Building Information Modeling (BIM) brings to life the physical and functional aspects of a facility in a virtual representation that is three-dimensional, functional, and collaborative. BIM and virtual design for construction have transformed the architectural, engineering, and construction industries forever, adding efficiencies, streamlining processes, and reducing costs on projects around the globe.
Much like the abandoned phone booths, we happen upon the once-essential light tables and translucent blueprints and sigh with nostalgia, but also in disbelief at how far we’ve come. However, one thing we’ve come to accept from living in the rapidly changing digital age is that there is no such thing as ‘best’, only ‘better’: better practices, better technology, and better solutions. Truly, the closer we get to perfection, the more it slips through our fingers.
Getting Down to Details
With that said, we keep trying. In our research for this blog article, we polled detailers and managers around the United States: those working in large, fifty-person MEP design departments for multinational mechanical contractors; to regional contractors with 3-man teams and asked the loaded question, “What was the worst detailing job you’ve ever had, the best, and what could’ve made them both better?”
The feedback was overwhelming, sometimes counter-intuitive, but always incredibly insightful.
People love talking about awful jobs. Perhaps it’s welcomed as free therapy or, a finally-someone-cared-enough-to-ask moment, but there were horror stories of BIM detailers hunkered down in closet-like offices with white walls, clunky computers and impossible deadlines. Those were contrasted with dream-like recollections of daily, chef-prepared lunches and Friday afternoon department-wide trips to the shooting range.
We learned a ton; most significantly, that getting the most out of a BIM department, financially and productively, at times has little to do with BIM at all.
Whether you’re a seasoned BIM Manager who wants more productivity out of your design team, or a growing contractor who seeks to attract and retain the best-detailing talent, this article is for you.
So, let’s talk about 6 avoidable mistakes that can occur in BIM detailing departments – and how to easily fix them!
1. Creating “Pockets of Knowledge”
“The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.” - Babe Ruth
“Pockets of knowledge” are clusters of information and/or expertise known by only a few or even a single person. The problem is: rather than serving a project team, these “pockets” often manifest as voids or cavities in a team. Like sinkholes under a foundation, the integrity of an entire project can be placed in jeopardy when these pockets collapse.
We've all likely witnessed these pockets develop and may have even been victims to them. They are created by two distinguishable and even understandable ways:
Job Security (Employee Caused)
Many of us have worked in an organization where employees or teams had their own areas of expertise. That expertise, however, is sometimes heavily guarded from others, where there is greater loyalty to the team or individual goals than to the company. Enhanced by fear of diminishing their own job security, some employees or teams are willing to solve problems or address challenges, but not share the “whys” or “hows” of the solutions.
The Cheap Way Out (Employer Caused)
Employers may unwittingly create pockets of knowledge through hiring tactics that may appear less costly initially but can be significantly more expensive in the end. For example, they may make a series of hires that are less expensive where each team members brings a single puzzle-piece of knowledge to the table. Diversity, right? However, when the only person who knows how to handle a critical aspect of a project is sick, takes a vacation, or worse yet, leaves the company, that “pocket of knowledge” collapses. This can cause projects to come to a screeching halt.
Just one or two of these crises situations per year can erase any perceived cost benefits of relying on a single person to do an important task.
Resolving these pockets of knowledge begins by recognizing their existence and understanding that keeping knowledge in human silos is not conducive to a productive, team environment. These silos must be destroyed.
Pockets of knowledge can be filled through cultivating a culture of openness and knowledge-sharing through practices like lunch-and-learns, where knowledgeable employees share their expertise in a particular area with the collective, over employer-supplied lunches. Through supporting practices that foster cooperation and by promoting company-wide values, employees better accept that a stronger organization, built of a collection of strong teams working toward achieving organizational goals, produces greater productivity and profits - which provides better job security than anything they can achieve on their own.
In hiring, candidates should be considered based on their ability to share their value and solutions. Can they work in an atmosphere of shared knowledge? Are they eager to expand upon what they know to add more value?
Here are some additional steps to take in resolving the pockets of knowledge when they already exist:
- Merge teams for improved collaboration
- Encourage departments to beat previous team goals or outside competitors, not each other. A little competition is good, but too much internal competition can decrease trust.
- Rethink incentive and reward programs to be team-focused, rather than individual-focused by sharing company-wide goals and helping teams or individuals understand their roles in helping to achieve them.
- Create a physical environment that encourages knowledge-sharing through open office layouts and fewer partitions.
Recognizing and filling pockets of knowledge, especially in an established culture, is not easy; but the results can be significant: energy and morale improves, more projects are completed on time or ahead of schedule, and camaraderie and trust are increased.
2. Operating with No Detailing Execution Plan
“There’s only two things you can start without a plan: a riot and a family, for everything else you need a plan.” - Groucho Marx
BIM is a great planning tool for construction projects, and BIM execution planning is an important element of every BIM project, but what about detailing execution plans? Detailing execution plans vary by organization, but they outline the detailing tasks needed to complete a project from its start; and can involve the development of pull plans1, templates, file structures, etc., that will be used throughout a project or set of projects.
