The fifth characteristic of high-performing contractors is they manage their processes.
All work is a process. We go through a series of steps to get our work done. In construction everyone follows a process — unfortunately, usually his or her own. Many managers think that since each project is unique, there can be no consistent processes in construction. Some feel it is dreaming to think that construction workers would follow documented processes. Few contractors are ISO 9001/2000 certified because of that thinking.
High-performing contractors are not necessarily ISO certified and don’t need to be. They have learned, however, to manage their work processes, not vice versa. They do not try to manage all processes, just the core ones that affect success. High-performing contractors define the core processes in sufficient detail so that anyone following the requirements will do it right every time. With consistent processes come consistent quality and predictable schedules leading to consistent profits.
While each job is unique, we go through the same basic steps to estimate it, to preplan and execute it, and to close it out and bill it.
Many contractors rely on tribal knowledge to do these tasks. They assume that the experienced workers will do the job right and pass the knowledge on to new workers. This is OK for about 70% of the work, but it is the other 30% where we lose our shirts.
I’m sure you all have stories of something missed in estimating the job, causing the PMs to scramble to break even. The punch list is a testament to inconsistent work and costly rework.
High-performing contractors prevent these mistakes by defining the core processes and ensuring they are followed. If mistakes are made, it is only once — not repeated on every job.
The late Philip Crosby, the quality guru, once said that companies that don’t manage their processes and those that do could be compared as hockey is to ballet. Many of us manage our work like a hockey game. We come early in the morning, turn on the lights and, like hockey, it is a unique and furious series of fire drills all day long.
Those that manage like a ballet have everyone dancing from the same script and the musicians playing from the same sheet music. Everyone knows and does his part (process) consistently. While each day is unique, the work processes are not and, by using consistent processes, those doing ballet management achieve consistent results with less stress.
High-performing contractors manage their processes in three areas: operations, support, and suppliers and trade partners.
Operations processes cover the core work. Support processes include functions that allow us to be successful on the job. These typically include sales and marketing, tools and equipment support, fabrication and delivery, and billing and finance. Suppliers and partner processes are services provided by outside personnel or companies.
In all three areas, the approach to manage the processes is the same:
- Identify the core processes.
- Define steps to do the process right.
- Examine the hand-offs between people or functions at each step. Define the rules of release for handing off work correctly.
- Document the steps and rules of release. Train those who need to follow the process.
- Identify key indicators or measures that tell if the process is working.
High-performing contractors work from this basic premise: We don’t get paid until the product is installed and our most expensive resource is our field crew. Therefore, all work and support should be structured to keep the field crews productively installing product.
Support exists to “support” the field! This may seem so basic as to not need stating, but too often material delivery, the shops and other support functions plan their work to keep their own people busy at the field’s expense.
They fabricate material to keep the shop busy but this causes the field to receive fabricated material well before it is needed. Field crews have to spend time stacking material for storage.
When material delivery loads material into trucks or trailers tightly to save trips, it causes the field to use valuable time unloading and sorting that material. Sometimes the fabricated material (especially ducting) is damaged from being crammed into limited space and requires rework.
High-performing contractors make sure support functions focus on meeting the field’s needs. Other areas where the high-performing contractor differentiates himself in managing processes include having measures, in using a corrective action system and also using lessons-learned systems.
Many contractors try to measure productivity. Measuring tons of fabricated metal per day has little real value and has nothing to do with productivity. The high-performing contractor measures quality (rework) and the percent of planned tasks completed.
High-performing contractors are always learning from their success and failures. To ensure that problems are corrected they use a corrective action system. This system deals with customer complaints in a responsive way. It provides records to ensure action was taken and the complaint resolved.
All contractors learn from their own project failures, yet as one contractor said, “There hasn’t been a new mistake made in years, we just keep making the same ones over and over!”
The high-performing contractor uses formal post-project reviews to evaluate major projects and to create company learning. These review meetings have a set method for evaluating and recording what worked and what did not. Support functions and customers participate in the reviews to provide a complete picture of the project. The system allows for lessons learned to be passed on to other employees.
The high-performing contractor works with his suppliers and trade partners to improve together. Performance criteria and actual performance are regularly shared with key suppliers. They hold events such as “supplier day.” These events inform and involve suppliers and partners in learning from the past year. They share annual plans. The high-performing contractor and suppliers and partners share in-house training programs. Suppliers are included in problem-solving sessions.
The high-performing contractor is always looking for ways to improve processes. He uses peer and industry groups, associations’ training and resources. He learns from the customers’ training programs too. He is open to new approaches being applied to construction such as Lean Thinking and the Theory of Constraints.
By managing core processes through documentation, measurement, corrective action and learning systems, the high-performing contractor achieves higher productivity, quality and consistency. The bottom line proves it. It turns managing construction from a recurring fire drill into a more orderly work place.
Finally, remember these related facts:
- All work is a process.
- Nothing improves unless something changes.
- Improvements come one project at a time.
- If you don’t manage your processes, by default they will manage you.
So what will it be for you, hockey or ballet management?
Dennis Sowards, now an industry consultant, led the development of the High-Performing Contractor Assessment model for SMACNA. His company is Quality Support Services and he can be reached at by e-mail at dennis@YourQSS.com or by phone at 602/740-7271.