Steps To Improve Construction Productivity
Low annual increases in productivity have characterized the construction industry as a whole. Yet there is a bright side: In an industry that can have as much as 50 percent nonproductive time, there is ample opportunity for improvement. Taking advantage of this opportunity involves implementing an overall personnel management program and carefully analyzing every aspect of the jobsite. The following ten-step program for improving jobsite productivity can help your company increase efficiency and cut costs, while still providing quality workmanship.
Step 1: Instill Pride In Your WorkersBy its very nature, the construction process depends on the efforts of construction workers. In typical building construction projects, the direct labor cost may be in excess of 35 percent to 40 percent of the total project cost, exceeding other cost components such as materials, equipment and overhead.
The high dependence on labor efforts is compounded by the fact that many construction workers view themselves as working for a job rather than working for a firm. Whereas a tool and die worker in a factory, a retail clerk at a store or a receptionist at an office may work for a firm their entire working life, a construction craftsman may work for several contractors in a given year. The result may be that the construction worker doesn't view himself as working for a given firm; instead he may view himself as working on various jobs.
In any case, the construction firm and its supervisor are very dependent on the attitude of the construction worker. For example, if a worker completes work assigned to him, he may go looking for more work to do, or he may simply stand idly by waiting for more work to be assigned to him. The difference in his attitude could be the difference between a productive, profitable job and nonproductive, unprofitable job. If the worker views himself as working for a firm, he is more likely to be productive - even when he doesn't have to be - than when he views himself as working on a job.
The personnel management efforts of the supervisor are the key to helping the worker view himself as working for the firm. In his attempt to develop positive worker attitudes and align the workers to the construction firm as well as the job, the supervisor should begin by instilling pride in each and every worker.
Recognition: Pride in work hinges in large part on employee recognition. Management actions such as a pat on the back or a compliment for a job well done don't cost a penny, yet they can greatly improve employee morale and productivity. Simply asking workers for their suggestions and ideas can help develop a long-term commitment and improved productivity.
Other ways management can instill pride in workers include placing the names of the workers on a sign at the jobsite, or perhaps setting aside a day in which the worker is able to bring his family or friends to view the work in progress.
While some of these and other actions may be constrained by the short duration of some jobs or insurance concerns, the bottom line is that a failure to give workers pride in their work is likely to yield negative results.
Step 2: Improve CommunicationsEffective supervisor communication entails taking the time to properly explain the work process to the worker. Leaving the worker in the dark as to what is expected of him and how the project is progressing does not foster a positive attitude.
Consider the case of a coach on a basketball team. What if the coach told three of his players to go into the locker room while he explained the game plan to two of his players? Clearly this would cause discontent, a divided team and a less than positive attitude among the players. Yet that is what a construction supervisor is doing when he keeps construction workers in the dark.
The worker must be told what is expected of him before he begins the work and updated on his progress as the job is under way. Give some thought to sharing with the workers such information as man-hour budgets, expected productivity, projected completion schedules and progress reports.
Poor communication leads to more than poor worker attitudes; it leads to unnecessary redo work and makes it impossible to adequately gauge work progress. There are two types of communication that are critical to a productive jobsite - oral communication and written communication.
Oral Communication: Effective and productive oral communication at the jobsite is complicated by the fact that conversations are often carried out in the open in a noisy environment. Another concern is that the individuals involved may have different vocabularies and different communications skills. A construction craftsman, foreman, superintendent, project manager and architect may all interpret phrases and words differently.
Effective oral communication entails listening as well as talking. All too often the supervisor only talks at the worker, and never asks him for ideas or listens to his concerns. On occasion, the person who best knows how to form the walls or place the steel may not be the supervisor but instead the craftsman. Failure to take advantage of this knowledge not only forfeits a more efficient construction method, it runs the risk of adversely affecting the work attitude of the craftsman.
Written Communication: The construction industry has been characterized for many years as an industry with inadequate written communication. Inaccurate time cards, late reports and lost or misplaced documents are typical of the construction jobsite. Part of the reason for these inadequacies relates to the decentralized nature of the work process.
Most industries create and monitor their written communication system at the same place they make their product and conduct their cost accounting. In the construction industry, written communication is often created at the jobsite, transferred to the contractor's main office and then communicated back to the jobsite. This process results in untimely and sometimes incorrect reports.
