Improving Construction Productivity
Steps to increase productivity at your business
Productivity is commonly defined as follows:
Productivity = Units of Work Placed/ Man-hour of Effort
Examples would be number of block or brick placed per man-hours. It should be noted that while the above definition is a widely accepted definition, it can be misleading in that man-hours is in the denominator. This might lead one to believe that the only way to increase productivity is to work harder, to make more labor effort. In reality there are many ways to increase productivity without working harder. The theme of the improvement ideas and programs set forth in this article are to work smarter, not harder.
Given the above definition of productivity, the United Stated Department of Commerce has measured the average annual increases in construction productivity to be less than one percent a year for the last ten years.
The average annual increase in construction productivity of 0.8 percent compares to a 2 to 3 percent annual increase for all US industries. Unfortunately during the same time period when construction productivity has been nearly flat, construction costs have risen. During the past ten to fifteen years, construction costs have risen each and every year, sometimes in excess of five percent in a given year. These increasing costs and flat productivity has put downward pressure on the profitability of many construction firms to include the masonry firm. Given the fierce competition of the bidding process, a firm may not be able to pass on added material and labor costs to the project owner. For many firms this decreasing profitability owing to the failure to increase productivity while costs have increased has resulted in the risk of the bid exceeding the planned profitability in the bid.
Another way of looking at productivity in the construction process is to look at the composition of the eight hour work day. Documented job site studies performed by the author indicate that between forty and sixty percent of a typical construction day is for nonproductive time. One can consider nonproductive time to include time associated with workers waiting for instructions, doing redo work, taking advantage of a lack of supervision, double handling of material, etc. In addition, nonproductive time includes a certain amount of what can be referred to as unnecessary time such as a worker carrying boards from one location to another merely because the material was not effectively stored in the proper location in the job site layout process.
Independent of the difficulties associated with improving construction productivity, it should be pointed out that tremendous opportunity exists to improve productivity. If the construction process can be correctly identified as having fifty percent nonproductive time, it can also be viewed as having an opportunity to increase productivity by fifty percent.
It is unrealistic to believe that the masonry supervisor can eliminate all construction nonproductive time. However, a mere small increase in productivity on the order of five percent can have a significant impact on the profitability of the construction firm.
A five percent increase in productivity would have the effect of decreasing the overall project labor cost by five percent. A five percent increase in productivity and a corresponding five percent decrease in labor costs would result in a profit contribution equal to the initial planned profit. The end result is that a mere five percent increase in productivity can have the result of doubling the profits of the masonry firm.
Pride In Work. Pride in work in great part includes recognition and giving the workers a sense of accomplishment. Personnel management actions such as a mere pat on the back, placing the names of workers on a sign at the job site, and asking workers for suggestions can all be actions in a long term commitment to productivity improvement.
Measuring System of Performance
An effective measuring system entails giving workers a basis of measuring his own individual performance. This includes communicating what is expected of the worker, and communicating how he is doing relative to the plan. The plan and subsequent performance system should be communicated both at a job level as well as an individual level. Leaving the worker in the dark as to what is expected of him and how the project is to progress and how it is progressing does not accommodate a positive worker attitude.
An Effective Communication System
The construction firm should consider sharing information regarding man-hour budgets and expected productivity for specific work tasks, project schedules, and project progress with the workers. The alternative is to assume that the workers don't care. This negative assumption promotes a we versus they attitude that is sure to result in less satisfactory productivity.
The providing of workers a communication channel is addressed as a separate productivity program step. However it should be noted that effective communication is a two way street. A construction supervisor who simply tells his workers what to do rather than also occasionally ask them for ideas is likely to witness less than desirable productivity from the workers.
Short Interval Planning or a One-Day Plan. It is important for the foremen to plan the next day's work today. The formalized use of a Short Interval Scheduling Form requires the foremen to plan tomorrow's work today. Near the end of each work day, the foremen should set out the following information on the Short Interval Scheduling Form:
- What type of work they plan to do today
- Set out a quantity goal and production goal for each type of work
- The tools, equipment, labor, and material that will be required to do the work
One-to-Three Week Revolving Plan and Schedule.
The construction process is such that the superintendent often has to take an action today to ensure that a planned activity or event two or three weeks in the future is to occur as planned. By the weekly use of the One-to-Three Week Look Ahead Scheduling Form, the supervisor can recognize the need to ready tools, equipment, labor, material such that it is available when needed in a week or two. The best way to avoid delays is to always be looking ahead.
Master schedule. An overall project schedule can also help productivity. One example is a critical path method (CPM) diagram, which is often done with the aid of a computer software program. This type of schedule provides a road map for the construction of the entire project. Because things go wrong and things change, it is also important to update the project schedule on a timely basis.
- Prepare an effective job site layout
- Order material on a just in time basis when effective
- Place material near location of placement
- Fabricate material off site if possible
- Document all material obstructions
- Hold individuals responsible for material theft and wastage
- Make workers knowledgeable of the cost of materials
- Investigate incidences of multiple material handling
Measurement of productivity
Opportunity for improvement
How many labor hours were expended on the construction project for punch list work? How many hours was a laborer in a nonproductive work state versus that of a mason on the same project? How many instances were there of double handling of materials on a specific project? These are questions that the constructor can not normally answer. The reason he or she cannot answer the above questions is that the construction supervisor does not pay attention to measuring things. Instead he or she watches and gets used to inefficiencies. Inefficiencies become standards.
