Enhancing Productivity: What's Your Game Plan?
Managing projects during a pandemic takes guesswork.
Mark L. Johnson / October 2021
Likely you agree with Shawn Burnum, president of the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry and vice president of operations at Performance Contracting, Inc., in Kansas, who says COVID-19 is the number one challenge the industry faces. The pandemic is the “the great disrupter,” Burnum says, affecting everyone’s operations now and likely for some time to come.
In fact, Burnum says his field superintendents are overwhelmed by COVID-19 situations. “They’re spending a third of their time on COVID scenarios,” he says. “They don’t have time to drive their projects and company profitability.”
Every day sees the pandemic steal time. One day, an employee doesn’t feel well, has had contact with others, and contact tracing needs to be done. It’s a disruption. Another day, plywood and cold-formed steel stud prices jump in price, and the superintendent must hunt down some supply from somewhere. That can all happen on the same day, and we’ve haven’t even mentioned working out the freight and deliveries of materials.
Can anybody build efficiently when project plans are busted at basic levels? Is it even possible to work productively during a pandemic?
Operations are under a new set of rules, says the FMI report, “The Silver Lining of Construction Productivity and COVID-19.” “While the pandemic’s earliest impacts on engineering and construction (E&C) remained unknown,” says the FMI report, “many construction leaders shifted their focus to known variables such as social distancing, technology and clients’ demands.”
If you’re looking for a pandemic productivity playbook, here are a few plays to try in this rapidly evolving landscape we know as construction.
Set Client Expectations
Your productivity game plan should include amping up your communication with others.
“I’m talking about communication with vendors and clients and setting expectations for them,” Burnum says. “You have to get out in front of problems as they arise.”
Burnum encourages his team to ask vendors to be specific about their lead times and prices. Some vendors are good about communicating what to expect. Others need prompting. In turn, Burnum says PCI tries to communicate vendor issues specifically to all crews and clients. The goal is to have everyone aware of what to expect.
“Unfortunately, some vendors call when a problem is already full-blown,” Burnum says. “For whatever reason, they thought they could handle it internally, or they didn’t anticipate it, and all of a sudden a little issue that could have been managed becomes so big it challenges everybody on the project.”
That’s why Burnum tells his superintendents to navigate through disruptions as early as possible and formulate solutions to the problems.
“If we can alert clients and come up with solution, versus just alerting them and not having solutions, then we have the best approach to that potential disruption,” Burnum says.
The Formulaic Approach
FMI, a consulting firm, says most construction companies use elaborate estimating programs and baseline crew rates that provide a multiplier for their work quantities. But with the pandemic affecting supply chains, those formulas are changing.
Best-in-class firms, FMI says, have developed new multipliers that factor pandemic economy variables into the equations. The variables include loss of production time to fulfill extra site cleaning, gains in productivity due to less trade overlap, and so forth.
“Going through the process of identifying and quantifying these numbers is a win for any firm,” FMI says. Thus, subcontractors need to “delve into their cost structure and avoid broad generalizations on productivity,” FMI says.
Source: FMI’s “The Silver Lining of Construction Productivity and COVID-19”
Adam Navratil, AWCI board member and partner/CEO of J&B Acoustical, Inc., in Ohio, agrees that being open about problems and managing client expectations helps greatly when working on projects. But he adds that many clients are supportive since the pandemic has affected all parts of the supply chain. Clients are usually not surprised when J&B Acoustical issues change orders that may affect materials, budgets and job sequencing, Navratil says. They key is to give general contractors specific guidance on what to expect on their projects.
In working out supply chain issues, Navratil believes his firm’s AWCI membership is a competitive advantage. His firm has strong connections with many industry players.
“Through AWCI we have relationships with many higher-ups,” Navratil says. “Other subcontractor companies that don’t have those relationships only get what they get right now.”
Recent reports suggest the United States is on the verge of a productivity boom.
March 2021 research by the McKinsey Global Institute, for example, identifies opportunities for incremental productivity growth in construction through off-site modular construction and “digital twin” technology. The latter makes use of virtual models when planning and coordinating work. MGI suggests overall annual productivity growth could accelerate by one percentage point by 2024, which “would be more than double the pre-pandemic rate of productivity growth,” a McKinsey & Company article says about MGI’s findings.
In mid-August, The Washington Post reported on the optimism of certain economists who see a return to a 1990s-style, technology boom-economy driven by “rapid adoption of robots and artificial intelligence during the pandemic combined with a rebound in government investment.” The pandemic may be “forcing rapid and widespread adoption of the digital economy, robots and artificial intelligence,” The Post says. Worker productivity grew 4.3% in the first quarter 2021, “one of the highest rates in years,” The Post says. While second quarter productivity slowed to 2.3% growth, it was still nearly double the anemic 1.2% productivity the nation experienced in the decade following the 2008 financial crisis.
However, the prospects for enhanced productivity in walls and ceilings through construction tech remains to be seen.
In August 2020, AWCI’s Construction Dimensions reported that productivity advances related to robots and artificial intelligence were not yet available for the field. Wall and ceiling contractors said they didn’t believe technology would “usher in an era of heightened field productivity” anytime soon.
