The Need for a Company-Wide Construction Program

            After establishing a debugging program, the formation of a comprehensive, standardized, company-wide construction system is the second most important thing that company owners and top managers can do to improve the construction.

            A company-wide construction program involves information, policies & procedures, tasks, and standards that uniformly apply to all of a company’s projects.

            For example, a mass-production tract housing builder may have 10 large projects under construction. 

            Three of the projects may have grade-A quality superintendents, four of the projects grade-B quality superintendents, two of the projects grade-C quality superintendents, and the 10th project may have a field superintendent that is performing at a grade-D quality level.

            This is not an unusual scenario. 

            This arrangement will function and complete tract houses that get sold and turn a profit for the builder. 

            This scenario is the reality for builders around the world…in variations on the same storyline…for builders having multiple projects competing with other builders for qualified field superintendents.

            The problem here goes back to the point that owners and managers of building construction companies with backgrounds in real estate, finance, accounting, or law…delegate 100% of the field management to experienced superintendents and project managers.

            This produces the unintended consequence of the 10-project company in the example above of 10 different approaches to running the field construction…ranging from grade-A quality down to grade-D quality.

            A building construction company that relies upon the superintendents and project managers to bring in their own management and leadership systems…in lieu of the company having its own optimum system in-place and successfully operating…will create problems and conflicts throughout the company.

            From the human resources department in the main office constantly in search of grade-A superintendents to staff the field, to the sales teams on every project trying to satisfy new homebuyers with less than perfect houses…this lack of a company-wide construction program permeates operations from top-to-bottom.   

            A building construction company that has as many different approaches to the field management of the construction…as the number of superintendents running each jobsite…produces an environment that can plague the entire company. 

            This can be the case even with three to seven competent superintendents out of ten…in the example above.

            The general customer service formula in business of spending 80% of the time on 20% of the customers, applies to the problem projects engaged in constant “putting out fires.”

            The solution to this common reality in mass-production tract housing construction is for large companies to have uniformly comprehensive construction programs that create the environment for all 10 projects in the example above…to be running smoothly at the same high-quality level…even with field personnel who start-out as grade-C and grade-D superintendents.

            If every field superintendent is operating at grade-B or above because the system that is in-place within the company does not allow for the admittance of numerous design and construction mistakes, then the building construction company increasingly begins to control its own destiny in an ever improving and self-correcting process.

            A company-wide construction system attempts to get everyone on the same page…going in the same direction…with the same philosophy.

            It takes the best methods and procedures within the company and tries to standardize these methods to bring everyone up to the same high standard.

            One of the best arguments for starting a company-wide construction system is that the system stays with the company and is not dependent upon key field personnel coming and going.

            No project should waste time learning from a mistake already experienced on another project within the company. 

            The means for accomplishing this goal is a company-wide, comprehensive system of information, along with well-defined polices & procedures that give the building construction company a uniform direction in its construction practices. 

Modern Management’s Role in the Construction

            A fundamental problem in mass-production tract-housing construction today is that many owners and managers of large development companies are more familiar with marketing and sales rather than building construction.

            The master builder of the past, who knew business, design, and construction from the ground up…has been replaced by MBAs and CPAs whose expertise is in acquiring land, sales-pitching projects to investors, and securing financing. 

            The corporate office is often comprised of people who have never poured a yard of concrete or hammered a 16-penny nail.  This lack of hands-on experience creates a technical leadership vacuum at the top of the housing development company.

            Thus the entrepreneurial energy and creativity that could go into innovating faster, better, and less expensive methods of construction is channeled almost entirely into financing, marketing, and architectural refinements. 

            Housing construction has therefore remained virtually unchanged for the past 60 years, going back to the invention of tract housing.

            Architectural styles, structural designs, building codes, fixtures, and appliances have all improved…but houses are still being assembled using the same methods and techniques that existed when I started my career in construction roughly 50 years ago studying construction technology in junior college in 1971.

            Housing development company managers who do not have a construction background do not know where to begin to initiate changes that would be beneficial to building construction. 

            Development company owners and managers with backgrounds in real estate, finance, law, and accounting seldom promote innovation in the technical area of the business because they do not understand or are not interested in the nuts-and-bolts details of building construction.