In the MORE approach, the construction supervisor is asked to measure things that he or she has taken for granted. The supervisor is to measure something, be it the distance material is moved, be it the amount of times foremen are waiting on material, be it the number of times work is done twice (redo work), be it the number of incidences of theft, or anything that affects productivity. The measurement can be done by timing things with a wristwatch or by merely taking random visual samples of the work states of labor or equipment. The key is to force the supervisor to become proactive by forcing the measurement process. This attention to measurement will not require added personnel or added time for the supervisor. As part of the normal supervising duties, they are merely required to measure something. This should not take added time. Instead of merely watching, they are to measure and record their results. To force this measurement, supervisors are required to submit to the main office, one write up of measurement every two weeks. Depending on what they measure, they might take measurements daily as a basis for this biweekly write-up, or they may only take them once during a two week period.
The premise of the measurement component of MORE is that measurement is fundamental to improvement. The measurement component will draw one's attention to inefficiencies and improvement potential.
Opportunity for Improvement
The second component of MORE is the focus on challenging the work process for opportunity to improve. Biweekly or monthly, the supervisor is required to write up one example of an alternative way of doing a work task that is in process or will be in process at his or her job site. Almost always, there is more than one way to accomplish a work task. Different crew sizes, the use of varying types of equipment, the use of alternative work methods, the substitution of different materials, and even the alternative times when a work task can be performed enable the construction supervisor to choose between several ways of accomplishing a work task. Each of the alternative ways of doing the work function will result in a different time and cost. In addition, depending on how a work task is performed, following work tasks may be affected positively or negatively.
The process of challenging a work process looking for opportunity to improve is a three-step process:
- Familiarize oneself with the existing methods.
- Conceptualize an alternative method. Sketch the proposed method on a pad of paper to better describe the proposed method.
- Make total cost, unit cost, and duration calculations to compare the alternative methods.
The construction process is subject to considerable uncertainty and risk. The productivity, cost, and duration of a work process is dependent on the unpredictable weather, variation in worker skills and attitudes, unexpected equipment breakdowns, and changes in the scope of work. In the MORE approach, the supervisor is to focus not only on the cost of production, when managing construction. He must also pay attention to productivity risk and production itself. Past project data is accumulated that tracks productivity variation as well as average productivity.
The observer of the construction process may view the process as one of using different types of trained workers to place materials to include block and brick. The author would propose that everything that is being done in the construction process actually can be viewed as handling and placing money. Labor, materials, and equipment can be viewed in terms of dollars. In fact, one might propose that the supervisor is not managing concrete or steel placement, he or she is really managing money.
The supervisor's need to know the cost of things and resources such as labor is critical to his or her ability to properly manage. Consider two construction work tasks that may be scheduled for the same work day; one that has a unit cost of $5 per unit placed and one that has a unit cost of $50 per unit placed. Risk aside, if the supervisor can only be in one of two places, he or she had better be at the more expensive cost operation. The above example of the supervisor being at the more expensive of the two operations appears obvious. However, sometimes it is not so obvious. The supervisor must know the cost of things if he or she is going to allocate management time.
When the firm practices consistent practices from job to job and from supervisor to supervisor, people know what is expected of them. Variation in practices leads to free rein management, exceptions, and excuses. By requiring the same use of field reports, reporting policies, work start and stop times, and project management practices, the masonry firm can improve communications, conformity of practices, commitment, and productivity improvement.
More often than not, a productive job is a safe job. A worker is as likely or more likely to get hurt when he is nonproductive versus when he is performing productive work. A worker in a state of boredom or in a lackadaisical state may find his mind wandering or be careless to the point of putting himself in an accident prone situation. An effective safety program that complies with safety regulations and promotes safety to the workers is compatible with the firm's productivity improvement program.
Effective communications entails listening as well as talking. All too often the supervisor only talks at the worker instead of asking the worker for ideas or listening to his concerns. On occasion the person who knows how to form the walls or place steel may not be the supervisor but instead the craftsman. Failure to take advantage of the workers knowledge runs the risk of not only taking advantage of an improved construction method but also may adversely affect the work attitude of the craftsman. Knowing a better way to do something but not being asked one's ideals tends to promote an "I don't care attitude".
Effective supervisor communications also entails taking the time to properly explain the work process to the worker. The construction craftsman may think he is supposed to know how to do something that is told to him even if he doesn't. Given confusion as to what to do, rather than ask for an explanation, the worker may proceed to do the work incorrectly.
The construction industry has been characterized for many years as an industry with inadequate written communications at the job site. Inaccurate time cards, late reports, failure to give the worker or supervisor written feedback, and lost or misplaced documents are typical of the construction job site. Part of the reason for this written communication inadequacies relates to the decentralized nature of the work process. Unlike most industries that create and monitor their communication system to include their cost accounting process at the same place they make their product, the construction industry is such that written communication is often created at the job site, transferred to the contractor's main office, and hopefully communicated back to the job site. This process results in untimely and sometimes incorrect results.
Following are three rules for improving the accuracy and timeliness of the job site record keeping process: (1) an individual that is required to fill out a form should be showed where the data goes and how it is used; (2) an individual that is required to fill out a form should be shown by example that the data was in fact used; and (3) any individual that fills out a form or inputs data should be given a subsequent feedback or report.
About the Author
James J. Adrian, Ph.D., PE, CPA and Real Estate Broker is a Professor of Civil Engineering and Construction at Bradley University. He is also President of Adrian International and Construction Systems Company, companies providing consulting services to the construction industry.