Letters to a General Superintendent (Part 14)

Doug Bellamy / September 2015

What follows is the 14th letter in a series of letters supposedly written by an owner (Jack Owployer) in response to a general superintendent’s (Joe Gensup) request for something more than the typical job description. Though the company had provided a generic job description, what the superintendent needed and received was much more personal and heartfelt when compared to the sterile notion of do’s and don’ts so commonly emphasized throughout our industry.

Dear Joe:

Henry (Ford, that is) once said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” All too true! So then, let’s not cater to what anyone else wants or thinks they need; let’s do what needs done. Are you up for that? It isn’t easy.

Too often there is an unwillingness to experiment and struggle through the change necessary to innovate. It holds the overwhelming majority of businesses, as well as individuals, back. They want to do what they’ve always done, the way they’ve always done it. They sing the national anthem of bad business, the six most expensive words in business become their chorus as they chant repeatedly in succession: “We’ve always done it this way.” They are stuck thinking about “faster horses” while the innovators are dreaming about assembly lines and automobiles. But they are not us and we are not them! Right, Joe?

We both know that Henry’s ideas are practically primitive nowadays. Automation has evolved to the extent that today’s factories are tech savvy operations that have, in many cases, replaced humans with robots. We are left wondering if that is good or bad. Meanwhile, the only “constant” remains—change. Like it or not we are destined to remain in a state of flux as the construction world evolves, slows down, speeds up and throbs in fits and jerks.

We find ourselves repeatedly needing to adapt to another version of the construction cycle. Don’t we? It is never identical. It is always riddled with new variables, keeping us from solving our problems with cookie-cutter solutions. Meanwhile, it remains completely unpredictable and predictably uncooperative. It eludes us, no matter who we are and how experienced we become. Doesn’t it?

This time we find ourselves stripped of skilled labor with a long line of novices streaming into our projects. The apprentice, this friend or foe who is both needed and hated to a greater or lesser extent. The word “apprentice” tends to conjure up the image of some sort of well-meaning buffoon struggling to master a craft that he has ignorantly entered. Is this all we have to work with? Are we left once again to make chicken salad out of chicken feathers?

Which brings me to the question I posed in my last letter: “How are we going to make these young new hires, unskilled as they are, productive and do so, in short order?” In addition to our core group of skilled labor, we’ve got numerous new hires, unskilled apprentices, and plenty of drywall needing hung and taped. What are we going to do? I’m glad you asked.

The best way to make our new generation of tradesman productive is to specialize them. Teach them an “operation,” not a trade. The trade will come later. It can wait. We need to hone their skill on one or two specific tasks and then turn them loose doing that task. Oh, we’ll have to watch them, and they will have to refine their skills, but if we insist that they focus on one particular facet of the trade, they can master that particular task quickly. By doing so we can take an assembly line approach to our installation and finishing.

Let’s think in terms of a residential drywall contractor, although this could be applied to commercial projects as well. So then, most residential drywall companies are currently hiring small groups or crews to complete each home, unit or project. This approach is commonly called “completions.”

We don’t want to do what everyone else is doing. Do we? We never have, so why start now? Let’s take another approach. Let’s do “different.” Some have referred to it as “operations” or an assembly line approach. Let’s specialize our new hires to perform particular tasks and produce a consistently better product at a lower cost. Ford did that very thing. There is nothing new here. Let’s reach back into yesteryear and drop this concept right into tomorrow.

I’ve got more to say about this—a lot more! I’ll get back to you soon.

—Jack

Doug Bellamy is former president of Innovative Drywall Systems Inc. dba Alta Drywall, Escondido, Calif. He is known for his original thought, innovative approach and the personal development of unique processes, systems and procedures. He is available for consultation, business management seminars and training. Visit him on LinkedIn or contact him at doug@altadrywall.com.