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            The master builder of the past, who knew business, design, and construction from the ground up has been replaced by MBAs and CPAs whose expertise is in acquiring land, sales-pitching projects to investors, and securing financing.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

Construction Management Introduction 2

            If new houses cannot be debugged as a group on a mass-production assembly-line at a single factory location, like other products, then the only other option left is to debug each new single-family house and each new tract housing project individually one at a time. 

            This requires an applicable database of information consisting of illustrations and descriptions of past problems…universally generic to housing construction overall plus company-specific issues…to use before and during the construction…to replace the initial trial-runs that typically take place on mass-production assembly-lines.

            This approach also aims to reduce the negative impact of isolated housing construction projects regarding the communication of debugging information within the industry.

            This impact fosters the jealously guarded competitive advantage of expertise that belongs to builders, architects, interior designers, building trade subcontractors, tradespersons, and field superintendents…that comprises their hard-earned good reputation for producing high-quality work through mistake-avoidance.

            But a new direction requires the recognition that debugging and quality go together to produce high-quality outcomes.

Construction Management Introduction 1

            Mass-production assembly-lines that are manufacturing 100,000 units of the same identical product at a single factory location, for example, thoroughly debug the manufacturing process ahead of time at the initial trial-run phase to ensure a smooth and error-free assembly once mass-production begins. 

            This enables each product to be manufactured at its lowest cost-per-unit.

            One condition for the mass-production of a large number of the same repetitive product at one assembly-line factory is that the finished size of the product must be small enough to be assembled at one location and then shipped/transported to other locations.

            In the exceptional cases of manufactured things that are very large in size, they have the required feature of mobility…of being able to independently transport themselves by land, sea, or air. 

            A navy aircraft carrier is built in a shipyard dry-dock, and when completed is lowered into the water and sailed off to its fleet destination. 

            A jet passenger airliner is assembled inside a hangar, and then rolled outside when completed, fueled-up, and flown into service. 

            A city bus is likewise assembled indoors in a factory, is rolled outside, is fueled-up, and then driven on the highways to its destination of use. 

            New houses are also mass-produced items, but are physically too large and heavy to be fully assembled at one factory location and then transported overland to individual building sites. 

            This reality requires houses to be individually assembled piece-by-piece on geographically isolated sites spread-out all over the countryside…thus breaking up the traditional assembly-line debugging process into literally tens of thousands of separate, disconnected units.

            New housing construction projects are so isolated in terms of communicating common debugging information that two similar projects going up side-by-side on adjacent sites, built by different companies, can each be making some of the same costly mistakes without either one knowing about or being able to benefit from the other’s experience.

            The result is that hundreds of thousands of builders, architects, engineers, interior designers, subcontractors, and individual tradespersons find themselves on the uphill slope of the learning curve repeating many of the same hard-earned lessons.

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