Productivity: Doing More with Less
Ulf Wolf / July 2018
Industrywide, we face a labor shortage.
While not a long-term solution, you can at least partially make up for not enough hands on deck by making each hand more efficient and productive, and so patch the shortage hole.
Many of you have pondered this, and many of you—brilliant ponderers that you are—have come up with innovative and practical ways to make crews more productive. It is this experience and knowledge that we’ll tap for this article.
Many factors have bearing on productivity, some positively, some negatively. What are the most overlooked ones?
“Proper stocking and movement of material,” says Michael Mazzone, president of Statewide General Contracting & Construction, Inc. in Hawaii. “This is a must.”
Joseph Stevenson, owner of WhiteStar Enterprises, LLC in Oregon, has found that, “Keeping morale up and combining crews who work well together is key. Supervision does this by keeping the habitual talkers apart, taking into account personalities and habits.”
Robert Lingenfelter, president of Gibson-Lewis, LLC in Indiana, suggests, “Having to correct mistakes impedes production.”
Joe Johnson, president of Prestige Drywall, Inc. in Minnesota, has found that “housekeeping and a clean job site are often overlooked. Having a clean job site not only improves productivity and safety, but it also improves the overall attitude of employees on a project. We’ve found that a clean job site often creates a more positive workforce.”
Observes Michael Weber, president of Island Acoustics LLC in New York, “Managing logistics, mobilizing manpower, tools, equipment and materials to a location to perform a task is costly if the area you are scheduled to work in is not available when you arrive—the costs to remobilize are significant.”
As Mike Heering, president of F.L. Crane & Sons, Inc. in Mississippi, says, “The main factors inhibiting production are poor organization, inadequate communication, flawed performance management, contractual misunderstandings, poor short-term planning, insufficient risk management and limited talent management.”
John Kirk, owner of Kirk Builders in California, observes, “The most valuable workers produce well from a sense of pride and personal drive. And while they obviously increase profits by their output, they also set the standard for other less productive workers to strive for, raising up whole crews. Normally, these people are not recognized and rewarded. They should be. Always.”
Says Pat Arrington, principal at Commercial Enterprises, Inc. in New Mexico, “In an eight-hour work-day we rarely get more than seven hours of work at the wall due to coffee breaks, toilet time, morning startup, lunch finish, end-of-day rollup. If we can limit the lost time to one hour a day, we are lucky.”
For Tommy Weeks, superintendent at Marek Brothers Systems, Inc., Dallas–Fort Worth, project cleanliness is a main factor. “Too often, a cluttered project is considered to be the norm and not the exception. A well-planned project will adopt lean policies and procedures such as stocking only materials that will be utilized within certain milestone dates and ensuring that construction debris is removed daily, if not sooner.
“Dirty, cluttered projects equal poor production and morale. It also sends a message to everyone associated with the project of your level of commitment and of the importance you give the project and its success.”
Phil Ruffin, president of Pontiac Ceiling & Partition, LLC in Michigan, says jobsite organization is key to productivity. “Lack of organization on a job site can spell disaster for any project,” he says. “Starting with the GC and going through all the subs, a comprehensive, organized, sequential plan of attack benefits all contractors on the site. This will allow for maximum efficiencies and eliminate delays to the project.”
Charles Antone, consultant at Building Enclosure Science in Rhode Island, speaks from experience: “Good communication is the key, especially with today’s compressed schedules. You’ll also see diminishing returns from staffing a multi-trade assembly on top of each other. Each trade needs a clean, open space to achieve higher production. This starts with specialty contractor input at the project planning and scheduling stage.”
As for Scott Bleich, co-owner of Heartland in Iowa, “The main factor is to inspire people to want to make themselves and their leaders successful.”
Adam Barbee, general superintendent at Daley’s Drywall in California, suggests a good “flow of work and sequencing among all trades involved, from beginning to end. To achieve this, the job site needs strong leadership and coordination from the GC, as well as from yourself. Another overlooked factor is site organization and cleanliness.”
How do you know whether your crews are productive? How do you best determine or measure productivity?
For Mazzone it’s, “Linear feet for framing and square foot for drywall and ceiling.”
Suggests Lingenfelter, “Have two different people visually estimate percent complete of work-in-place versus the cost-to-date on a task-by-task basis. Compare and arrive at a consensus.”
In Johnson’s experience, “At the end of the day, the bottom line is often the biggest indicator of production—or lack thereof.”
Heering’s company determines productivity through accounting software. “The foreman measures or counts assigned unit values and loads them on his field tablet,” he says. “Data is then imported to our job status module by cost code. It’s a far better way of tracking up-to-date production rates than the weekly guesses from not so long ago.”
“The metrics I use,” says Kirk, “is how much material is used. That, and lineal or square feet produced.”
