The Last Planner® System (LPS) consists of five major components (or interlocking tools); these components are: Master Planning and Phase Planning (which occur as needed); Make-Ready Planning and Weekly Work Planning (performed weekly); and Learning (through Percent Plan Complete and Variances – performed daily). LPS is often the first system adopted by teams who want to design and build using Lean methods, and during our consulting services we encounter many clients who state that they are already using the Last Planner System. Unfortunately, not all implementations are equal. We have found 5 mistakes that keep clients from a truly successful implementation. Luckily, these missteps are easily remedied. The 5 major pitfalls we commonly encounter include:

  • The failure to see LPS as a complete system. Teams often begin by picking and choosing which tools from the Last Planner System they will employ without understanding that these tools were designed to work together for total project management. Like a set of nested Russian dolls, the milestone planning, phase planning, make-ready planning, weekly work planning, and daily check-ins all click into place, becoming more detailed as timelines grow shorter and tasks more certain. Eliminating one of the Last Planner tools in this chain is like eliminating the ductwork from an HVAC system – the system cannot function.

Through the conversations required for each tool, project teams learn to better plan their work, coordinate efforts, maintain (or reduce) the schedule, and eliminate waste. The relationship between weekly work plans and the milestone plan must remain unbroken to keep the team on track. Likewise, daily huddles ensure that the team is not falling behind on the commitments listed in the weekly work plans – the team can immediately make adjustments to get back on schedule because they know instantly that they are behind. In this manner, the PDCA cycle (Plan, Do, Check, Adjust) allows for continuous improvement throughout the life of the project. If you have ever wondered why some teams excel with LPS and others just survive, this might be the root cause. A failure to see LPS as a system is also often at the root of the other 4 failures.

  • Ineffective Pull Planning. Pull planning is so popular that teams often think that they are using the Last Planner System simply because they have engaged in pull planning sessions. Pull planning is both everyone’s favorite LPS tool, and potentially the most vexing. Team members enjoy the sense of collaboration and camaraderie they experience in a pull planning session, but are often frustrated that the plans created in these sessions are not followed or that project outcomes do not improve. These sessions may also be time-consuming and costly, with the entire project team engaged for an afternoon or longer. It is imperative that these sessions be run effectively to achieve the best results. This means there must be proper planning before the session and effective facilitation during.

It’s critical to prepare properly before even one sticky note is written. The team must first reach a common understanding of the goals for that project phase and how they intend to achieve them. We follow a specific agenda that begins with introductions – who is here, where do they work, and what is their role in the project? The team then creates a common definition of the milestone to be “pulled” to. This may seem obvious, but in reality these discussions can easily last over an hour. What does it mean to say the owner can move in? Are all systems tested first? What does it mean to say a building has been “dried-in?” Have the required inspections been performed? If the design of the mechanical system is “finished,” what actual work has been performed and what will be accomplished after this milestone? The team must agree on what “done done” means for this milestone.

Next, they should agree upon a concept of operations for the work. This effort is usually led by the GC’s superintendent. He will explain his vision for moving about the site and accomplishing the work, and seek comment. Each trade will then give their own overview of operations for their scope of the work. (Design teams follow this model as well.) Only after gaining a common understanding of the concept of operations can the team begin writing tasks on sticky notes.

We are often asked about the mechanics of placing sticky notes as well. Each task represented by a sticky note is actually a reliable commitment from one team member to the rest of the team. We therefore have established rules for placing notes, each dependent on a specific Lean concept:

  1. Pull or Flow: Do not place a sticky until your downstream customer asks for your task to be performed. Each subsequent task’s dependency on the upstream task should become visible and obvious.  Concentrate on the hand-offs. To highlight the connectedness of the work, swim lanes should be used to illustrate work by system or area, and not to separate trades or disciplines into silos.
  2. Collaboration: When placing your sticky, announce your task out loud to the group. Tell them how long it will take and what you need from others to accomplish the task. Everyone should understand the work, and challenge the speaker when necessary.
  3. Reliable Commitments: Don’t move another team member’s sticky! Each task is a commitment made by the one who placed the note. If you notice that the team forgot your vapor barrier, speak up – then work together to negotiate a new placement of stickies.

