hold of the idea to take ownership. As we found out at Interstates, a nationwide electrical engineering, design, and construction firm headquartered in Sioux Center, Iowa, sometimes realizing the full potential of collaboration means tearing down the very walls you had originally intended to provide a comfortable structure.

Like many companies, Interstates was dealing with internal issues regarding collaboration that called for some serious self evaluation. However, together, we confronted our obstacles, identified a solution, and emerged stronger and more cohesive than ever before. This is our story — we share it so that others may learn to become better collaborators.

A look in the mirror

Interstates is fortunate to have multiple electrical disciplines under one roof, possessing the benefit of a full electrical engineering team, a national traveling electrical construction team, multiple regional office teams, in-house planning and prefabrication teams, in-house instrumentation experts, and an award-winning automation and controls team. With all of these resources at hand, offering integrated project delivery to our clients would seem to be natural. In fact, the company has offered a variety of integrated services since 1963.

Although Interstates has enjoyed much success with its wide portfolio of electrical capabilities, we had a nagging feeling of underperformance. Each time we added to our team or service capabilities, it seemed more difficult to integrate the talent. The “organic” benefit that should simply have been there was eluding teams as they executed projects. Stress levels were higher on integrated projects, and team members felt unsatisfied. Internally, we believed that by offering integrated services there was more value to create for clients; we just didn’t clearly see how to unlock the potential. Clients were still very interested in our integrated value proposition and were satisfied with our performance, but we continued to churn on why our value could not far exceed what was in the marketplace with these great internal assets at our disposal.

Much like the family who appears to have it all together, from the outside looking in, you wouldn’t guess our internal teams were not functioning at the top of their game. We were getting things done, delivering value, and making it happen for clients. However, management and key staff could see and feel that something was lacking. Continuing this way would have eventually had a negative impact on the company.

Shaking things up

In order to gain a fresh perspective, Interstates chose to bring in an outside consultant, whose findings showed that the staff was feeling the pain of our self-inflicted situation. Data collected from employee interviews showed the most stressful part of people’s jobs were the things that were actually of highest value to the company and our clients. These findings pushed us to look for real change. To build the promise of integration in our own house, we would need to tear down walls that we’d become very comfortable with and had built our reputation upon. Status quo was no longer sustainable.

Once we made the commitment to change, Interstates assigned one person to the task of driving creation and developing a new process. For three months, that person’s attention was focused on how Interstates Engineering and Interstates Construction would collaborate on design-build projects. In addition, a cross-discipline team, consisting of engineers, pre-construction planners, prefabrication staff, and construction field leaders, studied the specific deliverables for projects and what was needed to create them. The team evaluated all aspects of our engineering design packages, identifying what seemed to be missing at specific stages as well as items that had potential to benefit from earlier planning for others to leverage later in the design or construction process.

What the team quickly discovered was that a group of well-trained, experienced professionals intensely focused on delivering client value from a single perspective could generate more friction than their skills could overcome. With a fundamental change to “how” teams shared their expertise, they could significantly improve project results, as well as how they felt about the effort and their contribution to it. To do so would require each of them to “give up…to go up,” as stated in John C. Maxwell’s book, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You.

As a team, they identified Interstates’ barriers to increasing value, which included:

  • Traditional engineering deliverables do not support the schedule and decision making of an integrated project. The deliverables must be unbundled to provide detailed information needed for specific subsequent tasks.
  • Construction teams must provide input early and deeply for the integrated process to really deliver. Traditional “drawing reviews” are neither timely nor deep enough to really impact a project.
  • Collaboration requires work and systems. Just “bringing your best” or “advocating” based on your role will leave you with only traditional value for the client. To succeed, you need to adopt a truly collaborative approach that involves more than simple cooperation.

Gated design approach

As a result of this exercise, Interstates implemented a collaborative, gated design process. When explaining what that process is, it helps to also explain what it is not. This is not a process that just happens with little thought or planning. It is not a fleeting idea. Instead, it’s a commitment to a process of checks, balances, and early agreement (click here to see Flow chart.).

Most companies are accustomed to following a process; however, a key component of this new strategy is the gate. For the purpose of explaining the gated design process, we will use the example of an electric room design.

For Interstates, the gated design process (click here to see Table) begins with an estimating or bid criteria definition meeting — where discussion between team members associated with the project and the deliverable happens. Team members work through a pre-defined criteria checklist to thoroughly document what they believe to be the best approach and plan for the project. This initial event involves representatives from all of the key project areas right from the start, including the Interstates Construction project manager and construction superintendent, pre-planning, and prefabrication. The point is to have all of the right parties actively engaged from the beginning.

Once a project is awarded, the team is further defined, and the project is launched. All persons involved in an integrated planning collaboration event — which may take the form of an in-person meeting, online webinar meeting, or conference call — must arrive at the event with more than the simple knowledge that we have been awarded a project. Entering this event, individuals are aware of initial project requirements and opportunities so that the best ideas can be generated in terms of installation practices, procedures, and materials for the project. For example, the engineering team brings available project information, such as general arrangement drawings and equipment lists. The construction team brings a project schedule, budget for equipment, an idea of long lead equipment, a list of work that needs to happen immediately, etc. Finally, prefabrication team members suggest areas that can use prefabrication to effectively remove man-hours from the job site.