Says Arrington, “I like to go to the job site and watch a team work on various work categories. I watch the progress for a specified time to see if they are meeting estimated goals. If production is not up to estimate, I try to determine delaying factors; if none, I deal with the team directly.”
First and foremost, Weeks measures productivity “by what I see, smell and taste.” He explains: “What is the overall morale and vibe between the leadership team and client and between this team and our workers? There are also the fundamental observations of material placement, proper equipment and tools, work flow, loose ends and project cleanliness. That said, the bottom-line measure is established at our weekly budget reviews that include foremen, superintendents and project management.”
Says Ruffin, “We have a pretty good job-cost tracking system that can be broken down on many levels. We can track floors, walls and other specific portions of a project to arrive at live, accurate cost-to-budget percentages, production rates, quantities, etc.”
Suggests Antone, “You have to isolate each variable, each step. Then you have to go out there yourself (don’t take secondhand information) and mark a starting point. Then go back after a reasonable amount of time to measure the difference and divide it with the amount of time elapsed. Fundamental but accurate.”
Says Bleich, “We determine it by the bottom line: Did the project come in, on or under budget?”
As for Barbee, “We currently use a digital production program, which our onsite foreman has on his laptop. The program allows the foreman to click on any scope that’s been bid, and it will then show the task and estimated time to complete it. The foreman tracks this and enters percentages complete through the whole process. This provides a good measure of our production.”
Everyone knows that training is vital to quality job performance. But how does it relate to productivity?
Lingenfelter’s view is this: “As a rule, the project specifications set the standard for quality expectations, but the means and methods are up to the contractor. So it helps to have a culture in which people are encouraged to share new ways or techniques to increase productivity. An old-school hanger might prefer pulling screws from his pouch whereas a new apprentice might go faster using a screw gun with collated screws. The way a person learns may be the way he or she does it for a long time, so better to learn the best way at the outset.”
“Training is difficult to quantify,” says Johnson, “but there is no doubt that a better-trained employee is a more-productive employee. We often run into circumstances that we were not made aware of or couldn’t see during the bid process. If our employees are trained properly, they are able to think on their feet and come up with cost-effective solutions without slowing down the process by requesting RFIs or by involving the office.”
Weber says, “Having a workforce trained and specialized in specific skills—layout, framing, hanging board, setting doors and hardware, acoustical ceilings, etc.—should be a recipe to success. A jack-of-all-trades man is more suited to one- or two-person operations, which require multiple skills to get the job done.”
“We believe that training plays a huge factor in productivity,” says Heering. “That’s why we started Crane College where we provide three levels of training, from apprentice up through superintendent.”
Weeks says, “Training can at times feel like a burden if you don’t keep the long-term goal in mind. However, it brings very satisfying long-term rewards as you come to see that all the effort and dedication you have invested in an individual now pay huge dividends.”
Explains Ruffin, “We are constantly training our people on new tools, new techniques and new ways of doing things. In essence, we do try to reinvent the wheel every day.”
Bleich feels that, “After inspiring workers and good communication, training is the third most important factor. We have plenty of willing people in our industry; we just need more who are willing and able.”
“Training and knowledge are key,” says Barbee. “The better the knowledge, the better the production and quality. The key to training is being able to pass on your skills so well that the trainee then, in turn, can train others.”
Scheduling is often an issue, but does it relate to productivity?
“Big-time,” says Lingenfelter. “Jobs that flow well increase productivity for everyone. We once worked on a project where an international construction firm used the phrase, ‘Go somewhere and do something.’ Needless to say, anyone following this mantra ends up with fragments and nothing is complete anywhere.”
Johnson agrees. “Schedules are a very important factor,” he says. “Today, we’re seeing increasingly aggressive schedules that make it very hard to optimize productivity. “I make very sure that the GC understands that when I have 100 man-days figured in my bid, that does not mean that I can send 100 guys to the job site and get it done in a day. Having a schedule with adequate time for all trades to get their work accomplished is in the best interests of everybody involved.”
“Schedule the appropriate manpower to perform the tasks,” suggests Weber. “Too many people assigned to a project often results in missing production goals. Rather, run it lean and keep your crew hungry for more things to do, to avoid complacency.”
Arrington says, “Good GC sequencing is the key to meeting your production goals. Start early on the project, start with a small crew, let the project push your short crew.”
Quips Ruffin, “While most GCs try to run the subcontractors by their schedule, we like to reverse it and run the GCs by their own schedule. When schedules slip, we lose. When there is no accountability for the schedule, the project becomes a free-for-all. This means lost productivity and lost money. Following an intelligent schedule is of utmost importance to a productive, successful project.”
“Slow is smooth,” says Barbee, “and smooth is fast. We have to go fast enough to get there but slow enough to be efficient. Sequencing and scheduling can make or break your productivity.”
