Level 3 Partnering -- A / E / C Case Study

by Larry Levin, Ph.D.

In my work as a designer and facilitator of Partnered projects for the last 15 years, I have come to think of Partnering as consisting of several “levels” which describe not only the processes involved, but also the levels of commitment, thought, and expectation.  At what we will describe as a “Level 1” partnered project, the many parties involved in a construction project come together to agree on a Charter for construction that encompasses each firm’s individual goals into common goals for the overall project.  This Charter (signed by everyone) represents the desired reality for this project. However, the critical processes that need to be in place to support this charter, and the maintenance of those processes are rarely, if ever, done. In “Level 1” Partnering, there is often one session with no follow-up. The advantages of this approach are that it is well intended, requires little time investment, is cheap, and allows participants’ to say that they are working on a partnered project.

But as we all know, construction projects are difficult. Very difficult. No perfect plans are ever written, few schedules go unaltered and problems, both expected and otherwise, occur.  While all partnering works (if no real problems arise), Level 1 Partnering is the proverbial house made of straw.  It doesn’t take much wind to blow it down and the cost of failure is tremendous.  In the short term, parties quickly shelve their trust and resort to the letter of the contract only. The real damage, however, is long-term and indirect – partnering, as a process, loses credibility. Those participants’ who are obligated to attend future partnering sessions will do so cynically, quietly, with a well-functioning CYA approach underlining all their actions.  So is doing “Level 1” partnering better than nothing?  Perhaps-- if only no problems arise.

Most of the good partnering today would fall under our description of “Level 2” partnering. In a “Level 2” partnering process, participants construct a number of behavioral agreements designed to implement and operationalize the Charter and make it more robust.  They put into place a series of meetings designed to enhance communication, review project goals, and identify and resolve issues early.  This built-in Conflict Resolution Process has well-articulated steps designed to quickly escalate a problem to those who can best resolve it thoroughly and well.  Early identification and quick resolution of problems are key to “Level 2” work.  “Level 2” partnering also involves giving regular feedback to participants in order to maintain alignment, focus on tough issues, and prepare for emerging problems as the project moves forward. “Level 2” is active and pretty tough.  It is the proverbial house made of wood, which can withstand most problems that occur.  But it too, has limitations, which are potentially dangerous to the project.

Among the criticisms of “Level 2” work are that this process works best for a core team only and rarely cascades throughout the many crafts and trades who will touch this project. Oftentimes, agreed-upon partnering behaviors are inconsistent with the practice, culture and history of the sponsoring firms, especially when they are under stress.  And, as we well know, culture will beat any agreed-upon behavior in a head-on collision.

As our experience with partnering grew so did the sophistication and expectations of the clients. We began to take a different view of the partnering process, one that captured the initial philosophies of working toward agreed-upon goals, identifying and resolving problems early and often, working in a spirit of cooperation, and really attempting to help one another on the job.  But what else was needed?  What would “Level 3” partnering look like?  To what extent was it a myth or to what extent could we make it a reality?  What would a house made of bricks be—one that could withstand winds of change or significant disagreement? 

“Level 3” partnering begins with a commitment to continue, maintain and improve the construction process from start to finish.  We start with a “core group” which includes the owner, CM, design team, the contractor (if chosen), and anyone else who has a significant investment in this process.  Our initial meeting has two major purposes: To lay out the expectations, define the scope, and the commitment to Partnering on this project and to begin the process of articulating success.  We ensure, early on, that the owner is fully behind the process, and that regular and frequent meetings will be held throughout the life span of the project.  This sponsorship and commitment is critical.  We always work to gain clarity on the role and scope of the facilitator and, very specifically, set the bar for partnering on this project.  This meeting serves to drive many other things including the establishment of criteria for who will be hired into the project, how and to whom problems are to be surfaced, and other alternative dispute resolution steps should parties fail to resolve issues at the partnering level. 

It is also important to note that Level 3 work is about improving the construction process itself.  A discussion about measurement and metrics, how quality is defined, how we track the effectiveness of partnering, etc. also occurs in the initial meeting. This “core group” or “lead team” reconvenes during the project to review data from surveys, debrief and plan partnering sessions and generally make sure they understand what is really happening on the project.

True “Level 3” partnering requires more focused time and energy.   Partnering sessions must focus on current and horizon issues on the project, must provoke critical feedback among workers who have “operational interdependencies,” and must raise and resolve those issues which will impact the project.  Partnering at this level is also educational.  Teaching people about conflict, conflict styles and processes for resolution is critical.  Teambuilding simulations, if debriefed well and focused on real-world problems are also very valuable. Relationship building between those trades who have clear operational dependencies is necessary, so partnering has a social obligation as well to meet.  Partnering, if done well, should be a “stretch” between current best practices and better ways of doing things.

The real partnering does not occur in a hotel meeting room.  This process must be cascaded down to each and every person that touches the job to ensure that Partnering is practiced and reinforced “as a way of doing business in the real world” is what makes Level 3 “ work successful.  This sounds easier than it is.  Schedule pressures, money issues, less than powerful sponsorship from the owner, and real problems on the job can dilute the process.  A well-intended but inexperienced facilitator who is uncomfortable with conflict will dampen the process.  “Level 3” stuff is not for the faint of heart.  It requires courage and commitment.  But the payoff so far has been outstanding. The last 3 major projects in which Level 3 Partnering was the norm were all considered great successes by everybody.  Two of them won the Marvin Black ABC award and
The Motorola “Build America” award.   On schedule, at cost, with high quality and great safety, and with teams of people who will attempt to work together again is music to the ears of owners, designers, contractors, tradespeople, and the industry.  Everybody should make money and have an easier time doing it.

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