All in Agreement: Innovation
January 29, 2008
People are innovative, not businesses. Innovators are people who come up with “new ideas, methods or devices” which end up replacing less effective ideas, methods or devices. The Internet, email, and the assembly line are examples of innovative ideas that became realities in our lifetime.
In the last century some Americans have been very innovative, however, there are industries such as ours where innovators have made minimal progress. Are people in construction less innovative than people in other industries? I believe some in the construction industry can be more innovative if given the opportunity.
We must keep in mind that people are at the heart of businesses and companies. The basic management structure–organizational charts that American companies have had for 200 years-operates on the assumption that the owner, CEO or president of a company is head of innovation. This structure needs to be changed if we truly want people to be innovative. Let’s look at the sectors that make up our industry.
ManufacturersMost manufacturing organizations are organized like most businesses using an organization chart. The Big Dogs are at the top of the chart and are considered by most to be in charge of innovation.
In the last 20 years we have seen product improvements as well as some new products, but we have not seen anything truly revolutionary. Acoustical ceilings are still hung from wires and wall angles. Drywall is still hung, and then tape coated, re-coated and coated again until it’s ready for primer, texture and paint. Most homes are still built using wood studs, and most lumber is crooked or wet. Concrete is still poured wet, still cracks and it’s usually not level.
Where will a truly innovative construction idea come from, and will it result in revolutionizing construction or some part of construction? Are the Big Dogs going to come up with these revolutionizing ideas and make them a reality?
General ContractorsGeneral contractors also work under the same old organizational systems where innovation is left to the Big Dogs. Most GCs are afraid to take a risk and do something innovative unless they can shift that risk to a subcontractor. Also, subcontracts are designed to keep risk at bay and to keep subcontractors under a chain of command that will never result in innovation.
For example, subcontractors have learned over the years that constructing a building in a specific sequence improves quality and productivity, which results in higher profits. Most GCs believe buildings should be built in the sequence of their choice. This chain of command destroys innovation.
I’ve worked for some GCs who are truly innovative in their approach. What I have learned from them is that innovation occurs when it is allowed, expected and appreciated.
Google is the world’s most popular Internet search engine and that is largely due to its willingness to allow time for innovation as well as making it a priority. Innovation at Google is not just for the Big Dogs. I’m convinced that Google employees won’t last long if they are not innovative and accept it as a way of life.
For many employers, innovation means wasted time, confusion or disorder in the chain of command. If employers look at innovation in this light, everyone in the company will avoid innovation.
Innovation comes in many forms in our industry. There is management innovation, which might be new ways of managing people, or not managing them at all. There is operational innovation, which might offer new ways of doing things. There is strategic innovation, which is more precise in that it has a specific outcome.
GCs have not really changed the way in which they manage projects. Most GCs follow the same expensive project management process they always have, and nothing revolutionary has resulted. Operationally, GCs also follow tried-and-true methods for getting the job done.
Obviously, innovation is not going to come from an average GC who doesn’t believe in, embrace, or allow innovation. I would be surprised to find a GC with a mission statement that makes innovation part of its statement or core values.
SubcontractorsSubcontractors can be the most innovative in our industry, but it’s an uphill battle because they work under contracts that say they should not be innovative. The contracts say they need to follow the rules, otherwise they won’t get paid. However, clients continually call for innovation in reducing prices.
Value engineering has turned from innovative to harmful if we value engineer before we are awarded a project. GCs have a tendency to share subcontractor value engineering ideas with our competitors to make sure everyone is bidding the same thing; “apples and apples.”
There have been some subcontractors over the years that have come up with somewhat innovative ideas resulting in the production of deflection track, headers, jambs, studs, radius track and other products that are not truly innovative to the point of revolutionary.
Most subcontracting companies work under the same assumption as manufacturers and general contractors: The Big Dogs are in charge of innovation because that’s how It’s been done for 200 years.
The Big Dog in the company may come up with one or maybe two truly innovative, revolutionary changes in his or her lifetime, and usually it happens when the Big Dog is not a Big Dog at all. He or she is most likely working for someone else and decides to start a company where the new idea, method or device can be implemented.
InnovatorsToyota is now the number one auto maker in the world due to making innovation a priority from the bottom up. The Big Dogs at Toyota and Google believe that innovation is what got them to the pinnacle of success and that innovation will keep them there. Most interesting is the fact that both companies have created an atmosphere where innovation can come from anyone in the company. These companies have an unwritten policy that promotes innovation and expects people at every level to be innovative.
People in the trenches at Toyota are looked upon as key innovators. Workers at Google have been awarded multi-million dollar bonuses because they came up with a very innovative profitable idea.
The ChallengeI want to challenge manufacturers, general contractors, subcontractors as well as myself to develop revolutionary innovations in the construction industry:
• Is it strange that drywall is so heavy?
• Is it strange that we still have to coat drywall several times before it’s ready to paint?
• Is it odd that we build interior walls one stud at a time?
• Is it silly that we still use screws to attach sheet rock to walls and ceilings?
• Is it crazy that we expect plasterers to push heavy cement plaster around a wall all day long?
• Isn’t it weird that stucco still cracks?
Isn’t it also strange that organizational charts are the same as they were 200 years ago? Maybe the people at the bottom of the chart are the missing link to management innovation. There may come a day when leaders are selected strictly by their subordinates rather than upper management. I know of one company who allows its employees to choose the projects they want to work on as well as the leader of the project; talk about giving power to the people on the front line!
Some of these questions might sound crazy, but I’m sure that flying, space travel, the automobile and the light bulb sounded crazy before they became a reality. After all, when “sheet rock” first came out, the plastering industry didn’t believe it would take off. Construction is a career with unlimited opportunity and it is a career in which there is a lot of room for innovation.
Remember: Teamwork begins with a fair contract.