There are any number of economic forces currently driving the need for electrical contractors to improve productivity, both in the field and in the office. But before productivity can be improved, it must be defined. According to Accel-Team, a United Kingdom-based firm that specializes in improving productivity, the concept is best expressed in ratios of inputs to outputs. Inputs, such as materials, tools, skills, people, management and processes, are converted into increased volume, improved services and reduced costs.

Productivity improvement is two sides of the same coin,” said Wayne Russell, managing director of Argent Global Services, Oklahoma City. “It is the attempt to get more results out of current resources or to get the same result with fewer resources.”

The ratio of input to output alone, however, is not a measure of how efficient or effective the conversion process is.

“Effectiveness involves doing the right things right,” said Chris Buck, president of Productivity Enhancement Resources Inc., Simpson, N.C. Assuming employees have all the resources they need, effectiveness, according to Buck, boils down to determining which methods are being used to accomplish the task, whether the best tools are being used, whether the tasks being performed help the entire project move forward, whether the work environment is safe and conducive to productivity, and whether employees are rewarded for innovation and cost savings. Efficiency, on the other hand, deals with the availability of key resources.

“Contractors need to ensure that all employees have optimum access to the tools, equipment, materials and information required to perform the work, determine how far they have to travel to material storage and supplier locations, and make certain that there are contingency plans in place,” Buck said.

According to John Henry, director, business development for Trade Service Co. LLC, San Diego, productivity also entails taking advantage of available technology tools effectively, gaining faster access to whatever specific information is required to perform tasks, such as material pricing and labor units, completing more bids in a shorter time period, and maintaining strong relationships with suppliers to get the best pricing, delivery and training.

Strategies and implementation

Contractors must examine current resources to build internal processes that will save the most time, according to Jeff Burmeister, product manager at Autodesk Inc., San Rafael, Calif.

“The hardest thing to do, in terms of strategy, is to find ways to squeeze more productivity out of shrinking margins,” he said.

Contractors must be willing to explore new methods and different technologies and be willing to invest in the software that will help them balance their needs against the system’s cost.

“The place to start is with process improvement,” Russell said. Before spending money on software, automation or equipment to improve productivity, the electrical contractor needs to understand exactly what goals it is trying to accomplish. And the first step in identifying those goals is to understand where any waste in the process is occurring and what the existing obstacles are to efficient job performance.

“Process analysis methodologies, such as LEAN, are instrumental in identifying waste and providing ideas for actions that will eliminate it,” Russell said.

Once process improvements are implemented, employees must be thoroughly and consistently trained in any changes to office procedures or installation methods. Finally, he said, the electrical contractor should measure productivity and provide feedback to employees performing the work.

According to Buck, the best strategy for improving productivity is to have excellent planning in terms of effectiveness and efficiency and to have controls in place that help keep project managers on top of trends that can impact effectiveness. There also are industrial engineering methodologies, such as time and motion studies, that can help field crews optimize task performance, he said.

In the end, according to the Construction Industry Institute (CII) research, the key to motivating construction craftsmen and foremen appears to be organizing the project and its resources to let individuals be productive. More than anything else, this promotes job satisfaction and provides an incentive for individuals to increase their productivity.

“What makes construction both rewarding and exciting is that no two projects are exactly alike, but construction also has barriers to productivity that come in all shapes and sizes,” Buck said.

Training is possibly the most important strategy to ensure consistent productivity improvement. Henry advises contractors to take advantage of training from industry associations, manufacturers and distributors to use products in the field more effectively and to determine the appropriate applications. In addition, contractors should acquire the proper technology for the office and software that will integrate material handling, design, scheduling, estimating, project management, finance, purchasing and accounting.

“When choosing a package, contractors should ensure that the provider offers training and support services and the ability to maintain currency within the material database to derive even more effective use of the system,” he said.

Implementation of the productivity improvement decisions that have been made requires learning how to establish performance baselines and establishing improvement goals, according to Russell.

“Baselines are established by determining what a reasonable amount of time is for performing tasks. The contractor then needs to measure actual performance against that baseline to determine whether improvement goals are being obtained,” he said.

Another tool for implementing productivity improvement plans is to develop closer relationships with suppliers and establish connectivity to quickly access and download pricing information.

“Electronic connectivity allows the contractor’s estimating database to be directly and accurately populated with specific product pricing, allowing more competitive estimates to be developed in a shorter time frame,” Henry said.

Of course, measuring progress is essential in determining whether productivity is actually improving, and it is one of the most difficult tasks faced by an organization. Contractors can create flow charts or use any number of other analytical models that show every component of the process being improved, how and where they interact with each other, and what their roles and responsibilities are in regard to the process. Once the data are examined, ineffective or inefficient processes can be improved using tools, such as cause and effect diagrams, root cause analyses or Pareto charts, which graphically summarize and display the relative importance of the differences between groups of data. Contractors also can use metrics, such as hours, revenue, sales, customer retention or return on investment.

Available resources

In this Internet-enabled age, it is much easier to track down training opportunities in LEAN or other continuous improvement principles that demonstrate how to streamline processes, according to Russell. A number of labor management software systems also provide the necessary tools that can help the contractor efficiently track job performance.

“Smaller companies that can’t afford high levels of investment in software can use a simpler spreadsheet program to measure individual performance and generate reports for analysis and action,” he said.

In addition to labor management programs, design and building information modeling software enables contractors to better document project management and streamline internal processes to improve productivity. The centralized database offered by these programs allows project members to collaborate easily and effectively and access all project information in one place.

“Centralized access to data improves productivity through reduced paperwork and more streamlined communication,” Burmeister said.

Other software options to consider include estimating and material handling and fleet management programs. A good estimating system allows estimators to save at least half the time over a manual system and will allow the user to easily maintain and manage the prices and labor units for either individual parts or a range of parts.

“To be effective, an estimator must be able to produce more estimates per period than ever before. If there is no confidence that the prices and labor units in the database are correct, it is harder to stick to the price if challenged,” said Eric Davenport, president of Cert-In Software Systems Inc., Bakersville, N.C.

In addition, fleet management software packages allow contractors to better monitor, track and manage their equipment, reducing downtime, missed deadlines and unscheduled overtime, thereby improving productivity.

Buck said information from the CII from the University of Texas at Austin could help contractors improve productivity.

“[The CII has] developed a set of 14 best practices for project execution and models that measure a company’s compliance to these principles,” he said. The philosophy is to measure things “inside” the process instead of just the end-product, which helps drive the best behaviors that ensure the best results.

Improved productivity means increased profits. Through teamwork, communication and access to and sharing of information, contractors can avoid increasing the amount of labor required to meet increasing demand and not pay for wasted effort. Be careful, though, to ensure that improvements in one area do not create inefficiencies or ineffectiveness in others.

BREMER, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributes frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. She can be reached at 410.394.6966 or darbremer@comcast.net.