PM Articles > Geof Lory > Learning from Building

Learning from Building

by Geof Lory

When teaching project management for software development, it is not unusual to make references to the construction or engineering fields to illustrate work decomposition, dependencies and other fundamentals of project management. The similarities start to fade once you get beyond the planning stage, especially when working in organizations employing more agile practices. But, before we throw the baby out with the bath water, I'd like to share some things I learned from a specific young construction crew about project management, teambuilding, and leadership that I think you will enjoy.

My best friend from high school teaches construction for a group of high schools in Michigan. John grew up in a construction family, mostly residential and small commercial, and has been in the industry since getting out of college. John is also a natural teacher and coach. He is passionate about creating a positive and supportive environment for his students where they can not only learn the skills of their trade, but also learn a lot about themselves and each other. His goal is simple: At the end of the year, every student in his class should be better prepared to make a positive contribution to society. Period.

It is unfortunate that traditional academic methods struggle to measure this type of education. Consequently, John's program receives more than a few raised eyebrows from some of his peers, who prefer the safer, standard pedagogical approach to teaching and learning. Fortunately for his students, this doesn't faze him at all. In fact it inspires him to continue to create better ways to show the value of his program, especially for those students who are better suited to applied learning and working in 3D.

This past week John and I went on a golf trip. We had a lot of talk time to catch up on family and other goings-on, but mostly we talked about our respective jobs. He's a teacher. I'm a project manager. He works with kids in high school. I work with professionals in corporate America. He builds homes. I build software. We were surprised at how much we had in common when we shared our work experiences.

John has two classes of 15 students, the morning and afternoon classes. The kids come from six different high schools, so outside of class most of them don't know each other. Every year, starting in September and finishing in June, the two classes collaborate to build and sell a house from the ground up, completing all phases in one school year. They do all the work under the guidance of John, his assistant, and a few master tradesmen who act as both teachers and project managers.

As I listened to John talk about how he works with his students, I couldn't help but draw the comparisons to the teambuilding and collaboration necessary for a great team. I had labored for John's father as a summer job in college, and I don't remember it being quite that much fun. So, I started asking more specific questions about his methods and how he approaches teaching. Here's a sample of some of the things they do in his program and what I learned from his class. I'll let you draw the comparisons.

To start with, everyone, even the students' parents, call John "Coach." John has found that moniker strikes the ideal balance between the respect of a supervisor and the familiarity of a parent without being invasive. There are rules; they are known, and explicitly communicated, but he rarely has to enforce them. For instance, hard hats and glasses and safe work behaviors are not optional. Cell phones are only for emergencies. No texting allowed while at the job site. Peer influence and pressure to keep making progress keeps the conduct and behaviors moving forward.

His crew understands the importance of staying focused in an environment where it doesn't take much to cause an accident that leaves someone seriously hurt. He expects his students to show up physically and mentally. They get points for attendance, but not for excused absences, unless they are communicated ahead of time. Students can do outside community work to make up for the absences.

Terminology is important. Most of these kids have never touched power tools and some may not even understand just how dangerous they can be. Therefore, rules for the tools are important. Each student develops their skills through progressive demonstrations of proficiency. Group leaders rotate every six weeks and monitor the completion of each skill level, only approving those that measure up to quality and safety standards. I'd like to try this one on some of my teams and see how that goes over.

Weekly goals are specified as empirically measurable deliverables. Outcomes, not activities, are important. Every class starts with a daily stand-up meeting, where they review what the previous class completed and what they expect to complete in their class. John uses 3x5 cards with the list of tasks, necessary equipment, and required resources for the next assignments. These are posted on the board in the site trailer before each class, and the students select their assignments. Any disagreements are resolved with rock-paper-scissors. Work is sized and assigned to the teams, not the other way around.

Teams are self-governing. They grade each other and themselves, every day. Every day! That means every day John reviews all the grades, but only intervenes on the group leaders' grades. He provides feedback to the leaders, who are then responsible to carry the message to the rest of their team. John typically only gets involved in disputes at the leaders' request. He prefers that the leaders and other students resolve issues maturely between themselves. When it comes to grading, the group's grade is deducted from the leader's grade, so improving the team is the goal of each lead. Exams are hands-on individual performance reviews of working product: a wall built, a floor tiled, trusses set, or plumbing that works. Evaluations are done by professional builders (independent auditors) who volunteer their time.

At the end of every class, the site is clean and equipment is put away. Every Friday, Coach has hot dogs for the class -- 50 cents apiece. Occasionally he doesn't put on his tool belt, and steps away. That's when they step up their game. He spends time every day trying to catch them doing things well and complimenting them in front of their peers. But if they do make mistakes within safe boundaries, he believes in learning by failing. Issues are never about the person, always about technique, behavior, and results.

This approach helps the students own the output. John asks them, "How would you do this work if this was going to be your house? Would you cut corners or hide mistakes?" His daily mantra is, "Students don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." So he tries to stay connected enough for students to know he is there for them. Most all of us can look back and recall a teacher who made us feel special in that way. John tries to be that person for his students.

These kids are learning great life skills under the guise of construction education. They are also demonstrating some very practical project management and team building skills which will help them in any career they pursue, even if they don't call it project management. I've worked with a lot of teams in my career, and they could all benefit from this type of learning.

As we were parting ways at the end of the week, I asked John what he learns from working with the kids. While the first word out of his mouth was "patience," he was quick to follow that with a deeper reflection and a favorite quote. "'He who teaches, learns!' Most people know more than we give them credit for. And if you let them, they will teach you. You just have to listen."

John is fortunate to have a vocation he is passionate about, and I'm pretty sure his students know that. Well done, Coach.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

I really liked this article. There is so much to learn from it about project management not least of which is: "[People] ...don't care how much you know until they know how much you care".

Really enjoyed reading this article. Thanks for sharing.

Terrific article. It is a great example of what can be accomplished with collaborative effort and empowerment. Many public and private organizations could learn from this example.

I loved your article. John sounds like a great guy. I already know you are. What a fabulous writer you are! When does the book come out? BXXOO

Post a comment

(Not displayed with comment.)

©Copyright 2000-2017 Emprend, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
About us   Site Map   View current sponsorship opportunities (PDF)
Contact us for more information or e-mail
Terms of Service and Privacy Policy

Stay Connected
Get our latest content delivered to your inbox, every other week. New case studies, articles, templates, online courses, and more. Check out our Newsletter Archive for past issues. Sign Up Now

Got a Question?
Drop us an email or call us toll free:
7am-5pm Pacific
Monday - Friday
We'd love to talk to you.

Learn more about ProjectConnections and who writes our content. Want to learn more? Compare our membership levels.