What is Agile Construction Management?

Learn how to apply Agile to your construction site.

Symbolic, right?
Sometimes you have to be flexible in the industry. Martin Barraud // Getty Images

At first glance, Agile project methods and construction management might look an odd couple. After all, the Agile development that started in the software industry revolved around constantly checking and adapting the deliverables to changes in the market. Without the same constraints as physical buildings (there is no gravity inside computers, for example), software can be built up and built out with considerable flexibility.

Buildings must still follow more rigid procedures, like only building the third floor once the second floor is sufficiently solid. However, Agile construction management can still offer benefits in construction, when used appropriately.

Building on the Agile Model

To understand what to do with it, we need to know some basics about Agile project management.​

  • Alignment of the project deliverables to customer requirements
  • Definition of clear goals for a project
  • Breaks the project or challenge down into small bits to be completed in order of highest priority downwards
  • Continual reviews of progress and improvement from those reviews then applied to the project
  • A clear definition of when a task or activity in the project has been done
  • Development of team intelligence and know-how through teamwork and collaboration across different parts of the project

So far, so good: all of these characteristics can be advantageously applied to Agile project management in construction too.

A Bit of Agile that Cannot Be Used

There is one other characteristic that however does not carry over. In Agile project management applied to software, it is possible to put off a major design decision or step to a late stage in project execution. For construction however, this is unlikely to work. As we saw above, construction in the execution phase is largely linear, with one step needing to be completed before a following step can be taken.

Doing Agile Construction Management in the Pre-Design and Design Phases

Agile construction management that applies the points above brings the following benefits in the design phase of a construction project:

  • Increase in customer involvement, encouraging customer participation in project deliverable definition (i.e. what the finished building or construction will be)
  • Reduction of uncertainty and improvement of management of project risks by chopping up complex projects into easier to manage subprojects
  • Increase of accuracy and confidence in construction cost estimating
  • Greater use of prefabricated assemblies, making construction projects more like manufacturing projects where unpredictable factors like the weather have less effect

Agile Construction Management in the Execution Phase

While construction, because of its sequential step-based nature, ought to be simple enough in practice, complexity can still creep in. A contractor may need to use different materials for instance, because the ones specified by the architect are unavailable at that time. Access to a site or to resources may be blocked, adding to the problems. Construction tasks are then often handled using improvisation and as a result it becomes difficult to track project schedules and manage critical path activities.

Agile construction management helps by:

  • Breaking down the project delivery into smaller, more manageable parts that in this case are not necessarily available to be reordered, but that can be better managed and tracked to completion.
  • Focusing on time management and regular, frequent reviews to improve project financial management, specifically in the areas of productivity and profitability.
  • Opening the door to continual improvement by encouraging workers to team up and to give their input back to construction managers on how to do things better and faster.

The Increasing Role of Software in Construction

Not only did Agile approaches spring from software development, but software itself has become a useful and necessary tool for many construction projects. Agile software and its benefits include:

  • Construction project management programs with team collaboration
  • Customer relationship management software to help get customers and stakeholders of all kinds involved
  • Construction cost estimating software

So overall, Agile can be applied to construction management—and it’s effective in getting the job done. While Lean construction continues to be popular, expect more construction firms to start implementing Agile construction as the years roll on.