Using our example of a team initiating the design of an electric room, at the initial collaboration event, the team works through a predefined design criteria. The equipment slated to be in the room, such as switchgear, transformers, motor control centers, panelboards, and power factor correction, is reviewed and selected with respect to available budget, vendor, delivery times, and size. Next, the electric room is considered. Then the engineering and construction teams, with input from estimating, select appropriate installation means and methods. These early collaborative discussions result in a clear plan that ensures the design choices address the contractor’s schedule, budget, and preferred installation methods.

This meeting cannot be considered closed until team members are in full agreement with each other. Consensus on the design criteria is a requirement of the gated design process. Although there is certainly unknown information at this stage, the gated design process includes procedures and documentation to capture the unknowns and assumptions in order to ensure they are not forgotten. Think of it like this: At this point in time — with the information we know today — this is the best decision we can make. With this process, both engineering and construction teams can agree that the design is based on the best information available at the time.

When a process and agreement of the process is intentionally documented, it’s more easily enforced. As Lee Iacocca once said, “In conversation, you can get away with all kinds of vagueness and nonsense, often without realizing it. But there’s something about putting your thoughts on paper that forces you to get down to specifics. That way, it’s harder to deceive yourself — or anybody else.” The actual design process begins only after the criteria have been defined and agreed upon by the team.

Continuing through the remaining collaboration gates using our example of designing an electric room, we come to the next gate — issue for procurement or prefabrication. During this collaboration event, team members review the preliminary electric room layout and confirm equipment location; review raceway selection and routing in the electric room; review equipment specifications, shop drawings, and pricing from the vendor; and decide how best to address budget and/or scope changes. This approach allows for quick adjustment to the design and ensures the contractor’s budget is considered as the major equipment order is finalized.

The final collaboration gate event is the finalized design package. At this point, the engineering and construction teams complete a final review of the electric room layout and the power distribution one-line drawings. These deliverables are reviewed with regard to any project scope changes (such as final building details) and upon approval, the contractor can proceed with procuring materials such as raceway, wire, etc. Upon agreement, engineering proceeds with the submitting of drawings to the client and to appropriate permit authorities.

The payoff

Implementing a gated collaborative design process requires many people to change their way of thinking. For most people, ingrained habits are difficult to change. To a certain degree, we all want to know what’s in it for me (WIFM). Following are a few benefits we have identified for the primary players.

Engineers/designers benefit by having great, early input from constructors to help avoid rework. This helps eliminate second guessing after drawings are produced and reviewed. There is greater constructability when constructor input is team-based, early, interactive, and focused on specific elements of the work. When the team is working collaboratively, there are fewer “false deadlines,” because the team is not attempting to manage the design process from the outside. Our engineers have found renewed satisfaction at applying their skills and knowledge early in the design process where it can truly make a difference rather than on “rechurning” deliverables. Finally, we find there to be less conflict in the design process.

As constructors, collaborative design allows you to remain within budget (as that is part of the early input). It’s not necessary to spend considerable time completing rework or rechecking after drawings are issued. Constructors have clarity on exactly what and when their input is needed, allowing them to both contribute and feel good about it. Design “pieces” are available to reliably support planning, procurement, and construction — and the design arrives without surprises. Field execution planning can get an earlier start on the project, proven to improve project delivery and performance. Finally, there is increased ability to reduce on-site man hours (and risk) by using prefabrication and identifying those opportunities earlier.

As a project owner or client, the most obvious benefit is usually the most important as well — faster project delivery through making decisions and resolving issues earlier. When this all comes together, the result is smoother project execution in the field. With team members being included in the design approach, they are more actively involved in making it work. Finally, project owners, engineers, and constructors can share the risk of a great, more innovative solution rather than “playing it safe.”

When speaking about the gated collaboration design process, Mike Van Es, senior project leader, Interstates Engineering, says, “This more formal process guides our team as we talk through critical items and keeps us on the right path. Before the gated design process, we would talk to each other but still end up doing our own thing and send multiple changes back and forth. Now we are on the same path earlier in the process and we stay on that path together with mutual agreement.”

With this collaborative design process in place, Interstates team members are seeing improvements in project delivery, more cohesive project teams, less rework, and better communication. We are genuine believers that spending additional time for planning in the early stages of a project saves vast amounts of time and resources later. While there is always room for improvement, we feel we are well on our way to success.

Crumrine, P.E., is president of Interstates Construction Services in Sioux Center, Iowa. He can be reached at dave.crumrine@interstates.com. Post, P.E., is president of Interstates Engineering in Sioux Center, Iowa. He can be reached at doug.post@interstates.com.

SIDEBAR: Suggested Reading

Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results,
Morten T. Hansen

The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You,
John C. Maxwell