Facing severe logistical challenges, GRA deployed Visilean to streamline the scheduling of a complex infrastructure retrofit project at a major US data centre. Visilean helped ground a commitment to performance improvement, dramatically cutting installation cycles, while allowing ease of collaboration between local city authorities, equipment manufacturers, and fulfilling the expectations of the client and key stakeholders.
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Based in Scottsdale, Arizona, GRA is a project management and consultancy business with extensive experience working on mission-critical, technically complex projects for data centre owners, cloud providers and their supply chains.
GRA shifts the focus of design and construction from traditional methodologies to proven, emerging technologies and management practices that streamline project delivery.
Among these technologies, it has adopted is Visilean, a mobile and cloud-based construction management application that supports lean production planning and workflows.
In 2019, GRA was appointed to project manage the replacement of ten Hitec Power Protection UPS (uninterruptible power supply) units that had reached the end of their service life at a major data centre owned by a global REIT in central San Francisco.
UPS units provide continuous and clean emergency power in the event of either a sudden power blackout (when power is lost completely) or a brownout (temporary low dip in voltage levels), protecting data centre file systems and hardware and maintaining reliable 24/7 operation, uptime and profitability.
As the original supplier of the 10 UPS units that were approaching the end of their service life, Hitec, had been commissioned to replace the installed units with their latest and most efficient data centre-grade, dynamic UPS system. The units had to be replaced sequentially, one at a time, so that the customer business operations suffered zero downtime.
The replacement process included the removal of the old UPS, the installation of the new UPS, then commissioning into operation. This was followed by a two-week observation period for each unit. Each replacement cycle was originally anticipated to be four weeks in duration, with the whole project taking around a year.
The data centre, housed in the upper floors of a space-constraint building in the busy financial district of central San Francisco, provided several logistical challenges.
The old UPS units at the penthouse level were too large and heavy for the elevators of the building, therefore removal of the old units and installation of the new units required extensive preparatory work to demolish roof and wall structures.
In addition, the use of a crane lift was required to move the sizable equipment (approximately 58 feet wide) into place. The effort required temporary street closures for each installation. Therefore, each installation required extensive coordination with city authorities to schedule (minimum of one-month advance notice) the multiple Saturday street closures required. The plan also took into consideration minimising traffic disruption on surrounding streets, access restrictions, noise, and other nuisances to limit the impact on residents in six neighbouring buildings.
Adding to the already substantial challenges, just as GRA and Hitec were mobilising to install the first unit, the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. All onsite construction work was paused for almost five months. When site work was able to resume in August 2020, previously planned standard operating practices had to be significantly modified to include onsite mitigation protocols – new safety procedures that minimised potential health risks to workers, owner staff, nearby residents, and other stakeholders. These efforts added time to the schedule, extending the potential overall duration by about three months.
Initial planning for the UPS installations had followed traditional scheduling approaches, deploying a ‘Last Planner’ process with outputs captured in Excel spreadsheets. With the COVID-19 mitigation protocols in place, GRA could observe and record how the electrical contractors worked on the installation, capturing how much work was completed in each phase, and then look to improve lean planning of the process using VisiLean.
GRA director of operations and innovation, Saul Hernandez, said: “The first installation cycle took around 11 weeks, but the next two units were installed in 10 and 9 weeks respectively as GRA and Hitec learned lessons (redesigning a skid-frame to speed up installation, for example) and began to optimise the team’s working practices to recover lost time.’
He continued: “Initially, our Planned Percentage Complete (PPC) levels were at 30-40% levels, and we could see substantial scope for improvement. Introducing VisiLean to the field team and providing a short online training session helped them take ownership and control of the process.
“Everyone started using VisiLean 5 to 10 minutes a day and became personally committed to achieving their colour-coded activities. It became a matter of pride for both senior superintendents and younger project managers to see their work displayed in green, and PPC rates climbing into the 90s.”
“Subsequent installation cycles shortened to eight weeks, then six and five and a half, before dropping to five and four and a half weeks. VisiLean provided detailed evidence of past performance for review at weekly planning meetings”Saul Hernandez, Director of Operations and Innovation, GRA
As work became increasingly standardised, teams became more independent, looking to maintain sequences but also testing ways to see how they might make further improvements.
The accuracy of planning horizons changed from being measured in weeks to being measured in days. As schedule predictions became increasingly accurate, so did client confidence in those predictions, Hernandez said.
Supply chain relationships were also enhanced. “When we need to bring specialist resources in for just one or two days, we can now reliably schedule their work, so that no wasted journeys are made,” said Hernandez. “Even as competition grew when California forest fires were causing power outages, subcontractors put GRA on top of their list as we could commit their people to full days of profitable work, not leaving them on standby.”
Hernandez said Hitec had learned a lot from the project’s use of VisiLean: “Continuous process improvement has also translated into continuous product improvements. Ideas from the site – such as cable installation improvements – have been translated into product enhancements. In addition, quality assurance and quality control processes are now factory-based, they are no longer done on the jobsite, dramatically cutting time.”
Early programme overruns have now been recouped and the project is on schedule for completion in late 2021. For future projects, Hernandez is also looking to use VisiLean to support 4D building information modelling (BIM) processes: “We use BIM across trades, linking the model to tasks so that we can choreograph and schedule work even better.”
By extrapolating the cost that was avoided by switching to a VisiLean-based planning and scheduling environment, the project was able to avoid an additional direct labour cost of between $800k-$1.6m.
In addition to the cost-saving, the team also benefited from:
- Better visibility of onsite performance levels
- Wider project team ownership of project schedule and detailed tasks
- More reliable prediction of critical path activities
- Greater commitment to continuous performance improvement
- More reliable scheduling of supply chain resources
- Heightened productivity across the team
- Improved customer, supply chain and other stakeholder confidence in project team and schedule
- Identification of potential product improvements to eliminate site-based activities
A Build in Digital stakeholder, VisiLean is an innovative cloud-based lean production management solution for the construction industry.
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