Profile: Denton Wilson

Profile: Denton Wilson

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Contributed by:
Ezra Loh
Assoc. AIA

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Profile: Denton Wilson

As assistant vice president of design and construction for Methodist Health System (MHS), Denton Wilson is currently overseeing three consecutive healthcare projects here in the DFW area with a combined budget exceeding $360 million. A firm proponent of open communication, his collaboration-based approach gathers all individuals early in the project: architects, engineers, contractors, and owners. By carefully assembling these mega-teams, Denton’s strategy embraces a philosophy based on the open-source sharing of knowledge and expertise, and on camaraderie and trust built among teams and trades. This multi-disciplinary approach to team building, has led to many describing their work experience with Denton as purpose-driven, highly motivational, and a best-value approach for all those involved in the process.

Recently nominated for the 2014 Changemaker of the Year award, bestowed by the Center for Health Design, Denton sat down with us to grab a coffee at Oddfellows in Bishop Arts District to discuss his passion for building collaborative teams and projects.

Share with us a typical day in the life Denton Wilson?

I typically start my day at 5 a.m. It’s my time of solitude to reflect on the past day’s events and gear up for what the day has in store for me. I enjoy reading about current events and trends in the profession to stay ahead of the curve. I catch up on the numerous emails, address any issues with my team, and plan my day accordingly. I am typically in meetings an average of five hours a day, most of which involves leadership/project updates, steering strategies, or design/collaboration meetings. I don’t typically take a lunch hour, but that being said, I do frequently spend purposeful lunches with team members who I feel need mentoring or a supportive shoulder. Sometimes individuals just need a safety net or a time of listening and I try to always make myself available for that.

What are some of your daily tasks as VP of design and construction at Methodist Health System?

Depending on the phase of work, one of my daily tasks is being tour guide. Our projects tend to be extremely high profile and as such the need to show our progress is very purposeful. The pressures upon our hospital leadership are high in regards to making sure the outcome is as presented. The preparation to serve our community requires a true hands-on understanding of the design, coordination, and execution of these hospitals, and the impact that makes on delivery of care. Every time that we do a major healthcare project, it is a moment of education as our healthcare industry is working extremely hard to serve our patients with the highest level of care and resources. As technology changes so too does the complexity of our projects and the environment of care. A top priority for us is to engage our clinical staff in such a way that the transition into each expansion or new facility is carefully thought out and seamless.

What are your challenges as VP of design and construction?

My role requires me to make sure that our design and construction projects meet the expected outcome while being on time and on budget. This requires me to understand the many different needs of stakeholders and to be able to understand and guide undefined expectations. Then, I transpose all that to teams that are truly talented at extremely complicated designs, budgets, and buildings. Now, throw in tremendous clinical technology, really complicated equipment lists, amazing IT and system technologies, and some of the most complex building infrastructures you could wish for and you only look forward with confidence that your due diligence in team selection will validate your purpose. If one is not truly passionate about this job, one should find another business.

How do you encourage and foster team building?

We utilize several methods, but the two we tend to focus on most are team retreats and retrospectives. These are off-site meetings or “timeouts” that occur about three to four times per project. We usually schedule them at milestone markers of a project, like wrapping up construction documents or just before construction begins. I’m interested in analyzing our communication flow, information flow throughout the project, complexities that we overcame, and things that can help us all move forward. It’s a very open environment that allows everyone to take a quick breath, celebrate team and individual successes, and enjoy each other’s company on a personal level. These types of interactions promote honesty and goodwill that carries over when there are project challenges that need to be met.

You mentioned earlier that motivation is crucial in the well-being of your project teams. What are some tools you utilize to accomplish this? How do you sustain the energy level?

In order to motivate my teams, they have to be constantly learning and feel challenged. There are three key points I often remind my teams regarding motivation. A person must have autonomy, which is his/her purpose and defining characteristics. They must also have mastery of what they do, which often involves wanting to be really good at their jobs in order to become a part of the solution and help solve problems. Lastly, being a part of something that is greater than you could accomplish by yourself is crucial in staying motivated in what you do.

Many people in the industry use the term “collaboration” and “team.” How would you define these terms in your projects?

In today’s market, the definition of team has been elevated to a level of understanding focused on common ground. We see this common ground centered on a group of people committed to one another, to the project team, and to the project’s goals. But what truly unifies the team is a common vision. A team that is synchronized on this notion possesses a very strong level of accountability and understands that success is determined by the whole process and not just individual achievement. If you truly desire the best outcomes, then you need to establish a common vision within the team. True collaboration aligns multidisciplinary knowledge with the great technologies at hand.

