Walt Disney Imagineering Improves Project Results

  • August 12, 2011
  • Feature
August 2011
By Bill Lydon
June 27 – 30, 2011 Orlando, Florida - Siemens Automation Summit
David Van Wyk, Vice President of Project Management for Walt Disney Imagineering, gave an informative presentation at the 2011 Siemens Automation Summit titled, “Innovating a Design and Construction Practice.” Van Wyk oversees the planning, design, construction, installation, startup, and turnover of projects located at Disney theme parks and resorts. He advocates integrated project delivery and lean construction techniques. His team is one of the first to utilize Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) working with multiple disciplines including engineers, architects, designers, contractors, and construction managers to deliver projects. Van Wyk is a registered architect and member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA).
Walt Disney Imagineering is the master planning, creative development, design, engineering, production, project management, research and development arm of The Walt Disney Company and its affiliates. Representing more than 150 disciplines, its talented corps of Imagineers is responsible for the creation of Disney resorts, theme parks and attractions, hotels, water parks, real estate developments, regional entertainment venues, cruise ships and new media technology projects.
Walt Disney Imagineering, known at the time as WED Enterprises (WED stood for Walter Elias Disney), was formed in 1952 to plan, design and build Disneyland. The first Imagineers were picked by Walt Disney himself from the Disney Studio’s best creative talents.
Walt Disney Imagineers blend creativity and innovative technological advancements to produce some of the world's most distinctive, experiential storytelling, including using Audio-Animatronics characters to tell the swashbuckling tales of Pirates of the Caribbean; developing a faster-than-gravity "freefall" through another dimension in The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror; and integrating high-speed, large-format film projection with a breakthrough ride system to take guests on a breathtaking hang glider flight in Soarin' Over California. Walt Disney Imagineering has been granted more than 115 company-owned patents in areas including ride systems, special effects, interactive technology, live entertainment, fiber optics and advanced audio systems. In addition, Walt Disney Imagineering develops resorts, cruise ships, hotels and attractions in Florida, California, Tokyo, Paris and Hong Kong.
Van Wyk noted, “Key design and construction process has remained unchanged since the 20th century...yet projects we work on become exponentially more complex.” The situation is compounded for Disney Imagineering with the need to constantly develop more sophisticated attractions. Projects are increasing in complexity requiring more resources, constant change orders due to poor coordination, and project costs outpacing inflation. They are implementing Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) focused on the goal of creating the greatest final value of a project rather than each participant focusing exclusively on their part of construction without considering the implications on the whole process. The IPD method brings all participants together early with collaborative incentives to maximize value. This collaborative involvement of multiple disciplines leads to improved decision making early in the project where the most value can be created and future problems are avoided. The close collaboration eliminates a great deal of waste in the design, and allows data sharing directly between the design and construction teams, eliminating a large barrier to increased productivity in construction.
Van Wyk described the three core principles of the Walt Disney organization:
  • Product – Incredible Experience
  • Process – Well-Run Business
  •  People – Great Talent
Within the framework of this strategy they implement sustainable design, driven by diversity, using partners of choice as part of the team. This is accomplished with a diverse group of disciplines, as Van Wyk said, “..that must continue to deliver the incredible experiences with a high wow factor.”
Need for Improved Process
Van Wyk noted that the construction industry has low productivity relative to manufacturing and, in fact, productivity in this segment has eroded over time. 
Today, Disney project teams work through an entire project from beginning to end starting at the design phase through start-up. In the past, Disney hired employees to meet project load and then downsized as project work declined. Today the company has fixed the amount of resources at about 1,200 people to avoid the cycles of hiring and downsizing as project work load changes. This requires better leveraging of personnel and working efficiently with more outside resources. He noted that they have learned the value of improved process based on their past history of poor coordination. Van Wyk said, “We have a history of metrics that shows over the past 20-25 years we spent a lot of money in the field executing project work.” He described problems contributing to inefficiencies including poor coordination, not finishing design on time, and not getting it right before going to the field to implement.
BIM Enabled Integrated Project Delivery
Van Wyk labeled their effort to implement a process as BIM Enabled Integrated Project Delivery (IPD). They are utilizing Building Information Modeling (BIM) as a way to keep track of all aspects of the project as the design evolves to completion. The overall objectives are predictability, collaboration, reduction of decision time, improved quality, and achieve just-in-time operations. It is their goal to develop sustained relationships and timely involvement with the implementations of designs, taking full advantage of the strengths of their partners. Van Wyk stresses making decisions in a timely manner with accurate information will avoid time and cost overruns. 
Collective Quality
Van Wyk described “collective quality” noting that in the past people on a project started discussing quality late. He said, “We were all looking at something that was miserably wrong.”   Often everyone was not familiar with the expectation or there were specification mismatches between disciplines that created the problem. Now they are having partners participate in the design review process to prevent problems.  Van Wyk noted that this can be enlightening. For example, they asked partners early in a project to describe their quality assurance program. One vendor that worked with Disney for many years requested a few weeks to prepare since they did not have a quality assurance program.
Collaboration Improves Projects
Van Wyk said, “We may spend 18 months to design and specify a project and when we think we have it all figured out, we put together a tender document and go out to bid. In six weeks, we expect an organization to assimilate everything we have done and tell us how much, how long, and reflect in far greater technical detail than what we have given them and lock them in.”   He noted that this is where the tension starts. They are changing the process so they can do a better job of locking in scope and cost. They are driving the process down to the field with a simple process of plan, precise, and produce on a weekly basis. They have to do short fill planning that is a bit of a role reversal. Instead of handing partners their schedules, we ask them how they want to work to accomplish the task. 
Key Lessons
Van Wyk summarized with three key things learned.
Champion innovation to continuously improve the project process, efficiency, and quality.
Utilize the talent and expertise of partners early in the process to leverage their knowhow. Select partners on the basis of total value (vs. lowest cost that can be more costly by the time the project is completed.)
Change processes appropriately when implementing technology, don’t just re-enable legacy processes.
Thoughts & Observations
David Van Wyk described a very mature approach to projects that was refreshing compared to low bid/price project acquisitions. They have learned that the lowest price may be more costly by the time a project is completed.
I am sure many of you have been in the position he described on a project where everyone is looking at something that is “miserably wrong.” The next part of the picture is determining who is responsible and the contractors, consultants, and engineers typically form a circle and point right.
The tools to do modeling are just starting to have a broader impact because they are becoming more sophisticated and are available at less cost.

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