Typically, disruption in the workplace is counterintuitive to productivity. But in terms of creating innovative ways to manage people, processes and technology, the concept of “disruption” isn’t such a bad thing for the construction industry. Change is stirring whether contractors are ready for it or not, and firms that have adopted new ways of managing scheduling and workflows are seeing stellar results—earning the accolades of repeat projects for key clients, as well as happy project partners.
Dallas-based Skiles Group embodies the industry game-changer philosophy in this regard. In the past three years, the construction management company has tripled its project volume, growing its healthcare portfolio throughout the Southwest region for small and large clients. The firm has achieved this by embracing lean concepts, such as the Lean Construction Institute’s Last Planner System, target value design and Jim Suhr’s Choosing by Advantages method for decision-making.
“The energy from the change we’ve created here is generating more change, and that’s how I view the concept of ‘disruption,’” says Clay Harrison, CEO of Skiles Group and a new board member for TEXO, the largest commercial contractors’ association in Texas. “We’ve created a culture of ‘lean’ that is really about continuously improving the process. Now that it’s ingrained, everyone is constantly looking for a better, easier and cheaper way to do something. Once you get that rolling, it’s like a snowball; it creates mass and momentum for new efficiencies.”
Shapiro & Duncan, Inc., Rockville, Md., a large mechanical construction company, also prides itself on pushing the envelope in both workforce training and technology.
“Disruption and creativity are forever bonded together,” says Mark Drury, the company’s vice president of business development. “Disruption is a force to spurn creativity, and creativity leads to disruption. But change can be hard; our industry can be overprotective of the old-school way of executing projects simply because that is the way we have always done it.”
The first step toward innovation is cultivating a mindset that embraces change, Harrison says. And, that doesn’t mean only hiring young guns. In fact, some of Skiles Group’s veterans are embracing lean concepts just as wholeheartedly, and the team’s cohesion is helping the firm win new business and create stronger partnerships with subcontractors.
“All of our projects employ the Last Planner System as a customized lean dashboard, which is a visual tool that promotes complete transparency. We try to make things as simple as possible for our clients,” Harrison says. “That’s the biggest reward—when an owner requests a certain team on a job because of how we work.”
With fewer skilled craft professionals to go around as people retired or exited the industry during the economic downturn, it’s even more important to use labor wisely.
“Because the number of craftsmen is dwindling, we must work smarter and be more efficient. New technology, and the way we use it, gives us the advantage,” says Keyan Zandy, director of operations for Skiles Group, who has been responsible for driving lean processes at the company.
For Shapiro & Duncan, smart recruitment is the key to changing the status quo.
“The construction industry suffers because of the challenge to recruit people to enter our workforce due to misconceptions that our work is hard and dirty, skilled trades are a dead-end career, and that entering our industry should be a last resort,” Drury says.
For the past 20 years, the company has been working to change that perception by collaborating with school boards, state legislators and members of Congress and leading presentations for career days and testimonies. In addition, it’s focusing on balancing out the gender divide.
“The increased involvement of women in construction is a disruption that we need to embrace and move forward to take our industry to the next level,” Drury says.
Once the people are in place, it’s time to focus on each process, letting go of the attitude that “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”
Skiles Group has revolutionized the way they handle scheduling with subcontractors, which the firm refers to as “trade partners” to create a lexicon of equality and buy-in, rather than a top-down approach. “They know their work better than we do. Their voice is so important to our scheduling process,” Zandy says.
For example, instead of having occasional subcontractor meetings where everyone exchanges a few project notes, Skiles Group brings foremen, superintendents and trade specialists together for 15 minutes to review the lean dashboard, which is comprised of various elements, such as a three-week look-ahead, boards that track deliveries of materials, a constraints board and Percent Plan Complete.
“In this daily huddle, the trades talk about what they’re working on that day. We have floor plans and elevations and markers indicating where they’re going to be working, and we track their constraints. Everybody is on the same page; there is a lot of accountability and trust because of that collaboration,” Zandy says.
