A new product was about to be launched and the industrialist CEO asked, “Is it idiot proof?” I was young and not sure what he meant. It was explained to me that he wanted to know if anyone could put it in without messing it up. I soon learned top executives want products and systems simple enough that the untrained or unqualified worker can install it and alleviate risk. While I understand the concept, it seemed impractical, particularly for skilled crafts. I remember thinking to myself, nothing is idiot proof and only someone daft would think to ask this. Of course, I only used my inside voice. I was new, young and not that brave.

The ultimate irony to me is that after four decades in the industry, everything has gone the exact opposite direction. Products and systems are even more complicated today. Proof lies in the increase in time delays, cost over-runs, trade stacking, site logistic problems, repeated call-backs and more litigation. Most agree that the entire construction design and delivery process, despite repeated promises of greater simplicity and risk avoidance, has not happened.

 Time delays are often the result of workers scratching their heads trying to understand the intricacies of the complexity of products and systems that frequently change. Complex assemblies generally require more training and often have more components to install. The result is the need for greater coordination of parts and pieces. As complexity increases, production slows, cost and risk increase. We can add in construction details that were stamped approved for construction, yet are not constructible. Field personnel see them every day and it is not limited to any specific sector in construction or region of the country. Some of these details include components that either do not exist, require special training, are not compatible or improperly sequenced. If it was only one issue or item, the field crew could handle it but it tends to be everywhere and overwhelming in the construction industry. The result is a chain reaction that just snowballs. Top brass demand project managers to get the project back on track. They in turn accelerate schedules. The problem then just gets even worse. Welcome to modern construction.

Handle the Curve

Some complex assemblies are sold as a labor savings, when the crew can just get past that learning curve. The problem is construction crews are by nature mobile workers and that learning curve is lost as they move on to the next project to learn a new curve. Complexity only exacerbates the condition. Workers in the field become frustrated or simply do not care to learn something new. The paradigm is not likely to improve as we move more towards piece work rate pay over hourly wages. Piece workers become even less interested in slowing down to learn new procedures.

While we should all care to make the building more sustainable, save the planet or lessen the carbon footprint for society, this all takes a back seat to a worker struggling to feed his family. We shouldn’t really blame the piece worker and their need for production. After all, how many of us are willing to take a pay cut or work longer hours for the noble cause to save the planet? Why would we expect the field worker to be any different?

Assume a worker on the site needs to put up one hundred units a day to pay his bills. Asking them to slow down to learn a new system that will result in seventy-five units per day is not an easy sell. They figure out pretty quick they are making less money. You can tell them it saves energy or promotes the company and production will improve over time. However, they are thinking about how they need to feed the family. In this scenario, they tend to move on to other places or worse, cut corners to increase production.

In the most ironic twist of all, our industry seems to be entrenched with the idea that we need something new and cutting edge or cool. The traditional methods of construction do not work or they would have us believe this. I was involved in a project where every time-tested and proven wall assembly we proposed was rejected, even though they met every requirement for fire and water resistance established by the owner and design team. I finally asked for clarification as to why all our proposals had been rejected. The response was a bit shocking to me, “We need something new and exciting to sell to our board of directors.” I thought that being the guinea pigs of the industry would be foolish. I guess making the board of directors’ idiot proof was out of the question. Of course, I again used my inside voice. I guess after all these years I am still not that brave.