What are the benefits of a collaborative approach versus the more traditional project delivery methods?

The collaborative process gives the designers more time, options, and flexibility, and a greater understanding of what best value means to a project. Traditionally, the reduction of design potential is encountered much further into the project timeline when decisions are made to value-engineer or redesign. By realigning the knowledge of architects, engineers, and other project individuals upfront, we encounter fewer schedule impacts, better constructability, and much more efficient models.

What are some challenges you face in transitioning individuals to these collaborative team models?

Part of the challenge is the amount of time spent upfront—the front-loading of knowledge can be intimidating to many owners. However, the proper aligning of knowledge-based teams is crucial in the beginning. Great design does not just happen. It has to evolve and grow as a collaborative process. The ability to implement BIM technologies, combined with efficient team-building strategies, speeds up the delivery process. Even on the most well-managed projects the misalignment of processes and information will cost time, money, and measurable value. Therefore, we implement a strategy called “slowing down, to speed up.” Everyone still has his or her individual responsibilities and tasks, but we take the time to establish and define our milestone targets during our pull-planning sessions. This allows us to define the roadblocks ahead and move forward accordingly.

How would you summarize the power of team collaboration and the benefits to the individuals involved in your projects?

I have been blessed to work with some very talented individuals who are proud of what they do. We work in environments built on-site to allow collaboration by working alongside one another. This exposes all disciplines to one another and gives everybody access to communal information. By working in this manner, we are able to re-align knowledge and information quicker and more efficiently by making it accessible to the entire project team.

You are a firm believer in a proper work/life balance. What does the term “quality of life” mean to you?

For me, it is the ability to turn your mind off. It can be difficult to disconnect yourself from the distractions of the workplace at the end of the day. I want to find that balance and betterment for my family and myself. I will tell you very proudly that the strength and support of my bride and best friend for 28 years has been the behind-the-scenes foundation of my workplace successes. For me, it is about finding ways to spend time with my family and really connect with them. I have made it my priority since my son was six years old to write him notes: thoughts I wanted to tell him or share with him. That helped me slow down and find that balance of family. He will tell you today that he still has all those notes.

What do you want people to know about your how you work and operate with your teams?

Personally, my motivations for the MHS projects I oversee are not necessarily rooted in winning design awards or recognition. I want to take all these projects combined and make the industry better. The healthcare industry is getting stronger and smarter because of these collaborative measures. People across all segments and disciplines are getting tremendous betterment for themselves individually as they come off these projects knowing more about the whole process. My teams know that I strive to create opportunities that can help make their subsequent projects better. If you create these opportunities and experiences now, then the process will have sustained its purpose for future projects and endeavors.

How do you spend your time outside of your responsibilities at MHS? Any hobbies or other interests?

I think it’s important to find something that gives you some release from your daily tasks and responsibilities. For me it's taking pictures. My picture-taking is something that allows me to totally get absorbed in something that takes concentration, separates my mind from clutter, and takes dedication and practice to continue to grow. It is simply my time.

What others are saying about Denton Wilson:

“His ability to build teams that promote open communication and trust significantly improves the overall quantitative and qualitative goals of each project. Whether it is identifying challenges and providing solutions earlier in the process, engaging more diversified thoughts and opinions, or utilizing current pre-fabrication and visualization trends, the team is always striving for best value at each phase of the project. This ‘best value’ approach is evident in each of the successful projects that Denton has been a key part of.”

“This open interaction is very impactful to the overall success of our projects. It is great to see architects start thinking like electrical subcontractors, and materials management teams thinking like flooring installers. The importance of the pull planning sessions and the strong influence of all team members being present and engaged strengthens the project. People simply want to go out of their comfort zone to help another team member if they feel a strong sense of connection and shared purpose. It’s contagious. It’s also imperative to get team members to engage away from the project site. We hold retrospectives at key points in the project to allow everyone to take a quick breath, celebrate team and individual successes, and enjoy each other’s company on a personal level. These kinds of interactions promote honesty and good will that carry over when there are any project challenges that need to be met.”

Denton is also a prolific and talented photographer. See his art here


Inteview by Ezra Loh, Assoc. AIA, a project designer with Michael Malone Architects.