            This lack of construction experience in the management of large housing development companies is not pointed out here merely for the sake of being critical. 

            Instead, it underscores a deeper problem that exists throughout the housing construction industry. 

            When housing development company owners and managers consciously or unconsciously distance themselves from the technical side of their business…and concentrate solely on finance, marketing, and architecture…the construction operations in the field suffer.

            The major obstacle to improving housing construction is that housing development company owners and managers do not realize that they are the key players to start the improvement process.

            MBAs, CPAs, and real estate people should not be expected to have the technical knowledge and practical field experience to analyze the construction.  But they are in positions that can commit and allocate the time and resources necessary for more effective and extensive construction analysis and debugging.

            Upcoming sections cover in-house sources of information that can be used to identify a particular company’s construction problems and mistakes.  These sources include:

  • punch lists
  • inspection cards
  • red-lined plans
  • requests for information (RFIs)
  • subcontractor extras
  • homebuyer walkthrough sheets
  • customer service complaint letters

            Jobsite records archived from previous projects are sometimes not even kept…much less analyzed, condensed, and organized to be made available to project managers and superintendents starting new multi-unit tract housing or condominium projects.

            This lack of lessons-learned information transferred to new projects is a lost opportunity.  If past design and construction issues are not provided for new and future projects…then each new project must be individually analyzed and debugged from scratch…as if past history did not exist and the construction company was a new start-up company building its first project.

            The new project superintendent cannot collect this past, documented, company-specific information or allocate time upfront for constructability analysis using this information…if it does not exist…for pre-planning and proactive debugging before the start of the actual construction.

            The only people who can collect this design and construction information on an on-going basis and budget the time for upfront planning and analysis for proactive mistake prevention are the company owners and managers. 

            If company owners and managers do not see the need to debug the construction on a project-by-project basis…using lessons learned on previous projects…this opportunity task will simply not get done.

            This topic of discussion again illustrates the differences between housing construction and other types of manufacturing. 

            Housing development company owners and managers unfamiliar with building construction incorrectly assume that housing construction is so similar and repetitive that it was thoroughly debugged sometime decades ago in the distant past…like a single assembly-line producing a particular model of tennis rackets is initially debugged. 

            They further assume that the benefits of this already accomplished industry-wide debugging are now common knowledge in the field and only slight differences remain to be resolved between projects.

            Owners and managers unfamiliar with building construction think that by hiring an experienced and qualified field staff…and providing good subcontractors…they have exhausted the limits of their possible influence over the course of the construction.

            They are partially correct from a functional standpoint.  New housing construction projects do get completed…smoothly or not. 

            The evidence that supports the notion that they is more that can be done by owners and top managers…to benefit the construction…is the existence of many of the same design and construction problems reoccurring on project after project.

            Part of the problem also exists in the overconfidence and overreliance that people unfamiliar with building construction place in architects, engineers, subcontractors, and tradespeople. 

            Specialization does produce expertise…but it also multiplies the number of areas where less than absolute perfection in each area can add up to a lot of small problems overall.

            For owners and managers to assume that the plans are 100 percent accurate and error-free, and that each subcontractor and tradesperson can do everything correctly because each is a specialist…is not being realistic. 

            Recognizing that everything cannot be 100 percent correct should signify that a strategy is needed…initiated and supported by upper management in terms of data collection and man-hour allocation investment…to proactively identify and remove any remaining conflicts or problems.

Management’s Role in Debugging the Design Plans

            Housing development company owners and managers can lead the way in ensuring the accuracy level of the design plans. 

            Probably in no other area is upper management in a better position to help improve quality and efficiency in the construction…than to secure good building plans.

            Two common misconceptions exist in the building industry, however, that tend to obscure and excuse design errors.  These must be understood before any progress can be made.

            The first misconception is the idea that it is the expected duty of field people to take incomplete, inaccurate, and unclear plans and work-out all the bugs during the construction…using the established “means and methods” standards of the industry.

            It is widely believed that it is easier and cheaper for the tradespeople to “coordinate”…to work-out the design kinks during construction…than it is for the architect and engineers to spend the time to get the design totally correct while still on paper. 

