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May 3, 2000 8:57 AM CDT

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.

Opportunity to Increase Construction Productivity
It is not being suggested that the solution to the problem of low construction industry productivity or nonproductive time is an easy problem to solve. The construction process is a difficult one. Problems such as a variable environment to include precipitation, temperature variations, and the complexity of the building process itself are just a few of the problems that most non-construction industries do not have to confront.

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.

Ten Step Program to Increase Productivity
By implementing proactive programs and procedures, small steps can be made toward significant increases in productivity. The key is to not accept the inefficiencies of the past as the benchmarks for the future. This article proposes a ten step process for aiding the masonry firm increase in productivity. The ten steps are as follows:

1. Planning Prior to the Start of Construction
The masonry firm expends considerable time estimating a project and preparing a bid. If successful, they are awarded a contract to construct the project. However there typically is a time period between when the contractor is awarded the project and when the contractor receives the notice to start construction. Often during this time period the firm does very little in the way of preplanning or taking steps to enhance project productivity. The lack of actions by the contractor during the time period between receiving a contract and the start of construction has led the author to refer to this as the dormant phase of the construction project. It is suggested that a checklist be developed for the construction firm that lists each step that the construction firm should perform in the dormant phase. The purpose of the list is to remind the firm of what should be done and to hold individuals responsible for performing each of the steps.

2. Implementing Personnel Management Procedures
The construction process is very dependent of the efforts of the construction workers. Labor costs for a masonry project average around forty percent or more. The high dependence on labor efforts is compounded by the fact that many construction workers may view themselves as working for a job rather than a firm. Whereas a tool and die worker in a factory, a retail clerk at a merchandiser, or a receptionist at an office may work for a firm for an entire lifetime, a construction craftsman may work for several contractors in a given year. One might argue that the construction worker doesn't view himself as working for a firm; instead he may view himself working on jobs. The end result is that the construction firm and the construction supervisor must take special effort to be attentive to the personnel needs of the workers. Aside from financial gain or money, it is proposed the worker has three needs that must be satisfied to be productive: (1) pride in work; (2) measuring system of performance; (3) an effective communication system.

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.

3. Planning and Scheduling
There are three somewhat different types of plans or schedules that should be used by the supervisor to improve on-site productivity:

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
The idea is to plan ahead and to ready the tools, equipment, labor, and material that will be required prior to starting 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.

4. Material Management
Studies performed by the author indicate that it is not unusual for the construction worker to handle material two, three, or more times at a job site before placing it in it's final location at a project. Multiple material handling at the job site cause wasted time and wasted labor effort. In addition to negatively affecting productivity, multiple material handling increases safety problems and material wastage. The goal should be to handle material the least number of times as possible. A program for effective handling of materials at the job site should include the following steps:
  • 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
5. Implementing an Emphasis on Cost and Risk
The author would suggest that the construction firm and construction supervisor expend considerable time policing the construction process; making sure that everyone is working hard. However, working hard may not be working smart. In an attempt to change the construction supervisor from being only a reactive manager to a proactive manager, the author proposes the implementation of a management approach he refers to as "MORE". More stands for the following:

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 requirement to make the above type of analysis on an ongoing basis (for example, biweekly) will force the supervisor to become conscious of looking for better ways to do things. His or her ability to determine a better work method is not guaranteed. However, the mere fact that the supervisor will take the time to consider alternatives will likely result in finding opportunity for improvement.

Risk Emphasis
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.

Evaluate Cost
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.

6. Implementing consistent practices and procedures
Quality means consistency. Inconsistent practices such as preparing schedules on some projects, but not others; and allowing some supervisors to fill out time cards or daily reports inaccurately while requiring timely and accurate reports from others are just a few of the many inconsistent practices one finds within the same firm. Inconsistent practices lead to increased risk, variation in results, and worker confusion. If a practice such as revising a project schedule is appropriate for one project, it is good for all practices.

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.

7. Improve Safety
The construction firm has one of the highest accident rates per number of worker hours expended. This is due in part to the difficulty of the work and the conditions in which many projects are constructed. Regardless of the reasons for the many construction accidents that occur at job sites, the fact remains that they have an adverse affect 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 the accident, and higher insurance premiums.

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.

8. Communications, Field Record Keeping, and the Job Cost System
Job site productivity is dependent on effective written and oral communications. Poor communications leads to unnecessary redo work, poor worker attitudes, and an inability to properly monitor the work process. Oral communications at a job site are complicated by the fact that communications are carried out in the open and at a relatively noisy job process, and by the fact that the individuals communicating may have different vocabularies and have different communicating skills.

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.

9. Improved Productivity Through Quality
A program for productivity improvement should include performing high quality work. Poor quality construction can negatively impact the productivity program by: (1) creating an environment in which workers know that a less than desirable quality is accepted and therefore perhaps a less than good work effort is also acceptable; (2) a tendency to have the worker lose pride in his work effort; and (3) the possibility for the need to do redo work that directly increases the required number of worker hours to do the finished work. By giving attention to making the project safe, and by being attentive to the performance of high quality work, the supervisor can serve the objective of making a project look like a firm to the worker rather than look just like a other job.

10. Improving Productivity Through Pride
Pride in work is critical to productivity improvement as well as quality. Whining, blaming others, and always taking a negative position does not solve problems or enhance the commitment of workers to be productive. Setting a tone of pride, problem solving, and accomplishment lead to pride and productivity. The masonry firm constructs difficult projects in difficult working conditions. The supervisor makes in excess of fifty decisions a day that impact the project time, cost, quality and safety. Clearly the masonry supervisor should be proud. When an individual is proud of what they do, they are likely to be more productive doing it.

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.


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