Does this sound familiar to you?
Manager: “Are we going to finish today?”
Foreman: “No. We need one, maybe two more days.”
Manager: “What happened?”
Foreman: “Ran out of material. Truck late. Loading dock wasn’t available. One guy was a no-show.”
Manager: “Anything we could have done to prevent these problems?”
Foreman: “Not really. That’s just construction.”
Stepping out of Manufacturing into the Construction World a few years ago, it struck me how much more chaotic the day-to-day operations were in the field compared to the shop. Job outcomes were more unpredictable. Daily or weekly schedules were frequently disrupted for a variety of reasons: not enough material; quality issues; labor shortfalls, unexpected job interruptions…and so on. Field Supervisors spent a large amount of their time dealing with “hiccups” and resolving issues. They rarely had time to look beyond today’s challenges.
Field Supervision was also different than Shop Supervision. Foremen and Field Supervisors were usually promoted based on their ability to “get things done” despite unplanned problems that came up in the field. They were great at getting results, regardless of the roadblocks they faced. As long as the overall job budget and schedule was met (with zero safety incidents), the supervisor was considered successful. But how much unrealized potential was left on the table?
Shop Supervisors by contrast tended to be promoted based on their ability to drive sustainable Process Improvement. Their performance was measured based on improving Throughput, Productivity and Quality, Safety and other KPI’s. Yes, the overall bottom line mattered too: job profit, schedule, safety…but those broader goals were almost secondary to meeting the more tangible, measurable daily metrics.
In manufacturing we mobilized small teams to observe and evaluate processes. We broke down larger processes into smaller steps and looked for ways to shave minutes of the cycle time, reduce waste and improve quality. Incremental innovation in the production process often added up to big gains in throughput and quality. We called it “Continuous Improvement” or “LEAN”.
In the field, however, I noticed very little Continuous Improvement occurring. I saw waste everywhere I looked: oversupply, down-time, quality issues, etc. Few others seemed to notice and/or didn’t have time to deal with the issues. “Root-cause” analysis was rarely performed to figure out why the problems were happening in the first place. Supervisors appeared to be unusually busy all the time, reacting and solving problems on the fly, phones glued to their ears. They put their heads down, resolved issues and got the job done – obstacles or not. Once the issue was resolved, they moved on and rarely looked back.
We wanted to break out of this endless cycle of reacting to issues, but how? Could we leverage innovation to reduce chaos and to drive process improvement?
We dug deeper into our issues. We collected data to measure how well (or how poorly) we were performing across a wide range of areas. We asked ourselves very specific questions:
We sought feedback from our entire Team: Sales. Project Management. Logistics. Trucking. Field. Purchasing. We conducted observations to observe these issues occurring in real time.
At first, we ran into roadblocks. Some were reluctant to share problems for fear of retribution or blame. Problems were not openly discussed. To move forward we first had to look inward. We needed to strengthen trust between management and labor.
We let our teams know this was a zero-judgment, no-blame zone – and we meant it. We explained what we were doing and how it would benefit them. Eventually people came around and started sharing information. Trust grew. This in turn opened the door to challenging the status quo.
We gathered into small groups and challenged ourselves to throw out the old playbook and re-imagine our processes. No solutions were off the table. Sometimes one idea would lead us down unexpected pathways. New opportunities emerged in ways we hadn’t considered.
We examined each step of a process and looked at how we might re-arrange it, change it or improve it. We identified obstacles to our new ideas and found ways to overcome them. To get to the root cause of an issue we often had to ask “Why” multiple times to get the real answer.
We didn’t try to hit home runs. We kept the scope and time commitments small. A 2% improvement in one process might seem insignificant – but multiply that by 10 smaller, incremental innovations and you begin to realize a much larger impact.
Seeing is believing. To demonstrate proof of concept, we tested our ideas at our scaffold yard or in the field. We brought in our key field personnel to help us out. We conducted time trials and recorded data. We modified the process steps if we needed to. In our “laboratory” we challenged the way things “have always been done”, scrapping ideas that did not work. Often one test might lead us to 2 or 3 other ideas that we hadn’t considered before. Those who doubted the new processes and ideas could work were able to see them in action. Leaders emerged.
We quickly started noticing tangible benefits of our Incremental Innovations. Across the board, our Key Performance Indicators improved: Delivery, Quality, Cost, Safety. On-time delivery virtually 100%. Defective material nearly non-existent. Labor targets routinely crushed. Project timelines rarely missed.
Once the process started working, our supervisors began getting much fewer “crisis” phone calls for unplanned field problems. No more phones “glued” to their ears. This gave them more time to look ahead, strategize and plan…solving problems before they became actual problems. They became Proactive versus Reactive.
Employee engagement grew. Workers were able to use their own creativity and imagination to favorably impact their jobs.
One day early on in our journey my Operations Manager said to me, “Steve, My phone hasn’t been ringing today…I’m not sure what to do!” I just laughed and said, “That’s what’s supposed to happen! Now let’s get to work on the next thing.”
Innovation does not only refer to some new technology, expensive equipment or the “latest greatest” software. Incremental Innovation harnesses the power of your own people – working together to ask questions and find answers. It yields measurable results quickly, increases worker engagement and
identifies future leaders. Management needs to make it a priority and stay involved. Keep your innovations incremental at first to gain momentum and then never look back. Stick with it. This process requires direct management support, coaching and involvement. Choose to control the chaos or it will control you.
Steven Ott, PE, is Division Manager for Scaffolding Solutions, DC-Metro Division.
Scaffolding Solutions is an industry-leading full-service worker access company. Scaffolding Solutions provides advanced access systems, top-level service and advanced engineered solutions – with an emphasis on safety, culture and innovation.