            In this mindset it is taken for granted that architects and engineers can advance their designs graphically (and economically) only so far on two-dimensional paper…and then the people in the field must resolve the remaining omissions and errors in three-dimension as the construction progresses.

            Many people both inside and outside of the industry believe that part of the satisfaction of working in the field comes from solving design and construction mistakes.

            The stereotypical advertisement in the newspaper that shows a sketch of several people with their shirt sleeves rolled-up, blueprints under the arm, looking through a builder’s level or pointing and giving directions…implies that solving problems in-the-moment in the reactive mode in the field is both satisfying and expected.

            This is a gross misconception.

            If we are to take seriously the goal of approaching the machine-like efficiency of the fixed assembly-line in mass-production manufacturing…with a minimum of bugs…then it must be understood that there is nothing satisfying about being overwhelmed on a daily basis with the incoming barrage of nuts-and-bolts problems in-the-moment…that surface without warning over the course of the construction due to incomplete information on the design plans.

Debugging Affects Quality, Time, and Money

            Quality in housing construction is affected by the extent and thoroughness of debugging because supervision time in the field is a limited resource…in single-family and production tract housing.

            For example, suppose over the course of a typical three-year construction tract housing project a total of 500 previously unanswered questions must be addressed, activities in the field quality-checked, and yes/no decisions made that will take the project construction across the finish-line.

            If people in the field could hypothetically get 100 of those 500 issues resolved upfront through a company-wide debugging program, before the construction starts, then “only” 400 issues/questions remain to be resolved individually during the construction. 

            If 150 problems and questions out of the 500 could be answered upfront through constructability analysis and a checklist of past solved issues…then “only” 350 real problems remain to be resolved during the construction.

            If at the outset of the project…there are 200 solutions and answers to the original 500 problems…then only 300 more remain to be analyzed and resolved during the construction.

            There is a finite numerical limit to the issues and questions that need to be addressed on every building construction project…irrespective of the complexity of the construction and the magnitude of each issue or question.

            The greater the number of problems, questions, and bugs that can be identified upfront and quickly and correctly resolved while the project is still on paper, the fewer the number of problems remain to be confronted and solved during the construction. 

            This translates into more time available for genuine quality-control and manpower production, rather than spent in daily “putting-out fires” in the reactive-mode.

            A building construction project can get quickly into trouble in terms of quality when the number of latent/hidden problems inherently buried in the project…are greater than what can be handled by the field staff. 

            When the field staff is constantly engaged in “putting-out fires”…the construction is forced into a reactive, damage-control mode…which then pushes out the option for genuine quality-control and time-management.

            The benefits of spotting and resolving design and construction problems upfront, before the construction begins, cannot be overstated in terms of quality-assurance.

            Small problems and mistakes, if not caught and corrected early can adversely affect future building trades down-stream in the construction…that can snowball into multiple problems due to the commonly known phenomenon called the “ripple effect.”

            For example, a bowed wall framing stud by itself can be easily removed by the framer…requiring only one repair effort.

            A bowed or twisted 4×6 or 4×8 structural post in the wall framing…with electrical wires running through it requires the framing carpenter and the electrician…if the post needs to be replaced.

            A bowed wall along the floor baseboard…if not discovered until the wall is drywalled, painted, and the baseboard installed…requires three or more separate building trades to repair and straighten.

            A bowed wall along a bathroom floor having square-shaped ceramic tile flooring…that is not discovered until very late at the time of the homebuyer walkthrough…requires not only the framing carpenter, drywaller, painter, and finish carpenter…but also the floor tile installer to replace the tiles at the bowed wall after the wall is straightened.

            The longer a problem or construction bug goes undetected the worse the repair can get…especially in production tract housing involving a large number of units. 

Housing Construction Needs Specific Offensive and Defensive Game-Plans Built on Data

            One of the basic problems in housing construction today, in terms of achieving the cost benefits of assembly-line efficiency is that not a large enough number of houses are built at each building site.

            Trial-run debugging that produces the benefits of the traditional mass-production assembly-line…of achieving the lowest cost-per-unit…is based upon the idea of manufacturing tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or millions of identical, repetitive products.

