Process Improvement…Process?

Recently we asked our Process Improvement Manager, Stephen Cary, to update us on what he’s been up to.

Here’s what he had to say:

I arrived at Eckardt in November of 2013 with no experience in the industry and limited knowledge of the challenges facing the construction professional. My lack of experience required that I ask questions—A LOT of questions. Our project managers, field supervisors, VPs, and countless others were prime targets, but no one was immune. Beyond my lack of knowledge, I was literally being paid to ask these questions. As Process Improvement Manager, my job is to look for ways to increase productivity, add value, and integrate teams across Eckardt’s business units.

My standard, go-to question was simple.

“What can we do to make your job easier?”

Aside from the expected wise-cracks and one-liners, one response continued to surface.

“Give me a way to track labor productivity.”

To the uninitiated—as I was some 3.5 years ago—this seemed like an essential part of an industry that is as old as time. Surely, over the thousands and thousands of years of construction, this should be common knowledge. Right? Wrong. It became very clear that even in the realm of live-tweeting, Snapchatting, connected firms, having a reliable, robust system of production tracking is far from the norm. Eckardt, for our 80 years in the industry, lacked a standard approach to tracking our labor. And we were not alone.

Let’s back up just a minute. Why, exactly, do you need to be able to track labor?

Our Field Supervisors needed labor tracking to determine if they would be able to meet the customer’s schedule, or which crew was performing better than the other. With different crew sizes, skill levels, and working conditions, how could they confidently project schedule durations? Project Managers wanted to know if our current production rates were beating our rates of expense, or more simply, would the job come in under budget.

Until recently, our answer to these questions was what I will call cost coding. The essence of cost coding is simple. Break each construction task into smaller tasks, assign an accounting code to each of these small tasks, and report costs to each of the accounting codes. The project manager then walks the job, determines how much money needs to be spent to complete each task, and compares that to the projections. Comparing the current labor cost to the budgeted labor cost will give you your production value. Easy enough, right? Well, it is, in theory. But we all know that theory can be thrown right out the window when three of your electricians just quit, the superintendent is yelling for you to rough-in an area two-weeks ahead of schedule, and the HVAC guy accidentally tossed your material out the 5th floor window. The reality is that costs are almost never reported accurately when you have more than a handful of labor codes. How can we track these small tasks if the costs never accurate?

At some point, they light went on. We needed a full breakdown into small, indivisible task—a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS). We already had it, but we were just giving it cost codes. What if instead of giving each task a new accounting code, what if we kept the tasks separate from costs?

That’s when we found JPAC. JPAC, Job Productivity Assurance and Control, is a software from MCA that allows us to accurately track our labor productivity and project our job profitability in real time, all without requiring our Field Supervisors to spend unreasonable time entering their labor costs. With one, hour-long job walk per week, an Eckardt Project Manager and Field Supervisor can gather enough for the system to give us real productivity numbers. No matter how big the job, whether it be $500k or $15 million, or Supervisor are only entering time to five standard labor codes. Our Project Managers now can confidently answer the question, “Are we going to beat our budget?”—and answer with confidence.

It’s been a long journey, but we are more confident than ever in our ability to manage our projects. JPAC has given us the tool we needed to go from plan, to execution.