Planning New Solutions

Incorporating lean construction and other production efficiencies is helping deliver a multi-year, multi-billion, locks and dam project.
By David Dale, P.E., PMP, M.SAME

The Olmsted Locks and Dam replacement project on the Ohio River is estimated to cost $3.1 billion and to be fully completed by 2024. The project is proceeding with a significant focus on efficiency, including incorporating lean construction principles in the production management schedule along with other measures to save time and money.PHOTOS COURTESY USACE

Forward Operating Base Shank may be 6,957-mi from the Olmsted Locks and Dam project in southern Illinois, but one U.S. Army captain is finding out that planning and execution at the two locations is not so far apart.

Capt. Dave Burrier, USA, is a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Project Manager assigned to the largest navigation project on the busiest stretch of inland waterway in America. Under construction 17-mi upstream from the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, the Olmsted project eventually will replace both of the antiquated and deteriorating locks and dams 52 and 53.

The twin 1,200-ft lock chambers built by the joint venture Atkinson, Dillingham and Lane on dry ground inside a 60- acre cofferdam were completed in 2002. USACE, after studying various methods for constructing the dam portion, opted for an innovative method called “in-thewet.” Sections known as shells and weighing up to 3,700-T are cast on land and transported by crane, cradle and barge into the river where they are set in place atop a foundation of 24-in-diameter pipe piles. Once the shells are set, the void between the pipe piles and the shell is filled with tremie concrete. The work has been compared to building with LEGOs—only on a significantly larger scale and with real -world implications. The dam contract was awarded to the joint venture Washington Group (URS)-Alberici in 2004 and the contractor began placing the concrete dam monoliths in 2010.

One of the great challenges has been dealing with the river’s constantly changing elevation and velocity. Those variables also have meant managing the project’s constrained cash flow. In Afghanistan, Capt. Burrier relied on an operations center, a “war room,” to help him prepare to lead his platoon on patrols to clear enemy explosive devices. Now this 26-year-old Purple Heart recipient and civil engineer is keeping his finger on the pulse of schedule execution variances on behalf of the Olmsted project management team. His evaluator and reporter status is what finds him in a “war room” with a different purpose on the banks of the Ohio River.


The contractors’ operations control center is housed in a cluster of trailers on the edge of the casting yard where the heavily steel reinforced dam shells are fabricated before being placed in the river. On its four walls are white dry-erase boards covered in sticky-note paper in a variety of colors: red for iron workers, blue for laborers, orange for carpenters, and so on. They represent a three-week work production plan in single-day increments. At daily 8 a.m. meetings, three dozen superintendents, engineers, quality inspectors and managers representing all the construction sectors and trades coordinate to make sure they have the equipment, materials, manpower and access their crews need to accomplish their tasks. Later, foremen will brief their own work crews so they can safely and efficiently translate the instructions into action.

This detailed preparation and tracking is known as Assured Production Planning and Control, one of five components that make up the Construction Project Production Management System (CP2Ms®), which was instituted at Olmsted in 2011. Upstream preconstruction planning, value stream production planning and detailed individual operation production planning are components completed prior to the boards getting populated with the sticky-notes. CP2Ms® includes concepts found in lean construction, the Toyota Production System and production systems developed by Construction Concepts, a Greensboro, N.C., construction production management consultant.

Improvement in the quality of the work is one of the many pluses this system has brought to the dam construction. In 2011, for instance, there were 26 non-conformances. Of the mere five through the first half of 2012, two were carryovers from the year before. From carpenters to cost control managers, all team members share in production planning and control. Consider that the concrete alone being used on the Olmsted Dam shells can contain up to six ingredients and the largest pours of 6,000-y³ equates to 400 truckloads. Project-wide logistics, if everyone was not engaged and on the same page, would be problematic to say the least.

The project management approach being employed at the Olmsted Locks and Dam project—including weekly guiding meetings between key contractors and USACE representatives—is built on a “prevent and assure” system rather than the standard “detect and correct” approach.

Action learning teams played a major role in the early stages of implementing this production management system. The trades who perform the work are included in the process, involving them in solving strategic or project-wide problems. In addition to finding practical and economical fixes, this has led to the emergence of many new leaders among the labor force.

The management system being employed at Olmsted also emphasizes accountability and planning. A “prevent and assure” process is more proactive than the standard “detect and correct” approach used in traditional project management control systems. It prevents waste from getting into the system and assures work production flows as planned.


When USACE decided the prime dam contractor should incorporate a lean construction system, a variety of factors in addition to terse river conditions had been pushing costs well beyond the original estimate on the cost reimbursable contract. The genesis of “Operation Dam Excellence,” as Olmsted Dam performance improvement is officially known, came during a meeting in 2010 when USACE Louisville District directed WGA to have a consultant apply lean.

Construction Concepts followed up its first site visit in August 2010 with a productivity audit in the casting yard because it was the section with the most labor and risk. In November, the firm started filming, photographing and interviewing crafts workers on the job, getting them to complete questionnaires and sitting in work planning meetings. The consultants recommended a roadmap to pursue the operational goals of productivity, safety and quality.

Once management was on board, the trades were brought in with town hall meetings, brochures, fliers and fact sheets in their pay envelopes that described CP2Ms®. A temporary operations control center was set up in February 2011. The permanent site followed in November.

In addition to production control assemblies and crew huddles at the start of each shift, there is a weekly meeting of key contractors and USACE representatives known as the “guiding coalition.” This group provides vision and leadership to continue to incorporate the production management strategy. The coalition’s goals are to incrementally raise performance expectations and to perfect the production processes through continuous learning.

By June 2012, there were clear improvement in safety, quality and production. Work spaces were more organized. There had been a sharp reduction in rework and the number of hours required to complete assignments was down considerably. A year ago, the third stilling basin shell (SBS-3) was built in two shifts of 60-hours per week. This year, SBS-5, which is roughly the same size, is being built on one shift of 40-hours per week in the same duration.

While just one example, such savings, when added up, will go a long way on a project that has a total estimated cost of $3.1 billion and a scheduled completion date more than a decade away.


When USACE selected in-the-wet dam construction, studies had shown it would lower costs, shorten the timeframe, be less disruptive to navigation and have fewer negative environmental impacts. Since then, experience has shown this method to be more expensive and time consuming than originally envisioned. Currently, the dam construction methodology itself was under review and cofferdams were being considered to complete the navigable pass portion of the dam.

If construction continues using in-thewet and there is steady funding, the Olmsted Locks and Dam are scheduled to be operational in 2020. Wet or dry, the total project should be completed by 2024, including the demolition of locks and dams 52 and 53. Either way, USACE will continue to leverage the best practices of the private sector and apply effective and efficient production management to the Olmsted Locks and Dam project.

David Dale, P.E., PMP, M.SAME, is Deputy District Engineer, Olmsted, USACE Louisville District; 502-315-6104, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..