Follow the agenda and these three rules, and you are well on your way to making the reliable commitments that propel your project forward!

  • Ignoring Make-Ready Planning. This step appears to be the most neglected tool in the Last Planner System, but is crucial for keeping the schedule on track and coordinating the work. During make-ready planning (performed weekly), the team uses a look-ahead schedule, taken from the phase plan, and focuses on the tasks due to start in 6 weeks. The facilitator asks: “Is there any reason we could not start this task tomorrow?” Anything that could keep you from starting is a constraint. There may be a need to order materials or a crane; to move materials stored on the site; to have a submittal returned, or an RFI answered. List each constraint on the constraint log. Next, an individual at the meeting must promise to remove each constraint by a specific date as requested by the performer of the task. Then the team reviews weeks 5-2 to make sure constraints are being removed as promised. This process ensures there are no nasty surprises when the weekly work plan is being created and team members suddenly find that a task cannot be performed because it has not been “made ready.” 6 weeks is the typical look-ahead window, as it usually provides plenty of time to identify and remove constraints. Design teams may need to study a shorter time horizon.
  • Treating Weekly Work Plans (WWP) as a mere listing of tasks. In the rush to adopt new construction methods, the WWP may sometimes be regarded as just another form to fill out. But the conversations required to create the WWP are the heart of LPS. When looking at the 6 week look-ahead schedule, the team asks: “What tasks must be completed by the end of next week? How do we plan to get there?” As the most detailed listing of reliable commitments, WWP activities should only be submitted by the “Last Planner,” the person responsible for doing the work or assigning men and materials to perform the work. WWP tasks should not be created by the GC superintendent. Likewise, during the weekly meeting, each trade should present their own tasks to the team.

Tasks in the Weekly Work Plan (WWP), must be sound. They must answer these questions: What will be done? Where will it be done? When will it be done? And Who will do it? All constraints limiting the performance of these tasks should by now have been removed. Tasks should be grouped by system or area, not by trade. In this fashion, it is easy to see who the downstream “customer” of each performer is. Each task should be specific and measurable (i.e. laying ceiling grid on the first floor between columns A and B). As the weekly work plan is reviewed during the meeting, each team member makes a commitment about how he will work next week. This ensures that the WWP can be used in daily huddles to keep the work on track and helps the performers meet their commitments to the team.

  • Not calculating Percent Plan Complete (PPC) or recording Variances. Many teams leave out the last step in the Last Planner System – calculating how many tasks in the WWP were performed as planned and tracking the reasons others were not. This interrupts the PDCA cycle crucial to continuous improvement. Teams that do not calculate PPC will never know how well they are fulfilling the promises made in the Weekly Work Plan. It follows that these teams will also not track the reasons for a lack of performance in the completion of a task. Ultimately, understanding the root cause of delays is the lever that allows the team to eliminate those causes and improve their planning skills at the same time. Without tracking the reasons for variance and delay, the project team cannot remedy the underlying causes, and the same problems will surface again and again without being addressed.

The complacency that comes from neglecting PPC can also result in sloppiness, as team members no longer find it necessary to make reliable commitments. One consultant related this story of a project team using LPS: They had raised their PPC significantly and were doing great when he left them to their own devices. In two months, upon his return, he found that the team felt the project was going so well that they no longer needed to track PPC. But project reliability was falling. When they finally calculated the PPC again, the team had slipped back to a 55% completion rate – barely above what they could have achieved statistically without using LPS. Tracking performance – and the reasons for non-completion of tasks as planned – is a necessary step in managing projects on time and on budget.

Project teams using the Last Planner System have made great strides – reducing schedules by many months, increasing profits and owner satisfaction, decreasing accidents, and creating enjoyable workplace environments. Many teams who have incorporated lean methods in design and construction swear that they will never again work on a project without them. But if you have tried LPS and have been disappointed in the results, please consider these five mistakes and see if you can find room for improvement.