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Boosting Jobsite Productivity, One Apple at a Time: Career Toolbox Podcast

Consensus is the best route to change and change is the best route to better productivity
November 12, 2021

"I like working with the trades. I like working with a variety of people. But really, I have to attribute it back to my shop teacher in high school, Mr. Butler. He's really the one that... That got me started in this."

—Kristy Wolfe

00:24: Fernando Pages Welcome to ProTradeCraft Career Toolbox. I'm Fernando Pages, and I'm here to help you turn your day job into a career.

00:35 KW: We're short on labor in the construction industry. And the labor we have hasn't achieved significant increases in productivity, as it has in other industries. Our guest today, Kristy Wolfe will tell us why, and more importantly, how we can fix it. Kristy started her construction career with the United States Army Corps of Engineers in Germany.

While in the Corp, she received a Master's Degree from the University of Missouri Rolla. She taught at the United States Army Engineering School. And presently teaches at Bradley University at Peoria, Illinois, where she teaches a variety of construction courses, including scheduling, estimating, construction improvement methods, materials, green construction, and productivity improvement methods, our topic for today.

Kristy, welcome to the ProTradeCraft Career Toolbox, where we explore the means and methods to turn a construction job into a lifelong career.

01:34 FP: Thank you so much for having me. I've been so excited to do this and to offer some, hopefully, some advice or some guidance or just some thoughts for people out in the industry on ways that they can improve productivity. And make it pertinent to whatever their business unit happens to be because it's going to look a little bit different for everyone out there.

01:54 KW: Sure. And you're certainly the most highly-educated and qualified guest on our show to date. So, a little intimidated by your resume. Let me ask you, how did a nice girl like you had to be a field like this.

02:06 FP: Well, that's a great question. So first off, I was raised with an older brother, and so I've always been somewhat of a tomboy. And anything my older brother could do, I thought I could do, or even do better. And if I had a choice between going shopping with my mom, or going out fishing with my dad and my brother, I always opted for the fishing with my dad and my brother.

And so I've always been kind of an outdoors person. I've always been attracted to things that are probably more considered a male-dominated field. And when I went into high school, I was playing softball at the time, and my high school softball coach was also the shop teacher.

And back in my day, when I went to school, shop classes were an option. We had welding, and we had drafting, woodworking, metalworking. And that's one of our problems, and I'll talk about that a little bit later as some of those programs have gone away.

I was talking to, his name was Squire Butler. And I was talking to Mr. Butler, and I said, "I really don't know what I should take for my elective courses." And he says, "Well, why not try a shop class." And I thought, "What in the world?" But I knew I really didn't want to do home economics, or typing, or any of that type of stuff. So I opted to go ahead and take the shop class. And here I am, a lot of years later, still loving the construction industry. And my very first class was a drafting class. And that just kind of hooked me into this whole, you know, we can put a vision on paper, and all of a sudden we could turn that vision into a reality. And it just... It's something that I just thoroughly enjoy. I like working with the trades. And I like working with a variety of people. But really I have to attribute it back to my shop teacher in high school, Mr. Butler. He's really the one that got me started in this.

04:00 FP: So we'll have to thank Mr. Butler.

04:03 KW: Yes, yes.

04:04 FP: Now, most industries are grappling with a profound labor shortage, Kristy, you know this, especially the construction industry. But other industries, from manufacturing to mechanics at the corner, have somewhat compensated using technology and other efficiency-building productivity tools. In other words, they are squeezing more work out of fewer people. But not so with builders.

Why has productivity stagnated in the construction industry?

04:31 KW: One of the main reasons, and the things that we look at, there's kind of three broad areas. We look at the industry, we look at management, and then we also look at labor itself. So let me talk real quick first about the industry.

Our industry is different. We do not produce multiple items that are precisely the same. So we don't produce 1000 widgets a day, and every single widget looks exactly the same. Everything we do is different. Very seldom are you going to do two jobs that are exactly alike.

