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Getting Smart with Pull Planning in Design

In my previous post What IKEA and Pull Planning in Design Have in Common I shared three strategies to make your pull plan in design a success. Check it out before you keep reading this one.

Whatever is happening on a standard project and depending on the length of the design schedule, I will typically do three pull plans based on 8-12 week chunks of design time:

  1. Schematic Design (SD)
  2. Design Development
  3. Construction Documents

Generally speaking, it takes four to five hours to do the first pull plan, up to three hours for the second one, and about one and a half hours for the third one, as all stakeholders have learned by now how to apply the pull planning system.


Let’s look at an example: Imagine you are preparing to pull plan for the schematic design phase. At that point, the package will be ready to be priced by the contractor before design work proceeds.

In our conditions of satisfaction, we have defined the milestone, in this example, the package prepared for the contractor to price. We need to transmit it electronically but also deliver hard copies to the contractor and owner.

The standards of completion lay out what all the different design disciplines of architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, structural engineering, mechanical engineering, and electrical engineering, need to contribute to the package to fulfill the conditions of satisfaction. These standards of completion answer the question “what will I provide and what does it look like?” I like to go around the room and have each discipline describe what they are providing and have others comment as needed.

For the mechanical engineer to meet the SD milestone, for instance, it means that they would need to have all of their equipment selected. They would need to have their duct runs, vertically as well as their horizontal distribution. They would need to define zones and make a start to the energy model and their airflow calculations. They would also need to prepare the table of contents for the mechanical specifications.


Describe the process sticky-by-sticky

Now that all stakeholders have defined their work and others have commented, we begin writing stickies to describe the process of delivering per the standards of completion. Once stickies are written, each design discipline places their work on the wall in the sequence of work. Then, starting with the milestone, we work backwards, sticky-by-sticky, making sure that there is a commitment for every “I Need” sticky written.

As to the sticky notes themselves, there are plain stickies and custom stickies in all sizes. I prefer to use plain, 3”x3” stickies. I ask people to write four things: what they will deliver (I Give), what they need to be able to deliver (I Need), their name, and the duration in days. I also tell them that the color of the sticky is for the firm, but that stickies are for people as ultimately, people fulfil commitments.

swimlanes, leanipd, pull planning for design

Image: Thomas Park via Unsplash

How to avoid silo thinking when using swimlanes 

I prefer to keep disciplines / trades in swim lanes and on a 3”x3” grid. This is a point of debate in the pull planning community. As to the grid, some folks advocate for simply getting the sequence right. This means that a task that is one day long may be placed adjacent to a task that is 10 days long. In my mind, placing the stickies on a grid, separated by the correct number of days, allows the team to easily see the time between activities as one would on a Gantt chart.  Additionally, some would say that using swimlanes is redundant, and in fact potentially harmful as it may reinforce silo thinking. I don’t disagree, but have found greater benefit from the visual organization of the grid using swimlanes, as long as the facilitator is mindful of the potential risk of silo thinking.

Please remember that pull planning is a messy, frustrating activity. But just keep going! It gets better as time goes by and as the team learns. At the end of the pull planning session, everyone should know what to deliver in which sequence so that everybody can do their work and contribute to a successful outcome for the project.


How to further develop your pull plan  

In design, project teams tend to think that the planning work ends after that first pull plan, when in fact it is only the start. Once the design pull plan is signed off, the challenges lie in applying best practices on how to implement, status, re-plan, and learn from the plan.

There are also a number of measures that come with Last Planner, especially Planned Percent Complete (PPC), which records the percentage of tasks completed. Equally critical is the use of Variance Capture, wherein the reasons for plan failure are understood through root cause analysis and grouped into types by reason. Using Pareto analysis, the most frequently occurring reasons for plan failure will emerge, at which point the team can develop and adopt countermeasures to mitigate the issue. There are a number of other measures for more advanced teams. All participants should understand these measures, and the team should monitor their progress from week to week.


Why a facilitator is vital for first-time planners

If you don’t have an external facilitator, the team will typically rotate facilitation and capture of commitments, allowing all stakeholders a turn. No matter how big or small your project is, whether you have five or fifty people in the room, if you are facing your first pull plan in design, I highly recommend bringing in a facilitator. A neutral person leading the session will allow the project leaders to participate in the planning effort in a focused and meaningful way. They can concentrate on the planning tasks rather than leading the meeting and keeping everyone engaged.


It’s all about team empowerment

After the pull planning session, I strive to document the work and send out the results to all involved parties within three days. On a practical level, it means populating a template with the four pieces of information from the sticky notes: the name of the task, the duration (how long it will take), what that person will deliver and what they need to deliver their job.

In addition, I group all activities of the different design disciplines as mentioned above. As a result, everyone has an idea of what they need to contribute at each phase of the project (standards of completion).

This process empowers the team to begin using the plan, statusing and re-planning immediately. I use a cloud-based system to make the data from the pull session as accessible as possible.

Data linking and direct data transfer allow me to populate several apps, including Tableau dashboards, Asana project teams, Microsoft Project schedules, and Primavera P6 schedules. These apps all draw information from a single source of truth, which means that all project updates are reconciled with the central data.


The beauty of pull planning is scalability

The pull planning methodology is scalable, which means that you can use it for projects of any size from a half a billion dollar hospital to a small residential renovation – the principles, the ideas, and the methodology are the same.

The more you apply the methodology, the quicker the learning builds and you work towards mastery as you move through the phases.

And remember: it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in a subject, as author Malcolm Gladwell put it in his book Outliers: The Story of Success.


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Romano Nickerson is a healthcare architect and principal with Boulder Associates Architects.  He is a passionate advocate for Lean design and project management.  Nickerson has presented at Lean Construction Institute's annual Congress, the Lean Design Forum, the Associated General Contractors of America Lean Forum, the Planetree National Convention and at local Community of Practice (CoP) meetings of LCI across the country.  Nickerson serves as the LCI representative to the AGC Lean Sub-forum and co-authored a paper entitled "Production Control Principles" for the International Group for Lean Construction.

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