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Momentum Men

Systems, Inc., Plantation, Fla., is 62, has raised two kids and run hundreds of jobs. He understands people. He knows how to get crews into a groove. • Howard can look at a set of prints and see how to structure a team for efficiency. From the plans, he can spot the likelihood of job conflicts, gauge the potential for change orders and anticipate shortfalls due to tight labor. • “I call it getting a flow to the job,” Howard says. “You start at Point A, secure buy-in from everyone and get to Point Z.”




Larry Howard is a momentum man. The general superintendent and safety director at B&B Interior Systems, Inc., Plantation, Fla., is 62, has raised two kids and run hundreds of jobs. He understands people. He knows how to get crews into a groove.




Howard can look at a set of prints and see how to structure a team for efficiency. From the plans, he can spot the likelihood of job conflicts, gauge the potential for change orders and anticipate shortfalls due to tight labor.




“I call it getting a flow to the job,” Howard says. “You start at Point A, secure buy-in from everyone and get to Point Z.”
Howard sets the tone not only for his crews, but also for the HVAC subcontractors, the plumbers and the other trades. Howard pushes the entire job forward. For him, the drywall team drives project momentum.




“We’re the people who set the pace,” he says.




The Momentum Effect


Business momentum. Some define it simply as a series of successes. In this light, momentum in the drywall industry is building.




Firms report volume increases. Some say margins are up. Many companies are hiring.




“Our bidding has doubled in the last four months,” says Mike Poellinger, president and general manager, Poellinger, Inc., a union drywall firm based in La Crosse, Wis. “For the first time in four years, we’ve hired a couple of apprentices.”




The hirings are significant. Poellinger has 20 employees on its payroll, but once had 70. In South Florida, B&B Interior Systems once employed 250, but now has 50, according to Jeffrey Burley, president of the non-union firm. And like Poellinger, B&B Interior Systems’ personnel ranks are rising. Still, Burley realizes he must gather momentum in the area of training and development.




“As we ramp up, we’re putting every able body out there—experienced and semi-experienced,” Burley says. “It doesn’t bode well for getting labor to hit the production numbers you want, but we’re working on training—feverishly.”




How does one start a perpetual motion machine? It’s not possible in physics, but in business? Is business momentum real? Can it be nurtured?




J. C. Larreche, a professor at INSEAD, a French graduate management university, says yes. The author of “The Momentum Effect: How to Ignite Exceptional Growth” says cultivating momentum calls for creativity and derring-do.




“It requires the ambition to break free from the traditional reflex of using more resources to fuel it,” Larreche writes in The Momentum Effect.




Take Poellinger, a firm currently doing more with less.




“We used to build money into our projects to cover things like an extra guy on the job,” Poellinger says. “Now we’re trying to bid jobs, run them one or two men short and accomplish the same thing.”




Mandel, quoted at the outset from “It’s All About Who You Hire, How They Lead … and Other Essential Advice from a Self-Made Leader,” says successful leadership involves employee engagement.




“A culture of family-first, respect, kindness and consideration is how you are able to attract and retain A-plus employees,” he says.




Put together these ingredients—creativity, ambition and a great company culture—and you fashion momentum for the firm. Poellinger’s creative expression, for example, is to broaden his product offering (he’s added air barriers and integral wall systems to his service offering) and run lean with mostly skilled crews.




“You can’t have 10 guys on the wall. You can only have three guys,” Poellinger says. “And if I try to put two crews on one building, then something is going to get missed along the way.”




Momentum in the Field




Clearly, momentum-driven decisions from top management can deliver good results. But how do you build momentum in the field? Howard has a thing or two to say on the subject.




A carpenter by trade, Howard became a superintendent early in his 29-year employment with B&B Interior Systems. He says job momentum is kicked started when he reviews the project plans. Here are his steps.




Step 1—Staff. Howard picks his project superintendent and sends him as soon as possible to the site. If it’s a big job, Howard makes a site visit himself, but only after the superintendent has a two- or three-day head-start to stage materials and schedule labor.




