Posts Tagged ‘contractors’

Construction Needs Troublemakers

April 6, 2011

I had lunch with Josh (not his real name) the other day.  Josh joined a large General Contractor last year as its first BIM director because the company’s owner came to the realization that his company was falling behind in technology innovation and need to get involved “in that BIM stuff” (my words, not his).  So, he hired Josh.

Josh is a guy that’s always looking to tinker. He finds out about new technologies, new processes, new services, and he’s the first one to start thinking about ways to adapt them to his organization. He won’t let a title like “BIM Director” limit his scope to just BIM. So, he’s made himself the inhouse expert in IPD projects, cloud computing applications and smart phone apps. The IT department thinks Josh is a real troublemaker, because he’s pushing them constantly to change their “old tech”/ “we can host anything”/ “MS Exchange Server Rules” mentality.

Guys like Josh weren’t hired by construction companies 10 years ago. But in these days of thin profit margins and hyper competitive bidding, contractors are chanting the “innovate or die” mantra a lot more often than they used to. However, they have a lot to learn about truly embracing innovation within their organizations.

Josh has his hands full for sure. Why? Well, he’s trying to turn his oil tanker with a canoe paddle. while the captain is in the wheelhouse trying to hold the line. Rather than give Josh the authority that he needs to boldly innovate, his company has tied his hands by forcing him to work with (i.e. around) his IT organization, which, in a nod to the “Greatest Hits” of 70’s management structure, still reports to the CFO. While Josh is committed to finding new, better ways of doing things, IT is focused on maintaining the status quo.

The owners at Josh’s company haven’t yet realized that they are in an innovation dip. It’s up to Josh to stir up enough trouble to make them wake up to the fact that innovation requires abandoning old practices in addition to introducing new ones.

More is Not Better

March 31, 2010

When it comes to technology in construction, I encounter two themes time and again.

From providers I see solutions that I can best describe as “Walls of Text”, that is to say huge, unapproachable applications with dry, generic-looking,  form-driven interfaces.  – Why is it that you NEVER see a screenshot of a project management solution? Because they all look the same, that’s why!  – Regardless of their application, these solutions feature the Mega Swiss Army Knife approach to software by loading up on countless features that require hours of training before a user can begin to use them productively.

The Mega Swiss Army Knife

On the customer side I hear overwhelming frustration. From users in large, actually the largest, organizations that commit to the mega solution,  there’s the time commitment for training, the time spent on data input, status updates and managing data exchanges with project partners.  Often times, for those in “smaller” organizations (i.e. those with less than $200 million in sales), there is a feeling that these huge enterprise apps are elephant guns when all they need is a .22 caliber rifle. It’s no surprise that many of those in the latter group turn to home-baked solutions for project management, estimating, accounting and other back office functions. That’s right, they choose to develop the software and infrastructure, pay for maintenance and then risk obsolescence rather than dance with the 800 lb gorilla.

What’s the answer? Obviously, no one has offered anything worth embracing yet. My hunch is that the key to the winning solution will be in the interface.  Construction is one of the most tangible, relevant industry in our economy, yet the software in which the industry conducts its business is mired in text and numeric data.  The one solution that actually wins over a significant chunk of market share* will be the one that breaks from the mold and translates that data in a visual manner worthy of the industry that it serves.

*Note- despite my best efforts, I was unable to come up with any market share data for use in this post. If you have any, please provide a link in the comments.  Years ago, when I last saw this market data,  the industry was dominated by the “Other” category with major players like Prolog barely registering in the double digits. It’s no wonder that none of the current software providers include actual market share in their press releases. Instead, they boast of their “X percent” increases over previous years. Which, of course, is code for “We’re embarrassed to tell you how little of this market we actually own.”

Flat Fee Construction: An Opportunity for Innovation

March 3, 2010

When you hear construction and The Great Recession in the same sentence, you wouldn’t expect it to be good news. But I read an article today in the Wall Street Journal that has me brimming with excitement over what the future holds for our industry.

Given a choice between going out of business or keeping their construction businesses alive, contractors are striking flat fee deals with banks to build/finish the houses of failed development projects.  Sure, the contractors quoted in the article mention that such contracts “help stop the bleeding” but how long would you expect any business to continue to work just for the sake of keeping the lights on? The strongest contractors will innovate in order to improve (create) their profits.