The construction supervisor often complains about bad record keeping at the jobsite, but in fact he himself may promote bad record keeping. The timecard that requires foremen to keep track of workers' hours charged to specific tasks is likely to be filled out weekly rather than daily. The result will be that the foreman cannot remember on Friday what the worker did on Monday. Instituting a daily timecard would ensure more accurate data.
Preprinting timecards with work codes may improve proper charging of labor hours. In addition, daily report forms that require supervisors merely to check items like the weather conditions rather than describe them are more likely to be legible and take less time to fill out.
In critiquing the written communication process, the constructor should remember the following three rules for improving the accuracy and timeliness of jobsite record keeping:
- An individual that is required to fill out a form should be shown where the data goes and how it is used.
- An individual that is required to fill out a form should be shown by example that their data was in fact used.
- Any individual that fills out a form or inputs data should be given a subsequent feedback report.
In summary, the supervisor should work at improving the oral and written communication process at the jobsite with a twofold objective. He should try to ensure timely and accurate reporting of data and use the communication process itself to align the jobsite personnel to the company goals for the project.
Step 3: Lay Out A Productive JobsiteOne of the more important and often overlooked organizational tasks of a construction supervisor is the laying out of the project site. Questions as to where to place the trailers of the general contractor and various subcontractors, where to store onsite materials, and where equipment should be located at a jobsite when not in use all necessitate decisions that are part of the site layout task.
Often a construction supervisor fails to analyze alternatives when it comes to the layout task. Instead, the supervisor haphazardly puts the trailer at one location, the material storage area at another, the subcontractor trailers at other locations, and so on. The supervisor may overlook the effect that the assigned locations of these job support components have on productivity, safety, worker satisfaction and communications.
For a given construction job, there is one and only one optimal layout. If a job is planned on the basis of any other layout, some aspect of the working environment will be less than optimal. For example, if the materials storage location is such that workers have to continually walk long distances to get needed materials, hours of nonproductive labor time will result.
Similarly, if materials are stored away from the place of their subsequent fabrication, they will need to be unnecessarily double-lifted. Storing heavy equipment in the path of workers may increase the chance of injury. Storing material near the entrance or exit to the jobsite may promote theft.
A structured approach to the jobsite layout task is needed. Such an approach should recognize "things" and "concerns." The things include various trailers, materials, equipment, storage areas, signs, lavatory locations, luncheon and break area locations, etc. Concerns include walking distances, safety, accounting controls, material or equipment theft, avoidance of adversarial human relations, and overall productivity enhancement.
Step 4: Challenge The Work ProcessThe role of the construction supervisor has historically been more of a policeman and less that of an analyst - someone that is always looking for a better way to do things. He sees to it that the plan is carried out, that every employee is doing his part and is working hard. This role is important, but the supervisor should also look for ways to increase productivity.
The fact remains that it is easier to watch the construction process than to critique it. How, then, can we expect the supervisor to change his ways to become an analyst looking for a more productive work process - one that will yield a lower unit cost of performing the work? Simply having the supervisor challenge work process with the following questions can lead to the identification of a more productive work process:
Why are we doing it this way?
Where is the best place to do it?
When is the best time to do it?
Which equipment is best for the job?
Who is best qualified to do the work?
What are we ultimately trying to accomplish?
Step 5: Develop A Scientific Work StandardAnother key to productivity is to develop a scientific work standard, as opposed to an accounting work standard.
With regard to productivity and work standards in the construction industry, all too often inefficiencies become standards. The industry develops its work standards and productivity standards for future job estimates by using the accounting process to collect productivity and cost data from in-process projects.
In an industry that has as much as 50 percent nonproductive time in the work process (or 50 percent opportunity to improve), productivity standards developed from past projects clearly do not set out what can be achieved, only what is being achieved.
Many industries develop their productivity standards through an analysis of the work process. Manufacturing companies make use of industrial engineering techniques, such as time-study models, process charts and flow diagrams, to study the work process with the intent of determining an achievable work or productivity standard, as well as measuring current productivity.
The fact remains that scientific models, such as time study, work sampling, the process chart and many more, have a place in the construction industry. The supervisor should apply these various models to analyze productivity, and find ways to improve by working smarter, not harder.
Step 6: Schedule Your WorkThere is little doubt that the industry has made more use of formalized schedules in recent years. This use has been enhanced by the availability of many computer software programs that have lowered the time and cost of preparing such schedules.
