Many of our readers who used to be in the field can remember being on projects working with other trades and the extraordinary coordination it takes to organize projects to run well. Some may have even been around before the invention of BIM, email, the Internet, cells phones and even the fax machine. The changes from that time to now are nothing less than mind boggling. Oddly, it seems the faster information travels, the slower production gets.

Water cooler chats with the young can bring out chuckles when older workers recount the days of fascination watching a fax come through. It was only a few decades ago a technical consultant told me he had to mail documents. The information highway is lighting fast but has it been a blessing or a curse to construction? While the time it takes to transfer information has increased dramatically, the time it takes to frame a wall, hang board and tape the joints has changed very little. It might be fair to say production has actually gone in the opposite direction. Most young college graduates enter our industry in an overwhelmed state and slight disbelief. Everything is faster to them—it always has been. They live to process data faster, so why not the guys on the construction site? I believe there are some cultural differences that could be driving the issue.

Some Things Never Change

Let’s assume it is 1975 and it took 21 days to frame a building, 14 days to hang the drywall, then another 12 days to tape and finish, for a grand total of 47 days. Like a ship, it is smooth sailing. However, pushing schedules and production is what construction is all about. Therefore, the project manager must cut at least two days off the schedule and increase production. With a little planning, organizing and motivation, it works. The manager moves on to the next project and the process repeats. The secret is discovered that in order to speed up the schedule, you merely tighten up the gap between the crews. However, a point comes in time where production will go the opposite direction and what once took 47 days now becomes 54. The increase is the result of unforeseen events, miscalculations and poor supervision, to name a few. The typical fix is to further compress the schedule, which generally just makes it worse.

The 54 days become 70 when the electrician now has his schedule compressed. The college graduate with a degree in construction management just does not understand why it is not working like he learned in school. Just when you think it could not get any worse, the windows are delayed and the crews are told to work around those open areas. At this point the ship is broken, the engine is coughing black smoke and like Captain Quinn from the movie Jaws, if anyone tells the young manager, “Maybe you need to back off this push a bit,” he pushes even harder on the throttle. The truth is framing a wall is framing a wall. Even with better screwguns and lighter studs, it still takes relatively the same time it took in 1975. Adding in design complexity, increased safety rules and more layers of materials, today production has to be a little slower. While most believe that “shaving days off the schedule saves time and money,” it can be pushed to the breaking point.

A Fresh, New Look

Why would any subcontractor agree to an unrealistic schedule? They hope for the best and need to work, if they turn it down, someone else will take it. It may be fair to say the majority of large projects suffer this evolutional syndrome. There are certainly good general contractors out there. They know realistic schedules, production rates and the value of letting a crew mobilize and work without placing unnecessary obstacles in their way. This typically requires three things:

  1. A superintendent with actual field experience and understanding of production.
  2. A crew of trained and motivated journeymen capable of a team attitude.
  3. A project manager who listens and understands that workers need space and the proper tools to maximize productivity.

We have seen the production rates in construction continue to fall. While the solution has traditionally been to continually compress the schedule or simply put more workers on the project site, maybe it is time to look at the problem from a fresh perspective. It should be obvious by now that compressing schedules and hoping it will eventually increase production is unrealistic. I think it was Albert Einstein who said, “The definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over and then expect a different result.”