Even if I'm building for a certain company, I might build a retail location in Georgia. And then I might go to North Dakota and build a retail location there. Those are going to have two very different working environments. So for industry, it makes it somewhat difficult.

And what I don't wanna do is I don't wanna give this as a crutch for people to say, "Okay, productivity hasn't increased, and here's why." And these are all of our excuses. What I want to do is just point out initially, here's why we're different. And then we'll talk about ways to increase it in the construction industry. So our industry is very different.

We work out in the weather. Most manufacturing-type facilities, which is what we're compared to, it's a controlled environment.

They're working in 70-degree day, night, November, July, doesn't matter. We don't have that luxury. So we're somewhat dependent on our industry, we depend on things like the weather.

Management is another issue. I don't know if the issue is the best word to put it, but management in our industry. And when we talk about management in our industry, I like to talk about the span of control. And when people think of span of control is to how many people or how many things can you effectively manage?

I can manage 300 people all over the globe, but am I effectively managing them? A lot of times, our management is spread too thin in the construction industry, and we always talk about, "We want productivity to do better." But we don't have time to monitor, and we don't have time to track our productivity.

So until that becomes a priority with not only management but especially upper-level management, we're probably not going to see a big increase. And then we'll talk about our labor pool. So this is one of the biggest issues that we have, and I'm going to talk a little bit first about the older generation. "It's always been done this way. Why would we change it?"

If I walk onto a job site in today's world and I have five out of 10 of my people working, that's about average. And when I say working, I should say productive. I shouldn't just say working.

But about 50% are productive on a construction site, and that has become the norm. And so the older generation says, "Well, why would we change it? This is what we've always done. This is how we've always done it." And you mentioned about that other industries have taken technology to increase their efficiency. We have not embraced it as much as we should in our industry for a variety of reasons.

One, people don't like to change. Two, some of the technologies can be expensive, especially if you're looking at smaller construction firms. They may not be able to afford those things. So labor is definitely an issue. We also don't have labor coming in. So we look at our trades, and we don't have young people who are willing to stand up and say, "Well, I wanna go be a carpenter. I want to be an electrician. I wanna be a pipe fitter." We don't have that.

And we can tie that back into... Some of that back into the fact that we don't really expose these kids, I say "kids," to those opportunities early on. So when they're in high school, we're telling them, "College, college is the only route. You have to go to college. That's your best option."

Most kids don't get sat down and said, "Hey, you know what, you can go be an electrician, union, non-union, it doesn't matter, but you can go be an electrician, you can make good money. You can support a family. You can have a career. If you're a union state, then they're going actually to send you for training. You're going to get five years of training, and then you're going to be making great money."

So labor is really a key issue for our productivity. The other thing is, we've got a gap. We've got this older generation and this younger generation, and even the kids that are coming into the trade, they don't really know how to build things. And you think about an older generation; they were accustomed to building things. They did things, whether it was farm work, whether it was more...

I think about where I grew up in a rural area and all the kids I knew. You drove tractors. You worked on tractors. You worked on your cars. So the mechanics' side of things, we don't do that near as much. It's more of an urban lifestyle. So the industry, the management, and labor, all of those have to come together and... If we want to increase our productivity in this industry because we cannot just say, "Let's have fewer workers, and we're gonna get more productivity out of those."

10:08 FP: You know, five years in trade school is a little bit like college, isn't it?

10:13 KW: Yeah, definitely. And guess what, you don't come out with any debt. That is a huge piece. You've got five years of training, you now have a skilled trade that you can do, and you're making money right off the bat and not wondering how you're going to pay this large college debt back.

10:33 FP: There's gotta be a way of making construction education cool because I think that's actually where the problem lies. It's not cool. It's not the stuff that young people want to do. They want to become computer wizards and following the tracks of the famous billionaires and become a billionaire. That's their illusion. And so they end up not even becoming thousand-aires because they have no money.