There are actually three different types of plans or schedules that can be used by the supervisor to improve onsite productivity:
- Short interval planning, or a one-day plan;
- One- to three-week revolving schedule;
- Master schedule
Jobsite productivity can be significantly increased if the supervisor would plan the next day's work one day ahead of time. This could be accomplished if he made use of a form at the end of each day that required him to set out each of the following:
- - The type of work that is to be accomplished tomorrow.
- A work quantity goal for each type of work to be performed tomorrow.
- The resources (labor, tools, material and equipment) that will be needed to accomplish the established work goals.
The use of a one- to three-week revolving schedule has the same objective as the one-day short interval schedule. The difference is that by setting out what work will be done over the next few weeks, the supervisor can start the process of securing tools, material, labor or equipment that may have a few days or a few weeks lead time in procuring.
Step 7: Analyze Project ReportsIf you don't know you have a problem, you can't address the problem for improvement. The job-cost reports that characterize some construction jobs or firms are often untimely and inaccurate. If man-hour productivity for doing work is going over budget, the time to address the problem is while the work is being performed, not when the work is complete.
The supervisor needs to implement a cost-accounting system that gives a timely report on the percentage of effort expended vs. the percentage of labor or equipment effort expended for each and every significant work task performed.
Assume that the report indicates that the percentage of labor hours expended is exceeding the percentage of work in place. There could be several reasons for this that are not correctable, including the preparation of an inaccurate estimate, inaccurate field reporting, or unexpected or uncontrollable jobsite conditions such as adverse weather.
However, the reason could be a correctable problem, such as having an ineffective work crew combination, poor supervision, workers who lack proper understanding of the job or the like.
The point to be made is that by the report drawing attention to the mismatch between work performed and labor effort expended, the supervisor should be able to investigate the problem and determine if it is correctable. The time to address the productivity problem is while it is correctable, not after the work is complete and has already resulted in a noncorrectable cost overrun.
Step 8: Manage Equipment ProductivelyDepending on the type of construction project, the equipment cost component may be as high as 40 percent of the total project cost or as little as 1 percent or 2 percent.
Equipment can be compared to a worker; both are means of placing material and doing work. However, more often than not the hourly cost to rent or own a piece of construction equipment is significantly higher than the wage rate of a worker. It follows that it is even more important to keep a piece of construction equipment productive. If the equipment is standing idle at the jobsite or is in transit from one location to another, it can be viewed as being in a nonproductive state.
Construction equipment on a project should be scheduled and monitored just as labor is scheduled and monitored. Each significant piece of equipment should have a budgeted productive and standby number of hours for a project.
The actual use and standby hours also should be documented. The goal should be to increase the productive use of the equipment on a job. A system can be designed where ratios relating to total hours, productive hours and standby hours can be calculated for each project and each supervisor.
Step 9: Improve SafetyStudies have shown that the construction industry has one of the highest worker accident rates per number of worker hours expended. This is due in large part to the difficulty of the work and the conditions in which many projects are constructed.
Regardless of the reasons for the number of construction accidents that occur at jobsites, the fact remains that accidents have an adverse effect on construction productivity. In addition to the detrimental effect of the injury for the worker himself, accidents are likely to cause low worker morale, work disruptions related to finding the cause of the accident, and higher insurance premiums.
A productive job is a safe job. A worker is as likely or more likely to get hurt when he is nonproductive than when he is performing productive work. A worker in a state of boredom may find his mind wandering or become careless to the point that he puts himself or others in an accident-prone situation. An effective safety program that complies with safety regulations and promotes safety to the workers is an integral part of the firm's overall productivity improvement program.
Step 10: Pay Attention To QualityLast but not least, a program for productivity improvement needs to be attentive to performing high-quality work. When less than desirable quality is accepted, workers can conclude that a subpar work effort is also acceptable. Poor quality can have a tendency to cause the worker to lose pride in his work effort, and increases the possibility of redo work, directly increasing the required number of worker hours to finish the project.
By paying strict attention to the performance of high-quality work, the supervisor also serves the objective of making the worker feel he is working for a firm, rather than just another job. The efforts of the supervisor to maintain high quality and keep a project safe not only strengthen worker pride, they reinforce every facet of an overall program for increased productivity.