Where will the innovation come from? Well, I hope jobsite technology gets a good, hard look (OK, I’m biased). But you can’t predict these things. Maybe it’s more efficient use of materials or labor, new contract structures or creative insurance policies. Who knows? Every penny gained through innovation goes directly to the bottom line. Now’s the time to try things!

Given the large inventory of unfinished work in the now infamous markets of Florida, Arizona, California and Nevada, flat fee contracts with banks offer contractors a solid alternative to the bare-knuckled bidding wars that are taking place for government projects. Contractors in these markets can work in familiar territory to improve themselves.

What about you? What are your recession-inspired innovations?

Social Media for Recognition and Retention – Part 1

March 27, 2009

One of the attendees at my social media presentation to the local Associated Builders and Contractors board mentioned that he felt that there were many wasted opportunities to share stories about the great work his crew did.  He went on to say that his superintendents problem solving abilities were a real competitive advantage, but he found it difficult to convey that to current and potential customers.

I thought social media would be a great mechanism for sharing such stories.  The company benefits in a couple of ways. First, as the gentleman above suspected, these stories make great marketing copy. They create an opportunity for current customers to emotionally invest in the work of their contractor and paint an enticing picture for prospective clients.

However, I think efforts to recognize your crews’ success on the web will pay bigger dividends for the morale of the crews themselves. Think about it. If you see yourself mentioned in the company’s print newsletter, you might take it home to share with your spouse. However, if your mentioned in a blog post, with a link to the recognition page on the company website, then you’re likely to share that with all of your friends and family by email. Chances are that more than a few of those folks are in construction too, which means that your recognition effort can have recruiting benefits too.

See part 2 of this post for a 7-step approach for promoting the work of your crews.

Billy’s Journey

February 16, 2009

A recent conversation with a quality manager from a major general contractor brought this cartoon immediately to mind.  You see, this poor chap was under the delusion that he could simply walk from his desk to a condo unit to check the fit of the refrigerator and then walk back.  The time required to complete his journey: 2 hours!

family-circus-billy-pathAt every turn, the quality manager was beckoned by a information-starved  sub contractor with a question.  Each question began innocently enough.  “Got a minute?” they would ask.  But after a dozen or so of these, his 10 minute walk turned into a 2 hour journey.

My take on Billy’s journey:

  1. Ground-level direction leaves a lot to be desired.
  2. Tradespeople want to do a good job for their clients, but don’t always have sufficient information to do so.
  3. If chance encounters with roaming managers are how trade questions get answered, then I bet a fair number of trade questions go un-answered.

Project quality suffers in all cases.

Knocking Down the Silos

November 2, 2007

A recent article by Eric Anderson and Mark Wagner discusses the success that can be achieved when the silos of Architects, Engineers and Contractors are removed through the use of the integrated practice process.

As someone who comes from manufacturing and has seen firsthand the benefits of the Design for Manufacture I say here, here! When I joined the workforce in the mid eighties as a newly trained engineer, pumped up with information on the latest cutting edge practices and technologies, DFM was a new concept that I embraced and promoted. I was working as a manufacturing engineer for a company that produced military electronics at the time. This company had been in business since the 50’s and still manufactured products from that era, while also manufacturing products that were designed more recently using DFM.

When comparing the paper trail for old design products vs. DFM products there was a marked difference in the number of change orders issued during the first year of production. The change orders for the older designs had a much higher frequency of changes that were necessary in order to improve (or even allow) manufacturability. The DFM products, however, had much fewer changes during the first year and the changes that were made were dictated by technology or performance improvements, not to improve process.

So I anticipate that as the Westlake Steps* project progresses, the construction team will experience fewer change orders that originate from a problem at the jobsite. This should contribute to better budget and schedule performance. I would also suspect that reduced strain on the schedule should lead an overall improvement in quallity and eventually a reduction in disputes after the completion of the project.

*As far as I can tell, there has been no formal announcement of this project. But it appears to be destined for the Casey Family Building and adjoining parcels that were purchased recently by CarrAmerica. I suspect the A&E article, unknowingly spilled the beans.