Digitisation in Construction: 7 Agile Principles

Hana Block


Have you considered the impact digitisation in construction could do in your team? Companies of every size are now beginning to roll out enterprise-wide digital processes and tools but, for many, this is uncharted territory. 

Digital tools allow companies to shine a light on all the dark places where inefficiencies, waste and costs occur. While many industries such as health, manufacturing and finance have been using digital transformation tools for decades, construction, in many ways, has only just begun its journey. 

Devices are now finding their way onto construction sites and factory floors. They’re in the hands of workers in the form of smartphones and tablets, and increasingly the industry is looking to the future in the form of drones, IOT trackers and VR/MR headsets. 

With labour costs steadily increasing, supply chains stretching and margins getting tighter, digitation in construction has become an essential tool to remain competitive. 

As organisations move into a field they’re unfamiliar with, they risk making costly mistakes. The wrong solution can create an upheaval that can have serious effects on the bottom line or put projects at risk. Worse still, the right solution could die when subjected to poor implementation practices. 

I’ve spent 20 years helping many industries drive the move from the manual to the digital world and I’m enjoying being part of the same in construction.  I have been consistently exposed to the agile methodology throughout my time in the software industry and seen its principles adapted and proven in many other industries. I’ve outlined seven principles below that draw from this experience and believe they will help drive digitisation in construction and help them better implement technology and move toward a leaner, more efficient future. 

1. Eliminate waste

Digitisation in construction allows you to see where waste occurs. This benefits your bottom line. 

When considering the tools and the processes you want to change, prioritise the following areas where waste commonly occurs in construction: 

  1. Overproduction of materials that are not required
  2. Inventories of materials awaiting processing or consumption
  3. Defects in materials
  4. Unnecessary movement of people, equipment or transport of materials
  5. Workers waiting on work

2. Be practical

Processes are created through doing, and while listening to software vendors and taking lessons from other similar organisations is a great start, just remember that your journey will be different. There is no way to have perfect digital processes that meet your specific needs from day one. Constant iteration is better than trying to define and deliver all the possible requirements upfront.  

Being practical may also mean that parts of your early digital processes will remain manual. Perhaps a process is still best completed in Excel and printed? Maybe there’s still a requirement to physically sign off? Focus on delivering what makes sense right now and don’t feel that you need to replace every piece of paper or other manual processes. 

Equally, don’t feel compelled to use every function contained in a software package. Just because the vendor created an additional module doesn’t mean you have to implement it. Take what you need for now and consider the rest over time. 

3. Engage your people

Digital transformation projects should be built around motivated individuals who have direct knowledge of what needs to be achieved. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.

It may sound unlikely at first, but digital transformation is less about the technology, the number of features and functions of the software etc., and more about successful change management. Teams and individuals develop a feeling of ownership for a tool or old process and can be compelled to protect the status quo if a change is overly complex or if they don’t feel involved in the process. Regardless of what might seem to be obvious advantages of a new software tool, it needs to fit into an existing process and you need your people on board with the change.  

It’s vital to develop and engage people through every aspect of the process. This requires going to the front line, whether that’s employees’ desks at the office, on-site at the project, or on the factory floor. Give them a strong voice in the decision-making process. Help them feel they are leading the change themselves.

4. Slice the dice for quick wins

Companies are often overwhelmed by the sheer size and scope of implementing digital tools. It’s often difficult to understand where to start. By breaking down a project into easily accomplished pieces you can keep it manageable.

You should begin a digital transformation project by identifying specific pain points and defining the processes that you can improve. You should consider them as separate pieces of the puzzle and you need to understand how, if changed, they will integrate back into the overall system. By slicing and dicing, you can help deliver quick wins to stakeholders, and allow for small adjustments based on their feedback.  

Processes within organisations grow organically with many improvements over time.  Successful digital transformations occur in the same way. You should aim to get results in front of people as early and often as possible so they can voice their opinions and see where changes can be made.

Regularly delivering manageable aspects of a complex project engages users in the journey and limits an organisation’s exposure to risk. It’s all about evolution, not revolution.

5. Make simplicity your objective

The Agile methodology advocates ‘just enough’

A digital transformation project should focus on what you can implement now, eliminating the wastage, reducing the amount of work done and keeping things simple. While considering any internal process you will uncover additional improvements, mostly by virtue of having the time to focus on the process and the natural advantages of digital over historical systems. Do this where it makes sense but be careful not to overly complicate things and create too many initial requirements. 

Simplicity also applies to the software tools you choose. It’s tempting to choose a solution with the most features and functionality out of the box. The reality is that most of these will never be used and the functions your people want can be lost in the multiple menus, mouse clicks and maybe difficult to use on their smaller, mobile screens when remote.

Where possible, start with simple, flexible functionality over the complex.  

Once a digital process is running, it’s amazing how many of the “must-haves” you believed to be important, are now no longer required and new opportunities to leverage the solution present themselves through actually engaging with the new process. Keeping the initial requirements to a minimum can dramatically improve the cost and time to deliver.

6. Communicate 

A good process is just good communication and that’s what digital tools should help you with. The goal is to promote closer cooperation and collaboration between all team members and stakeholders.  

Be rock solid on the need for software vendors to fully cooperate in the sharing data. Some vendors will want to be difficult for their own commercial reasons. Usually, this is because they want to sell more of their functionality rather than risk you purchasing from another vendor. There is no excuse. If their product doesn’t easily integrate and promote the sharing of data, it’s not fit for purpose

This is particularly important in the early days of digital transformation. As mentioned above, the goal is to slice and dice for quick wins. This gets difficult if a tool does not want to play nicely with other software solutions or allow you to easily take data out for your other internal processes.

7. There is no such thing as “done”

Agile is about constant iteration, and as such, your digital transformation is a never-ending exercise. Requirements will change, new tools will be developed, new opportunities to integrate will present themselves, and older solutions will be updated and replaced. 

Increasingly this means proper governance becomes essential. 

Engineer accountability into the system and make sure it’s visible. Consider a model that is capable of scaling as more of your business moves to the digital environment.  

Be clear about responsibility. You may choose to split this across the organisation based on the function, however, ultimately the digital transformation of the company needs to be coordinated and led by a senior management position. 

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