With tight deadlines and budgets, detailing execution planning might be perceived as a time-consuming luxury by management and placed on the back burner. And that isn’t entirely wrong; it does take time to lay out a solid plan, but according to the detailing departments who incorporate them into their workflows, the boost in productivity, clear expectations and deadlines, and advance awareness of delays and bottlenecks more than compensates for the time dedicated to their development. Even further, not creating a detailing execution plan can escalate the very issues you are trying to avoid, potentially costing both delays and increased costs.
Creating detailing execution templates should to be a part of your overall workflow and referenced in your pre-construction communications.
They not only allow the construction team to understand the overall goals and vision of the project, but also helps define and communicate:
- The scope of the project and expected outcomes
- The process flow for each of the BIM tasks
- Where collaboration is needed
- Task owners and deadlines
- Critical stages where bottlenecks and delays may occur
- Where work will be stored and ultimately delivered
There are also practical, time-saving factors inherent to these plans. For example, even though there are unique components of each construction project, but there are also redundant ones that can be automated, using detailing templates. Templates and boilerplates can save you a tremendous amount of time on recurring tasks.
For instance, when a detailer takes the time to set up his or her plot files at the beginning of a job, everything they are working on can be referenced to those files. If the project manager asks for a printout of the drawings, those plot file templates can be the difference between printing the drawings in 5 minutes versus 5 hours. In this case, the plumbing designs are already set up so that the plumbing prints are bolded and the backgrounds are dull, the important grid lines are showing, and irrelevant information is hidden.
Time savings are just the start of the benefits to pre-planning. Pre-planning also promotes the collaboration and knowledge-sharing we've already addressed by:
- Improving communications (sometimes, by reducing the questions asked)
- Avoiding work stoppages
- Providing a more seamless path to project completion
- Reducing response time to troubleshoot detailing/design delays
For more information on how to get started, Penn State University offers a free guide to BIM Project Execution Planning that can help you in your overall BIM planning process.
3. Insufficient Tools
Abe Lincoln is credited with the saying, “If I had five minutes to cut down a tree, I would spend the first three minutes sharpening my ax.”
In many detailing departments, just having an ax is a luxury, let alone a sharp one. That's a major problem.
BIM projects, by their very nature, are costlier early-on; the true value of BIM is appreciated during the construction phase, when prefabricated materials like pipes and ducts are shipped to a job site when needed. Research shows that design-build projects are delivered 33.5% faster2 than projects using the plan-spec-bid-build process. However, that percentage can increase or decrease, depending on efficiencies supported by proper tools.
Here's a practical example: A plumbing detailer or draftsman is working in AutoCAD MEP to draw a model and make adjustments to their pipes, and to check their progress within the composite model (which compiles the models of other building trades), they pop over to the Navisworks viewing software and hit 'Refresh.' At once, the composite model is updated; Navisworks looks at the saved work from AutoCAD and includes it in the composite model. Easy Peasy, right?
Here's the thing: that seemingly simple task takes extensive computing and video card power; a basic laptop, even an expensive one, would be bogged down.
Further, let's say it takes 45 seconds for a drawing to refresh on a basic computer, instead of the 15 seconds it would take on a better system. Multiply that by 50 times each day, for each project, and all the money you saved on a less expensive computer eventually vanishes into cyberspace. And it's not just computers that make or break deadlines: proper monitors, a comfortable mouse and keyboard, and even desk height affects productivity.
When you include the trickle-down effect of wasted time that affects supporting positions like project managers, robust computers, software, and ergonomic hardware can pay for themselves many times over, not to mention the productivity boost from a less frustrated and more comfortable detailer. And comfort matters. In fact, according to a study3 conducted by the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries that reviewed 250 ergonomics case studies, strong workplace ergonomics benefit companies by:
- Reducing worker’s compensation costs due to MSDs (musculoskeletal disorders)
- Improving productivity through increased efficiency
- Improving quality of work, with reductions to workplace stress and fatigue
- Improving employee engagement and reducing turnover
- Creating a better safety culture
For more information on popular, time-saving BIM software, check out this software guide for the aspiring BIM professional from our partners over at Cupertino Electric.
4. Cultivating a Rigid Culture
“We like to give people the freedom to work where they want, safe in the knowledge that they have the drive and expertise to perform excellently, whether they [are] at their desk or in their kitchen.” - Richard Branson
Rigidity can stifle creativity and can negatively impact productivity. While there are certainly some benefits to rigidity in the workplace, safety policies for example, companies that are too rigid often create a sense of bureaucracy and immobility.
Rigidity often comes from years of errors that a company may have no desire to duplicate. While some rigidity may be mandated by regulations or even common sense, recent surveys have found flexibility can improve productivity.
