Following up on Roland’s January 4 post, for an interesting discussion of the use of checklists in the construction industry readers should pick up The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, by Atul Gawande (the author of the article referred to in Roland’s post). In a chapter entitled The End of the Master Builder, Gawande points to the construction industry as a validating example of checklist success.
Gawande, a doctor, was prompted to investigate the construction industry further when observing the construction of a skyscraper and reflecting on how the workers could be sure they were properly constructing such a complex building. Gawande asks the following questions, “First, how could [the workers] be sure that they had the right knowledge in hand? Second, how could they be sure that they were applying this knowledge correctly?” As Gawande describes it, the problem of construction complexity is daunting.
In designing a building, experts must take into account a disconcertingly vast range of factors: The makeup of local soil, the desired height of the individual structure, the strength of the materials available, and the geometry, to name just a few. Then, to turn the paper plans into reality, they presumably face equally byzantine difficulties making sure that all the different tradesmen and machinery do their job the right way, in the right sequence, while also maintaining the flexibility to adjust for unexpected difficulties and changes.
Yet builders clearly succeed.
With these questions in mind, Gawande set out to learn how architects, engineers, and contractors construct complex buildings. He talks with engineers, project managers, and other personnel involved in the construction of a medical center near his office in Boston. In the course of his research, he learns that historically building were built by a “Master Builder,” a single individual who was responsible to design, engineer, and then oversee all the details of construction. The “Master Builder” concept largely relied on the judgment and expertise of that one person. But according to Gawande, by the middle of the 20th century “[t]he variety and sophistication of advancements in every stage of the construction process had overwhelmed the abilities of any individual to master them.”
In Gawande’s telling, what emerged to replace the “Master Builder” model was increased specialization combined with the use of modern construction and submittal schedules, essentially checklists that ensure that the dispersed knowledge of all the different construction specialists gets considered and incorporated into the project. Gawande states, “What results is remarkable: a succession of day-by-day checks that guide how the building is constructed and ensure that the knowledge of hundreds, perhaps thousands, is put to use in the right place at the right time in the right way.” Gawande focuses in particular on how the construction and submittal schedules are flexible enough to deal with even the most complex construction problems. Many problems are not amenable to a simple checklist solution. Construction projects often involve complex engineering questions that require individual judgment under uncertain conditions. In these uncertain situations, Gawande points out that the schedules didn’t dictate specific construction tasks, instead they specified “communication tasks.”
According to Gawande:
For the way the project managers dealt with the unexpected and the uncertain was by making sure the experts spoke to one another – on X date regarding Y process. The experts could make their individual judgments, but they had to do so as part of a team that took one another’s concerns into account, discussed unplanned developments, and agreed on the way forward….
In the face of the unknown – the always nagging uncertainty about whether, under complex circumstances, things will really be okay – the builders trusted in the power of communication.
While conceding that the process is not always perfect, Gawande praises the construction industry, pointing out that its “record of success has been astonishing,” building millions of complex commercial and residential buildings with very low rates of failure. Gawande attributes this success to the power of the construction planning process to integrate the specialized knowledge of architects, engineers, manufacturers, and skilled trades into the project and to ensure that all of these specialists communicate on complex problems.
As construction lawyers who often dwell on the things that go wrong on construction projects, it is useful to step back and consider how often things go right, and why. Gawande’s book is aimed primarily at promoting the use of checklists to reduce medical errors. He encourages the medical field to adopt some of the processes used by the construction industry to build complex buildings. The construction industry, in turn, can benefit from his book by asking how to further improve these checklists to avoid persistent defects and quality issues.