From Chaos to Clarity – Bringing Order Out of Chaos in a Construction Supply Chain

Edward Lorenz, a Mathematician and a Meteorologist (!), developed a system of equations, which when given different values produces different shapes of graphs. The signifance of these equations is that even for a small change in the input parameters, the output, when plotted in a graph, changes enormously. Among these chaotic graphs, one stands out, and it looks like this:

Does this image ring a bell? Yes. This graph resembles a butterfly. And I think, this is how the term Butterfly Effect comes into existence, and Lorenz played a major role in developing the theory behind this.

Why this special class on science all of a sudden? And what it is doing on the blog of a construction supply chain company?

There is a straightforward link. Just as the graph varies as per the input parameters, the progress of a construction project depends on the various parameters such as timelines, scheduling, resources, materials, technology, tendering etc. define a construction project. Any small change or aberration in one of the input parameters will cause a significant change in the output, just like the Butterfly Effect equation.

Knowingly or unknowingly construction projects are struck in a vicious cycle that weaves back to itself, again as in the graph of butterfly shown above! We have this whole thing called Project Management which dictates to create schedule of project, timelines of the milestones, mathematically derived resources needed to finish the milestones by its due date, and what not. Theoretically we have everything to set the project in order and complete it on time. So, where are we going wrong then?

The old adage is “Make a good plan and stick to it”. We instinctively know that this is important, but still we are not doing it or are unable to do so. We are aware of the ramifications of this as well.

My brief stint in the construction industry tells me something else. It seem to me that when we look at a more granular level, the problems in the construction industry today are people-related than anything else. That’s because this is an industry which relies on people skills as much or perhaps even more than on technical skills. For the same company, the process at one construction site may be different from another. I think it is mainly because the projects are led by individuals rather than an organization or by some protocol. And when people from multiple organizations come in, and each person of each organization has his/her priorities, the issue gets complex, and sometimes ugly.

I’m sure you’re going “Yeah, yeah, we know all this! Tell us how to solve fix it!”.

When we analyze the system where people lead instead of a process, one thing is apparent: People, with their own experiences, have their own biases and prejudices. So decisions are taken based on these experiences. And when these decisions, biases and prejudices are conflicting with the fellow stakeholders, bang!! – You are in chaos.

Now, how do we get this straight?

“Talking of Bringing Order out of Chaos, Sherlock Holmes has a way.

Also this is something Kalyan discussed a few posts back.

I am sure my colleagues’ brains must be a having laugh riot, when I speak about chaos, with me being perceived as the Most-Chaotic -Fellow of Nadhi.

Remember what John Nash said: “In a competition, best results come when everyone in the group does what’s best for himself, and the group”

Having your own priorities and working towards it, won’t work. An owner of the project must be able to think like a contractor and contractors of the project must be able to think like sub-contractors and vice versa. Only then, we will find some order in the construction supply chain.

This is not something new to construction, though. Things like Lean Construction and information technology are some tools that help to move from the decision-by-gut to a more decision-by-facts. These are some catalysts that bring down the wall between different organizations in a project. So, all these chains of problems boils down to one thing: Organizations coming out of denial (and of course, biases and prejudices) and accepting that they need some tools and techniques to overcome the complexity of the problems.

Ok, before the post gets entertaining-read-on-the-personal-front-but-not-suited-for-a-company-blog-zoned, I am going to stop here. But I guess you get the point.

Bringing order out of chaos in real life is a lot harder than doing it in the mathematical world, but that doesn’t mean we can’t give it a serious shot. Lorenz was able to wave a mathematical magic wand and generate equations for doing it, we just need to keep striving to invent our own wands. And maybe we’ll discover like him that there are beautiful butterflies lurking in the chaos, and when we find them we should take a break and enjoy the moment

  • 23 May, 2014
  • hariharanv

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