Forbes Magazine highlights some qualities of flexible workers; they cite a study conducted by Stanford University which found that employees with flexible work environments had:
- Higher achievement
- Taken less sick days
- Were more willing to work longer hours
- Realized higher job satisfaction
Here are some creative ways to cultivate a flexible culture in a BIM Department:
- Take a few minutes out of your day and throw a Frisbee outside your office.
- Have a Nerf gun battle in your office and see who wins.
- Give employees a three-day weekend, which can be a powerful motivator.
- Go biking, go-karting, or target shooting
- Allow employees to spend more quality family-time, which can be a great source of rejuvenation
- Develop telecommuting options and work-from-home opportunities
Keep in mind, in many cases, BIM detailers and designers have transitioned from outdoor work environments, where they've enjoyed the sunshine, physical movement, and bonding with workers, and are now being placed in windowless, white-walled offices. Allowing them to work from home on some Fridays can help restore that sense of freedom.
Everyone is different, also. It might be best to just ask the team what they value, if you’re unsure what motivates them and would enhance the working culture of your department. Often, the decisions you make garners more buy-in from the team if they’re involved.
“A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity.” - The Dalai Lama
Today's workforce, especially those in the Millennial generation, appreciate being a part of something bigger than themselves. They fully expect transparency in their consumer goods and services. And frankly, they deserve it at work as well. A lack of transparency can create mistrust, inhibit teamwork and lead to pockets of knowledge.
Some organizations protect every facet and every bit of information about every project, as if it were national security. They may not feel employees will understand financial reports or will share "trade secrets".
The fact is: with 88% percent of companies having a social media presence4, and with rating websites like Yelp! and Consultants 500 exposing the good and bad about companies, your employees may already know more about your operations than you think.
Getting employees involved in what is going on overall with your company is an incredible motivator. They feel like they’re appreciated and their ideas matter. Companies like Whole Foods and Patagonia are building their reputations on transparency. Others, like Facebook, are paying for the lack of it.
- Go and build your community.
- Conduct regular meetings. Include pending clients and some financial data
- Solicit employee input and suggestions
- Share client input on projects
- Create clarity and share visions
When you improve transparency, you will have a group of loyal employees who more deeply connected and what you are accomplishing because they have clarity of your values and mission.
According to Psychology Today, “management transparency is the top factor when determining employee happiness.” It helps pull your team in the same direction because they have the same goals and vision that you and your company endeavor to achieve.
6. Confusing “Lingo” with Expertise
“I am convinced that nothing we do is more important than hiring and developing people. At the end of the day you bet on people, not on strategies.” – Lawrence Bossidy, former COO of GE and author
Just because someone understands the words associated with a task, doesn't mean they can actually perform the task. Working as a sports commentator, for example, doesn’t mean you’re a good player.
When management struggles with having a full grasp of the particular “lingo” associated with a department, such as tech or BIM, it can sometimes cause the manager to be too impressed with a person's grasp of technical vocabulary. Their resume may look great, but do they really know the technical aspects of the job? Sometimes you really aren’t going to know that unless you test them.
Not fully vetting and testing BIM designer candidates is a significant cause of the "lingo" problem. Candidates may get through the screening process by being familiar with terminology or having a resume that speaks to the technology, without really having the skills to operate it.
This can cause companies to doubt the value of BIM technology. Managers might even think that going back to the old way they’ve designed specs (before the revolution of BIM) is the right decision after all.
There are several ways to vet your BIM candidates to make sure they have the knowledge and expertise to effectively do their job. Forbes lists some tips for hiring the right employee which include not only understanding their expertise, but also whether they will fit into your corporate culture. As mentioned earlier, for these more technical jobs you should create testing procedures to ensure that the candidate has the right skills for the job.
Also, consider hiring Interns first. You will know much more about the candidate since they have already worked for you, and the Intern will know about your company and whether it is a good fit for them as well.
Monster.com gives more good tips for hiring the right employee which include:
- Interviewing at least three people for the job
- Interviewing the candidates in at least three different locations
- Having at least 3 different people in the company interview the candidate
By having more people interview each candidate, you will get a fuller perspective on the candidate and their skills.
If you can’t find the right employees to handle your BIM detailing work, you can always subcontract this aspect of the project to a firm that specializes in BIM. This can help protect you and your firm from hiring the wrong employee.
We’ve discussed 6 avoidable mistakes that can inhibit efficient and effective management of a BIM environment – and how to fix each one.
I’d love to know your thoughts and feedback.
If you are in need of 3D BIM modeling, design, and MEP detailing services, we have the expert tradesmen at BIM Designs who know how to precisely design and model your systems. Contact us today for a FREE estimate or to discuss your project needs.
About the Author
Mark, CEO, joined the BIM Designs team with over 10 years of experience working with Silicon Valley tech companies in product management, business development, mergers and acquisitions, and CxO roles. Mark leads the growth, strategy and execution of the company; his acute ability to develop and implement strategic processes that scale the company's capabilities drives efficient service delivery, increases client satisfaction, and builds cross-functional teams.