10:58 KW: And so you bring up a great point, and I think this is a... We didn't talk about this beforehand, but it's a perfect lead-in. I do classes across the country, and I talk about recruiting young people. And one of the keys to recruiting these young people is to talk to their parents.

And if you can get the parents to buy in, because a lot of times I'm a parent, you want your children to do better than what you did and not necessarily look at, "Oh, going into a trade." So getting the parents to buy into the fact that their children can go out and make a skilled trade and be successful.

The other piece of that is if I have a student, and we'll just call him Bob, and Bob is a senior in high school, and Bob comes up to me, and I say, "Oh, Bob, I know you're graduating from high school, what are you going to do?" Bob says, "Oh, I'm going to Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, and I'm gonna study Political Science." And I say, "Oh, wow, that's great. You're going to college, Bob. I'm so excited. I'm happy for you. This is great." And I'm happy, and that's generally how people will respond if someone is going to college. Now, let's do a different scenario. I go up to Bob, and I say, "Bob." I say, "I know you're graduating soon, what are you going to do? What's your future?"

And he says, "I'm gonna go be a carpenter." And the reaction is totally different, Fernando. People will say, "Why?" Why would you want to be a carpenter?

Every November, I have a group of students who come through, and it's about 30 students who are doing a co-op program. These are kids who do not wanna go to college. They want to go into a trade. And what I told them, I said, "When you have someone ask you why, here's your answer." I said, "You gotta be confident. You gotta say, 'Because I can make a good living because I wanna do a skilled trade, I want to help build America.'"

I said, "Yeah, it sounds cheesy, but imagine, we don't have carpenters. We don't have electricians. We don't have plumbers. We don't have pipefitters. That means we don't have buildings. That means when my toilet doesn't flush in the morning, who am I going to call? I'm not going to call Bob the Political Science guy. I need Bob, the plumber."

And so we need to get society excited about these kids going into industry. And we need to change it the way we respond to these kids telling us what they want to do for their future.

13:37 FP: I lived that. I lived that. I was thinking about it as you were speaking, but actually, your example, I lived your example. I was a kid, I don't remember how old, maybe 10-11 years old, and we were with a group of kids and with a lady that lived in the neighborhood. And she was asking, "So what do you wanna be when you grow up? What do you wanna do?"

And I said, "A carpenter." I said that because it was just exciting to me, carpenter. [chuckle] And she said, "Well, I guess somebody's gotta do it." It was like a put down in front of all of my friends.

I remember that.

14:12 KW: Right, yeah. And that's something that has become a societal norm that we have got to change, and we have to understand that we need these people. And in all honesty, what do we need? Do we need another engineer, or do we need another plumber?

Because Mike Rowe, I love watching him and listening to him, and he does a little bit about that exact thing. Do you need another engineer? Do you need a plumber? Well, when your toilet's overflowing or your water doesn't work, you want a plumber. You don't need another engineer. And pretty soon we're not going to have anyone to call when the toilet doesn't work because there's not going to be anyone else there. They're all going to be retired.

14:56 FP: Rowe would be a good guest for us.

14:58 KW: Yes.

14:58 FP: I'll keep that in mind. I'll reach out to him. But, Kristy, in terms of the construction industry, in terms of productivity, is the situation hopeless, or can the construction industry repair its lagging productivity problem?

15:14 KW: So, we can repair it, but the number one thing that we have to do is we have to learn to measure it. And what I mean by that is, how can you evaluate something that you can't measure?

So let me give you an example, and this is why I say that it's different for a different business unit, so not everyone is going to be the same. But let's say I have carpenters, okay? And I have this crew, and I know what this crew should be able to do in a day, whether it's framing walls, maybe it's floor joist, whatever it happens to be, I have to have a standard, and I have to have something to measure off of.

So when we talk about we're failing at productivity, one of the things that we're really failing at is we don't have an accurate way to measure it. So I can tell you that you're not productive, but based off of what means? Is this a number that I've made up?