            The artistic diversity of architectural designs is a direct result of the housing construction industry realizing long before Henry Ford’s Model-T assembly-line that fully assembled houses are too large in size to be manufactured at a single location then shipped to building sites.

            Once the notion of constructing hundreds of thousands of identical, repetitive, 2,400 square-foot, three-bedroom, two bathroom houses on a mass-production assembly-line is abandoned…then the artistic diversity of innovative variations in design takes over.

            From an aesthetic viewpoint this reality provides interest and variety to the design and construction of houses.

            But from a manufacturing viewpoint this provides the challenge of discovering, documenting, and disseminating the debugging information that accrues exponentially by this very same innovative diversity of the variety of square-footage size, architectural style, interior finishes, and orientation on unique building sites…of each individual new house being constructed.

            This is what makes perfect housing design and construction a topic of interest in the massive-sized industry of building construction.

            The assembly-line debugging information gleaned from the mass-production manufacturing of tennis rackets does not carry-over to the mass-production manufacturing of a particular model of dining room table.

            But the value of the initial trial-run debugging of the assembly-line for the mass-production of a particular model of tennis racket is found in the large number of identical, repetitive tennis rackets being manufactured.

            Because many of the same building trades practices are used in constructing new houses that are all different in size, style, and price range…this creates one database of debugging information that is common to all new housing construction, and another database of varied debugging information that is specific to each unique building site…scattered all over the countryside.

            But it is the starting reality of the large size of houses that dictates the method of assembly…and produces the reality of assembly-line debugging on housing construction projects that have a limited number of products to build and short time-spans to work with.

            Before moving on…it might be good here to expand upon and summarize the concept presented in the Introduction in this book, of housing construction being different:

            For housing construction projects, after all of the construction problems are resolved…the construction is complete…the house or houses are built…and we move on to a new and different project.

            Problem-solving and debugging are an integral part of every new housing construction project…usually from start to finish…because the same product is not repeated in large enough numbers to “build” upon past experience to the point of assembly-line perfection.

            An assembly-line approach cannot be used because of the practical reality that houses are too large in size to be fully assembled at one location and then transported overland to another. 

            Each new house must be assembled piece by piece at its exact location on the building site…and because houses occupy a lot of space…only so many can fit on each project site.

            Each new housing construction project is therefore a one-time event…limited in time duration by the total number of houses to be built at that site. 

            Each project is separated from other projects by the distance between building sites, the economic competition between rival construction companies, and the lack of motivation or communication channels for sharing debugging information within the industry.

            New housing construction projects have only one opportunity prior to the start of the construction for proactive problem-solving.

            In housing construction the trial-run phase and the actual construction are one-in-the-same operation. 

            In housing construction there is no trial-run debugging phase, except in production tract housing in the construction of the sales models when problems and issues are supposed to be identified and resolved before the construction of the production units begin.

            But even for large tract housing projects of 200 or 300 units…being the typical maximum size for most “merchant builders”…this mass-production feature still limits the benefits of trial-run debugging to the total number of houses in each project.

            In housing construction, the mass-production of identical, repetitive houses never reaches the number of tens or hundreds of thousands of smaller sized products typically manufactured within a single assembly-line building.

            Builders, subcontractors, superintendents, forepersons, and tradespeople must therefore be prepared to debug the individual peculiarities on a project-by-project basis.

            This requires having both a defensive and offensive game-plan to achieve success. 

            The needed database of debugging information can only be acquired by observation after-the-fact of mistakes and problems that actually occur as unanticipated “bugs” on a large number and wide-range of new housing construction projects.

            This database of debugging information can only reach the broader housing construction industry by becoming part of the back-and-forth communication between designers and builders…breaching the proprietary barriers around this information that historically has provided competitive advantage in terms of experience and expertise.

            Because designers and builders mix and “cross-breed” in their collaborations on housing construction projects…the introduction of quality-control information into the architectural and interior designs in terms of illustrations depicting what not to do…added to the details pages of the design plans…will over time spread throughout the industry.

            When applicable, this information can also be added to the scope-of-work sections of building trades subcontracts, highlighting company-specific and project-specific issues that builders want to bring to the attention of the subcontractors.