Step 2—Anticipate. Howard calls it “keeping an eye on loose ends”—identifying potential momentum busters, such as ambiguous construction drawings, unreasonable delivery expectations, unsafe work conditions, uncooperative fellow subcontractor trades, etc. Good planning smooths over issues that might later slow down work.




Step 3—Get buy-ins. Howard trains his superintendents to initiate contact with plumbers, HVAC mechanics and others. They need good communication skills, and some gumption, to get tight with the other trades. The goal is to be direct.




“They tell the duct man, ‘We don’t want you to cut our studs. Everybody will get mad. So, let’s work together,’” Howard says. “‘Where are your penetrations going to be? Give me the size of them. Give me the bottom number.’ If it’s a 10-by-12 penetration 11 feet off the floor, we want it marked on the floor. My framers will see it and frame the opening.”




“We ask the plumbers, ‘Where are your carriers? Are they floor-mounted carriers? How much room do you need?’” Howard says. “We set up the work so everything gets hung once.”




Currently, callbacks to re-do work occur on just 3 percent of the company’s total walls, Howard says.




Step 4—Set goals. Howard sets precise targets—and lots of them.




“At the front end of the job, my superintendents all get budgets. ‘Here’s your goal. Here’s your man-hours,’” Howard says. “It’s all profiled—how many hours to do 1,000 feet or 2,000 feet of framing. They’ll meet with their crews and say, ‘We’re starting here. By the end of the day, I need you to be here.’”




The result? Production momentum is building at B&B Interior Systems.




“We’re getting more out of everybody now than we did five years ago,” Howard says.




Step 5—Teach. Howard sees teaching as key to achieving forward momentum in construction, especially when directed at young, up-and-coming foremen and supervisors.




“I go to more of their job meetings. I stay involved with them,” he says. “The guys who’ve been here a while know my program, though it’s their program, too, since we’ve all grown together.”




The reality of a tight labor market is that many laborers are semi-skilled. Howard deploys crew members to jobs based on their experience levels and the supervisors who can best develop them.




“I put them with guys I know are good teachers,” Howard says. “One guy will get him up to a point and then get stale in training him. I’ll move him to another guy on a different job to learn that guy’s skill-set.”




Personality conflicts may get in the way. It’s to be expected. But, Howard doesn’t give up easily on people.




“I’ve got superintendents who drive me nuts,” he admits, “but they’re excellent workers. So, I talk to them every six months. They calm down for three, and I start over.”




Howard’s goal in training others is to build their confidence, get them focused on doing tasks well and bring harmony to the team.




“If I’ve got a happy sub-crew, I’ve got one that’s making money,” he says.




Final Ingredient: Respect


What’s the biggest mistake managers make in trying to carve out more work and more production flow?




“There’s a right way and a wrong way to push for organizational change,” say Ken Blanchard and Scott Blanchard in a FastCompany.com article. “We’ve observed a leadership pattern that sabotages change.”




The pattern? Not getting others in the organization to be part of the discussion. In other words, gaining company momentum—winning more bids, working more efficiently—involves upfront, positive communication. In a nutshell: Show people respect.




“You can’t talk down to people,” Howard says. “Just because they’re a lesser carpenter [in terms of experience] doesn’t mean they’re a lesser person. You can’t demand this and that and scream and yell all the time.”




Burley agrees. He’s realistic in his expectations for his supervisors. But, he still requires that they focus especially on providing on-the-job training.




“Some don’t like to mentor. So, putting them in a class with a life coach, well, I don’t know about that—I think they’re too crusty to sit through them,” Burley says. “But they still need to share their historical value and experience. They’ve got to try.”




Momentum. A series of successes. Getting from Point A to Point Z faster, better, stronger. Howard sums up the process: “Understand what you want. Take the time to show people what you want,” he says. “That’s showing them respect, and they just may give you the world.”




Mark L. Johnson is an industry writer and marketing consultant.

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