Skiles Group also engages the trades in pull planning, where milestones—such as steel or drywall installation, HVAC, electrical and finishes—are built into the master schedule, and the team works backward to determine all the handoffs that need to happen between each trade.
“This whole process gives them a voice and develops an alliance that respects the responsibilities among trade partners on the jobs,” Harrison says. “On Fridays, we do what we call a ‘weekly wipedown’ with the foremen. They talk about what they want to accomplish the following week, and they start to build accountability as they make commitments to each other. It forms a cohesive team among us and the subcontractors, and it helps to forecast manpower.”
The real game-changer is that Skiles Group is also implementing these lean concepts on smaller renovation jobs of about half a million dollars, versus the large jobs that are often credited with innovation.
On a recent project for one their clients, Skiles Group utilized Jim Suhr’s Choosing by Advantages tool to help the project owner select from among three potential site locations. The analysis helped make a strong case for a particular location, and that led to speedy approval by the hospital board.
“It completely changed our relationship with that client. They awarded us the next project without having to compete. That speaks volumes about lean’s benefits,” Harrison says.
Shapiro & Duncan boasts an industry-leading project planning and mechanical system prefabrication process that helps it not only address the workforce shortage, but also gain the attention of project owners and general contracting partners for future business.
“Our goal on every project is to maximize the amount of mechanical system components we prefabricate, from equipment valve packages to large multi-trade modular assemblies,” Drury says.
Ten years ago, the company combined its fabrication facility, materials, equipment and tools all in one place, allowing for just-in-time deliveries of manufactured assemblies and eliminating the need for large jobsite lay down areas. Also, this greatly reduces the demand for onsite labor.
“Our projects are enhanced because our team works hard to resolve project challenges in the planning stage,” Drury says. “Prefabrication brings an efficiently produced and sustainable work product executed on a production schedule that we can control in an optimum and safe work environment.”
Another key to being an industry game-changer: don’t be afraid to be the guinea pig.
“We are constantly in pursuit of capturing the advance of technology,” Drury says. “Many of the tools that we use—from software and hardware to machinery—we engaged with during their beta stage of development, and we continue to stay at the industry forefront by testing and helping to develop new tools.”
For example, Shapiro & Duncan employs technologies created with an open protocol that take the bumps out of the construction industry supply chain, from manufacturer to end user. These technologies help the firm better plan and execute projects at a micro and a macro level for forecasting, resource allocation or purchasing commodities in bulk based on backlog.
Skiles Group was an early adopter of KNAACK’s DataVault—which they modified and rebranded as the “Skiles Group Lean Machine”—that includes an integrated Apple TV, computer and printer where all of the project’s docs and plans are stored and all drawings, RFIs and submittals are hyperlinked.
This electronic document management system allows the team to color-code digital documents for easy workflow tracking. For example, when reviewing light fixtures on the electronic drawings, the system pulls up information about when it was submitted to the architect, when it was approved and the date it should be arriving onsite. Adding everything to the cloud also allows all architecture and engineering partners to see updates in real time—including pending change orders.
After all, construction is a business, and the motivation behind being a game-changer is ultimately to satisfy the clients’ needs in order to win more work.
“Our clients appreciate that we are industry leaders who constantly seek to improve,” Drury says.
It’s important to keep employees happy, too. Skiles Group cites the example of a 60-year-old employee who became an early adopter of lean and the Last Planner System, and is now reaping the benefits professionally and personally.
“He has never taken a day off during a project, and he’s the kind of super who will work overtime, including weekends, to make sure each job went perfectly,” Harrison says. “He’s now working on a large project with a hard completion date for a demanding client. A couple of weeks ago, he was able to take some time off to enjoy a quick trip with his wife because his job is ahead of schedule due to lean processes. That’s a glowing recommendation of what we are doing, and I only see more of that to come.”
Zandy agrees: “I think of the phrase ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.’ The more traction that things like lean and pull planning get in our industry, the more that owners and trade partners will understand the logic behind these processes and experience the benefits. Looking forward, everyone will come to expect that projects run this way.”