Communication and Supervision
What about communication as a productivity factor?
Says Mazzone, “Good communication between our office and the field leads to better supervision and better productivity. Also, having open communication between the general contractor and other subs keeps the project moving forward and production high.”
Lingenfelter’s take is that communication is a huge factor. “A competent leader possesses the knowledge and experience to look ahead adequately to plan and execute, and to make sure others do so, too,” he says. “It’s like planning chess moves with options, because things don’t always go according to plans. MBWA—manage by walking around. Keep on top of things so you can make corrective moves quickly and limit the impact on subsequent activities.
“A leader who fails to plan plans to fail. Good leaders don’t have to yell and scream, they systematically avoid conflict because they actively steer the job.”
“Supervising your crew by setting clear and attainable goals is paramount,” says Weber. “Whatever measuring process you’ve instituted to track production needs to be reviewed as often as possible with an open line of contact between office and field personnel to ensure obstacles affecting productivity are attended to. It’s a team effort.”
Kirk adds, “Also, unspoken communication is vital. Every successful tradesperson in construction knows how things work. It works best when there is an unspoken symmetry during the course of a day’s work or during the length of a project.”
“Good supervision and communication,” says Arrington, “translate into not having to redo 17 percent of work done due to mistakes, which is work that then has to be removed and replaced. It will improve production by 34 percent, counting the time it takes first to remove the faulty work and then to replace it.”
Observes Bleich, “Poor communication or lack of communication accounts for a majority of the issues we have in our industry.”
Mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets have made communication more or less instant. How do they affect productivity?
“There is a trade-off,” says Lingenfelter. “Yes, you can reach people at a moment’s notice, but you interrupt them, and they interrupt you.”
Johnson thinks they help productivity in that “the exchange of information happens much faster, but with some unintended consequences. For one, I think it has allowed architects to spend less time coming up with a clear, concise and complete set of drawings prior to the start of the projects because they feel they now have the ability to make changes on the fly and just send out emails regarding those changes.”
“Mobile devices can help greatly,” says Bleich, “if used correctly to speed up communication. Conversely, they can also be a huge drain on productivity if workers abuse them by making personal calls, texting, checking social media, etc. during work hours.”
Here are some things that work well when it comes to productivity.
“Employee attitude,” says Johnson, “in my opinion, is the biggest single driver of productivity on a job site. We are in the business of finding solutions, not problems. If you have employees who come to work with a can-do attitude and who are positive on-site, that rubs off on everyone around them and creates a smoother, more productive job site for all trades. If you have a negative person who is constantly trying to find issues with a plan or job site, it drags everyone around them down.”
Weber shares, “As a rule of thumb, when staging material to a location, after determining the quantity of commodity products required—steel studs, wallboard, ceiling grid and tile, etc.—I reduce my first delivery of materials estimated to perform the task by 15 percent. Often, things change and overloading a project with material can affect production as well as the cost associated with removing excess product from a site.”
For Weeks, creating a purpose is key. “Give everyone working on a project the opportunity to create something great,” he says. “People like to have a feeling of value and worth.”
Bleich agrees: “People want leaders who not only motivate them, but also inspire them.”
Adds Ruffin, “Be up front with your foreman regarding how much time they have for a specific task. You want to build trust between the office and the field—sharing our production factors, job costs and job budgets goes a long way to investing our foreman in the process.”
Barbee adds, “Show your employees your appreciation for a job well done. It speaks volumes and will increase production. Also, you must be willing to spend money on proper and the most efficient tools and equipment. It will cost up front but pay off at the end. And you have to be open to new ideas and take some tactical risks. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
“Many technological advances improve accuracy and have the potential to increase productivity,” suggests Lingenfelter. “A robot layout system might allow a one-person layout crew versus two. That said, getting people to adapt and adopt can be a challenge, especially as some older people are resistant to change or confuse increased production with ‘working themselves out of a job.’ Many companies are faced with manpower shortages, which makes it a great time to embrace new technology.”
Heering concurs, “I think that we have to stay up-to-date not only with technology but also with new tools being developed that can save time in the field. I think when it comes to productivity, you have to consider tools that can speed up the process and increase efficiency. If we don’t take advantage of these innovations, others will—and then they will be the leaders when it comes to productivity.”
Adds Bleich, “For us, optimal crew size is key to hitting our production targets. Also, technology, obviously, is a huge factor in not only communication but also in lighter, more-ergonomic, faster and more-accurate tools.”
A correctly-sized and inspired crew, in good communication with each other and its management, equipped with, and well-trained on up-to-date, effective technology, working a clean and well-sequenced site, cannot help but produce admirably.
California-based Ulf Wolf is the senior writer at Words & Images.