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So what does weight loss and construction productivity have in common? If you track the inputs you are much more likely to get better results.

In 2008, a study was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine that shows that keeping a “food diary” may double your weight loss. What they actually found was that the more participants recorded what they ate, the more weight they lost in the end, and by a 2 to 1 margin. Let me repeat that, everyone recorded what they were eating, but those that did a more thorough and accurate job saw their weight loss to be twice that of those that didn’t.

This can be applied directly to construction productivity. In my travels nearly everyone I come across tells me that they track productivity, but when pressed on how and to what level, there is very little accuracy or granularity to their measurements. Typically it is total hours spent versus total hours in budget or some variation of that by cost code. In terms of weight loss, this would be the same as putting down an approximation of what you ate at the end of the week. This is not precise and will typically not improve the productivity of any company or project.

Wouldn’t it be better to take actual measurements and record them immediately? Similar to weight loss, it is better to take actual measurements (2 cups of 2% milk) than to just guess (a glass of milk). So why don’t most companies track actual quantities (240 feet of 18” duct installed using 4 people in 4.5 hours) versus just tracking the time (18 hours of work to cost code 300)? There are two simple answers to this: having a desire to actually improve and doing something about it AND having a tool that can do this efficiently so you are not spending additional time.

Having the Desire to Improve and Taking Action

Do construction companies want to improve their productivity twice as much as their competitor? Are they willing to take action? As with weight loss, the number one hurdle is you. Making the decision that this is very important to you and that you are going to take action remains the single largest roadblock. How to lose weight is not some complicated problem that man has not solved, it is very simple: burn more calories than you eat. We sometimes don’t like what that means so we invest vast sums of time and money on questionable things like pills and garments that have mediocre results at best.

Construction productivity is no different. There is no vast mystery on how to improve it: spend less time installing a unit. Getting to root of how to improve that becomes a bit more challenging, but how can we improve anything that we are not measuring? Most companies start to look for easy answers that typically have mediocre results. When at a client’s office, they indicated to me that they were going to invest $500,000 in new technology (BIM and document control) so that they can improve productivity in the field. So I asked the simple question, how much time do you lose to trade coordination and tracking documents? “Well, I am not sure, but this will save us time” was the answer while they still were missing the main point. Are you going to save $500,000 worth of time? Are there other areas you are losing time where the $500,000 would yield a greater return? They simply did not know because they were not tracking their productivity and the causes of poor productivity. If they really wanted to improve productivity they would begin by tracking it. How much time does it take to do a task? Why did we do so well on that task? What happened to drop our productivity on that task? If they had answers to those questions, improvement becomes a very simple task.

Having the Right Tracking Tool

Most construction companies have attempted at one time or another to track productivity, but due to complexity of the system it became a garbage in-garbage out exercise. The time invested in accounting systems, spreadsheets, or paper tracking became so cumbersome that it eventually fell by the wayside. You must have a tool that is geared towards tracking productivity if you really want to improve. It can be part of other systems but it must have these important features.

  • First and foremost it must be easy to use for the field personnel, complicated interfaces that take hours of training or that take hours to use simply will not work. The field is there to build a project and they cannot spend time away from their core mission.
  • It must track units installed and hours worked.
  • It needs to track work conditions. Simply tracking units and hours is insufficient data. Working 50 feet in the air in lieu of 8 feet in the air will produce different results and not knowing when each is occurring will not allow for accurate analysis.
  • It has to provide instant feedback. Systems that require others to close out books or print reports just delays the feedback loop to those that need know in real-time how productivity is changing.
  • It should integrate other features to reduce time on other activities. While the system could be stand alone and provide no other functionality than tracking productivity, it does become a chore that adds more time to the field. Look for systems that also produce time cards, daily reports, weekly planners, additional work directives, and other field reports to save additional time.
  • It should be accessible to everyone that has a hand in installing or managing work installed. Implementing a system that you can't access unless you go to the jobsite, or having to install software on every computer to use, will only cost you efficiency in getting the data. The cloud is a simple solution for accessibility.

Summary

In the past 50 years, according to the US Census Bureau – BLS, construction productivity has declined by 0.32% per year while all nonfarm industries have improved productivity by 3.06% per year. Taken over the half century it means in rough terms that productivity has improved 250% in other industries while slightly declining in construction. Construction can do better. We are not very efficient. So the real question is: will companies start to realize that counting their calories precisely is the start to improving their productivity and thus improving their margins?

About the Author

Craig Pierce

Craig Pierce has been working in the construction industry for the past 25 years helping subcontractors master their trade. Currently he is President of Atalanta Enterprises which provides consulting services to contractors And software solutions through ConstructionMonkey.com.