March 27, 2003

Send your team to ‘spring training’

  • Early preparation is key to controlling costs
    Solbakken Co.


    Right now, every Major League baseball team is hard at work at spring training. They are building strength and stamina, and playing practice games, all of which will determine who makes it to “the big show,” and ultimately who wins the World Series.

    They are at spring training for one reason — to win.

    I suggest that, in order for your building project to be a winner, you must create the equivalent of “spring training” to set it up to succeed. Common industry terms for this up front work include due diligence, programming, preconstruction services and feasibility studies. I have come to embrace a relatively new industry term — the “initiation phase” — that encompasses all of the early work of creating a facility.

    Initiation phase

    The initiation phase includes every action taken, from the first intimation to build or remodel a facility, up to the beginning of the design phase.

    During the initiation phase the purpose and use of the facility is clearly established. The location is determined, an overall budget developed and a schedule mapped out. Estimates of construction costs, operating costs and income stream are made to determine financial feasibility. Architects and engineers, and sometimes contractors, are selected.

    As obvious as these steps are, it is critical to the success of the project that each and every step be performed effectively. The decisions made and actions taken at this early stage set the momentum for success or failure of the project.

    The influence graph

    The influence graph, see picture, has evolved over many conversations with colleagues, and by studying all kinds of projects and outcomes. It illustrates the point of this article — do your homework at the front end. Get your game together.


    The descending solid line illustrates how much influence is typically consumed during the initiation phase. If the work during this phase has been done effectively, you are in good shape, you have created effective, constructive momentum that will serve you well during design and construction.

    On the other hand, it is unlikely that a poorly executed initiation phase will be overcome during the following phases.

    If a team has a poor spring training, the loss column climbs. The ascending dashed line on the graph represents the costs of unresolved issues over time. The cost of dealing with unresolved issues rises exponentially over the life of the project. Your job is to unearth, and resolve, as many issues as you possibly can before you start design. It is awfully hard to win while you are losing.

    What you should do

    I believe that you should think about investing more at the front end of the project than you ever imagined, not just in terms of money and time, but in terms of your own energy and the energy of the people in your organization. Use the resources you have, primarily the human kind, to get very clear on what you are out to achieve with a facility.

    Augment your in-house resources with outside consultants. This path may lead you in some very different, new, and exciting directions. Baseball teams have been known to bring in aerobics trainers for physical preparation, and psychologists to help with the mental game, before the games count.

    Another suggestion is to bring on people for what they know rather than whom they know. You want the confidence that comes with competence, far more than the false comfort of friendly and familiar faces.

    What is at stake?

    Multiply your overall budget by 20 percent, and then by 40 percent. That is the range of wasted money, on average, that goes into the “loss column” of building projects of all types, sizes and markets. That is the potential problem you face.

    I have reached this conclusion based on my personal experience, after many consultations with colleagues, and reading a broad spectrum of studies addressing productivity in developing, designing and building facilities.

    I believe that the vast majority of this recoverable waste has its source in the initiation phase. It’s what happens when a team does not do an effective job at spring training. They get pounded by the teams that do.

    So, how is spring training going on your projects? How about your competition’s?

    Art Solbakken, a 30-year veteran in the construction industry, is president of Solbakken Co., a project management firm based in Edmonds. He can be reached at (425) 673-9062 or by e-mail at

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