That story remains the same today.
Mike Potter, vice president at The Raymond Group in California, says his firm has trialed exoskeletons, a form of wearable human augmentation that can reduce strain and fatigue for users and enhance their physical capacity. However, the technology has been hard to adopt.
“We tried them (exoskeletons) with our finishers working as they use bazookas on ceilings,” Potter says. “They didn’t like how they fit, so it didn’t gain traction.”
GPS tracking and Internet of Things–connected tools hold promise of boosting worker efficiencies. An IoT-connected power tool could show a manager how many fasteners were deployed each day and notify a tool crib when it needs maintenance. But using such data to “analyze production trends and worker behaviors,” notes the Foundation of the Wall and Ceiling Industry’s research paper, “Technology Impact on the Means and Methods of Wall and Ceiling Construction,” is still a ways off. The data is too complex to compile meaningful conclusions about field processes, and tool manufacturers will need to figure out ways to contextualize such data for it to help field crews to work faster and safer.
What about safety technology?
Mark Keith, director of building information modeling services at Marek in Texas, says his firm has been using a web-based safety reporting system with company smartphones. The platform gives the Marek team an easy way to record safety violations while also giving workers reminders about safety and positive feedback right on their phones.
While the safety reporting system saves managers time, it’s not making a big dent on jobsite productivity, Keith says, because project managers still spend a lot of time in GC safety meetings, whether in person or through videoconferencing. “That’s less time for managers to walk their jobs and track how much [material] their guys are laying down in the field,” Keith says.
Still, going paperless is making a difference in productivity. FMI says digital timecards, job reports, punch lists, submittals, schedules and other documents help construction companies to be more productive.
“By going paperless, crews can focus on the work and gain efficiencies that were previously out of reach,” FMI says.
Take Advantage of Pandemic Distancing Requirements
Wall and ceiling contractors may be able to capitalize on the current pandemic distancing requirements. Such spacing can give the crews, in effect, a distraction-free work zone—an opportunity to work efficiently without running into other trades. If such distancing rules are not in place, ask for them.
“When you have some level of social distancing, you’re not trade stacking one group on top of another,” Burnum says. “We don’t want a crew working in the same zone as an electrician still doing his rough-in.”
Of course, a general contractor may think that working separately is inefficient and would only further delay the project timeline. But is it inefficient?
“As a self-performing company, I can tell you there are productivity efficiencies from working in a space all by myself,” Burnum says. “I have room, and I don’t have to work around the other trades.”
Also, work with the GC to even out your manpower levels.
“When you have to spike up and then pull guys off a job, because other guys aren’t done in front of them, that’s difficult,” Burnum says. “My argument [to the GC] is, ‘Don’t do that to us. Let us have a smaller crew on site. If I have to bring 20 guys on your site, just to catch up, then take them all off and in a month bring them back, there’s no guarantee those 20 guys will be available. We’re so busy, and there’s so much work.’”
How the Pandemic Is Altering Business
Research last fall from McKinsey & Company shows that the biggest business changes during the pandemic are likely to remain after the crisis.
A survey of 899 C-level executives identified several large shifts occurring among organizations. Here are the top three shifts:
Changing customer expectations. 62% of respondents believe this change will stick, only 18% say it will not.
Increase in remote working. 54% believe it will stick, 23% say it will not.
Increasing migration of assets to the cloud. 54% believe it will stick, 27% say it will not.
Source: McKinsey & Company’s “How COVID-19 has pushed companies over the technology tipping point—and transformed business forever”
Of course, general contractors control the schedules, but a little reasoning may help them to see why being consistent with workflows, and not manning up and down all the time, can lead to greater productivity.
Can panelization and prefabrication bring efficiencies? Yes. Off-site construction processes limit bodies on job sites, which is safer, and they help compress construction schedules by beginning work on components early in the building cycle.
While off-site construction takes capital investment and front-end coordination with project teams, even small-market firms enjoy benefits from off-site construction.
“We have done panelization for 20-plus years. It’s an ebb and flow for us,” Navratil says. “But we definitely see productivity gains from it.”
He adds: “The big boys are spending a lot of money on this. It truly is a way to get more done with fewer people and keep the quality up.”
Provide Value Upfront
At this time of disruption, the takeaway for trade contractors is to focus on good communication with employees, vendors and general contractor clients.
As you have those conversations, request that general contractors help free up your work spaces by scheduling the trades to work separately and sequentially. You want to avoid crews bunching up on the job site. Also, try to make use of technology as it becomes field ready. And search for ways to pre-assemble, panelize and prefabricate components ahead of time.
In the end, doing more planning and collaboration upfront may be a primer for more design-build and lean construction projects.
“We know the products and the building installations better than designers. I don’t mean that in a critical way, but construction has become more technical and more complicated,” Burnum says. “I think GCs are going to lean more on their trade partners. Everybody wins when that is the case, so it’s an exciting time to get in front of projects and provide additional value.”
Mark L. Johnson writes regularly about the wall and ceiling industry. You can reach him at linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunicationsestimator’sedgebailey