Pull Planning What It Is, Why It Matters, And How It’s Going Virtual (Part 2)

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, workplaces across every industry are redefining what it means to perform their essential functions; Hord Coplan Macht is no different. Although architecture is a highly collaborative field, which traditionally has mandated in-person meetings, HCM has been exploring alternative methods of harnessing the same creativity and teamwork that allow team members to safely social distance.

In this two-part series, we interview one of our team members on the ways that she is adapting her processes to better fit a virtual model. Heather Bemis, AIA, is one of the firmwide resources for ‘pull planning’, a lean scheduling technique that has been successfully used on many of the firm’s most complex projects. Below, in the second installment in this series, Heather speaks to the ways that this highly cooperative process is adapting to reflect current events and the lessons learned from a virtual practice that may influence evolution in the traditional model.

Missed the first part of the interview, and interested in learning more about pull planning? Read the post here.

How have you transitioned the traditional pull plan model to virtual sessions?

"Because of the COVID 19 pandemic, we have had to get creative with how collaboration looks while working remotely. I have been utilizing collaborative document editing software to gather information prior to the session, and then holding the pull plan over a video call with screen sharing capabilities. It is incredibly important that each of the participants adds their action items before we meet. It is also important that the various team members understand that the pull plan session is not a chance to assign tasks to others; they should be coordinating separately beforehand to keep the meeting moving smoothly and should focus on their own action items during the meeting. No one likes to be caught off guard! We all understand that this is an unusual circumstance, and workflows look different for many people. As long as each team has one representative who has the knowledge and authority to explain and make decisions regarding action items for that discipline, the other team members can be looped in via the notes after meeting."

A screenshot (edited to maintain client confidentiality) of a recent virtual pull plan session.

What have you found to be easier or more difficult about virtual sessions, compared to in-person meetings?

"As a facilitator, one issue that I often deal with in live meetings is interruptions and sidebar conversations – with a virtual meeting, this has not been an issue! It is easier to keep people on track and focused, since there are fewer distractions. Virtual sessions also encourage people to come more prepared and to communicate more thoroughly with other team members prior to the meeting; this prework allows the session to be more efficient, allowing more time for discussion. Hopefully we will see this change continue into live sessions!

A downside of the virtual model is the lack of face-to-face connection. Frequently, the initial pull plan session is the first time that consultants meet each other and the client. I am a big believer in the importance of face time to build consensus. Video calls allow for some familiarity, but lack the informal introductions and conversation that occurs in a live meeting. However, based on the success of our virtual sessions so far, I think we would be able to offer a better call-in model for our consultants who are unable to travel to these meetings. Inclusivity is so important, and we are always looking for better ways to make sure that everyone can be an active participant, whether or not they are in the room."

"[Participants] can be ill-prepared for live meetings and fake [their] way through it, but for virtual meetings you need to have your ducks in a row in order to be productive" – Heather Bemis, AIA, Hord Coplan Macht

What are your thoughts on what a virtual practice looks like for architecture? What do you see as opportunities for collaboration outside of a shared space?

"I think so much of operating virtually comes down to finding new ways to collaborate. Different software systems that allow for live document sharing or screen shares, the ability to call or IM throughout the day, these are all crucial for virtual collaboration. I’ve found that sending precedent images and virtual or hand sketches back and forth, and compounding feedback on these images allows for the design team to express their thoughts more clearly, as well. Everyone has a voice in the virtual world."

Your first virtual pull plan session was for a Colorado State University higher education building. How receptive was the team to going online for the session?

"If anything, people were glad that we were following the same protocol that we normally do, and were moving forward with our schedule. I think that everyone is seeking normalcy right now. Being able to take this process that we have had so much success with, especially as project teams are working overtime right now to maintain their schedules through all of these rapid developments [related to COVID-19], and to keep all of the essential elements of the session and make it virtual…the participants all seemed very receptive. It definitely helped that this team has been through live pull planning sessions with me before, so they knew the drill. They all came prepared, which allowed the session to be more of a confirmation of the sequence."

“It helps to understand everyone else’s workflow, and to explain what we need [in order] to make progress” – Sean Convery, Principal, Cator Ruma & Associates

How many more virtual sessions do you have planned?

"Several! This is a tool that we use firmwide in all our markets, and I have been getting several requests to help facilitate these sessions virtually. Now more than ever, teams are seeing the need to have some order amidst the chaos."

This is a great example of being nimble and flexible during an unprecedented challenge. Are there other facets of our projects that you think will adapt in similar ways?

"I do think that the past month has really shown [Hord Coplan Macht’s] ability to collaborate really well, both internally and externally. I have already seen cluster meetings being scheduled virtually that result in even better documentation – the meetings are being recorded, so there are more comprehensive notes for those who were unable to attend, etc. The documentation and notes that are created during the session become the meeting summary to look back on.

I also think that as we continue to learn and redefine what a 'typical' day looks like, we will learn a lot of new efficiencies, as an industry and even as a society. There is a chance that we will see office design adapt for more remote workers and for less traditional set ups. I myself have started scheduling my workday as windows of time instead of a standard 8-5 block. I feel like I have a better work-life balance, and feel fresher and more alert through the day, allowing me to be more productive. This is an opportunity for us all to find new ways of working!"

Heather Bemis is a Senior Associate in Hord Coplan Macht’s higher education studio. Hord Coplan Macht is dedicated to continuing progress and serving our clients through the COVID-19 pandemic while doing our part to promote the health and wellness of our colleagues and to assist the communities around us.