What I think you can do, is this a number that we've worked together on? So there's something called standard work processes, and you see it a lot in the manufacturing industry.

I worked at Caterpillar, and I saw it. I was a facilities engineer, but of course, I worked with the production staff, and they had standard work processes or standard work procedures. They were supposed to produce 1000 widgets a day. They knew that. Everyone knew that.

In the construction industry, we don't do that. We don't look at that worker and say, "Here's what I expect you to produce today. If you do not, tell me why you didn't. Maybe a machine broke down. Maybe it was weather-related. Maybe I didn't have the supplies that I needed. But we are going to struggle to increase productivity until we can learn how to measure it accurately."

17:19 FP: Analyze why it fell short.

17:20 KW: Exactly, so there's something called Toyota Production Systems, and you'll hear buzz words like black belt or Six Sigma Black Belt.

Caterpillar actually introduced just the caterpillar production system, and it's exactly about that. If we don't meet our production rate, why are we not meeting our production rate? And then not only why, but what do we do to fix that? And the thing about the Toyota Production Systems, and even the ones that they use at Caterpillar, it gets everyone involved.

It's not management saying, "Here's what you must do." It's the management and the workforce saying, "Let's work together to create the standard, then let's figure out together why we're not meeting it, and then let's figure out together a solution." So I think that's really key.

Until we can accurately measure it, accurately track it, figure out where our faults are, I think it's... We're really gonna struggle to increase it because we don't have that baseline knowledge.

18:24 FP: Now, some of these, I guess, analogies or examples for big industry, Toyota, Caterpillar, sometimes they're little hard for the local drywall contractor or the local...

18:40 KW: Exactly.

18:42 FP: ...remodeling contractor to figure out how to incorporate, how to make it his own. So, by way of a practical takeaway from this really interesting conversation and maybe a homework assignment for our listeners, what can our listeners do to improve productivity in their operations today?

19:01 KW: So, I think the number one key is they have to pick one area to focus on.

We cannot, if you're talking, especially about small builders, a drywall company, someone who builds custom homes, you can't go in and just all of a sudden say, "That's it, we're gonna improve productivity in every single area." You might have to just focus on one area, and you might have to focus on one crew.

So, if I have a drywall company and I'm running four crews, maybe I focus on, I don't know why we're focused on Bob, but we'll go to Bob's crew. We're going to work on Bob's crew, and let's see what Bob is doing, or maybe we want to work on Bob and Sally's crew.

We wanted to monitor them for a week and say, "Okay, let's see what their production rates look like. Well, why is Bob's crew producing so much more than Sally's crew? Well, maybe Bob's crew has more experience. But you have to take a small little piece of the pie to start with.

And it doesn't matter if you're a Caterpillar or Fernando's drywall company, you have got to figure out what in your business unit is going to benefit the most, and it all comes down to money, in all honesty. We can talk about all of these things.

Still, we are not able to show, and this kind of goes back to it, maybe an industry and a management thing both, but we need to be able to show, if I'm going to focus all this time and effort on productivity, well, what does it do for my business?

And the bottom line is, I want to know does it save me money? Does it make me money? And in simple terms, if I get jobs done quicker, I get job one done, I can move onto job two.

So, rather than doing four jobs in a month, now I can do seven jobs in a month, that equates to what? More money.

So, that's the other thing we have to do is how do we tie this productivity increase into making more money, because really that's what it boils down to.

No matter what industry you are in, you're in it to make money. And so, I think it's critical, find that one little piece of the pie, I like to call it low-hanging fruit.

Find that low-hanging fruit, that's something you can attack immediately and work on to try to make better. And then once you get that low-hanging fruit, move onto the next one and the next one. Then pretty soon what happens is all of a sudden, rather than it being normal to have five people working, now it's normal to have seven people working on a job.

I've increased two more people being productive on a job. And in turn, I increase my profit. So, looking for those low-hanging fruit, looking for things that you can fix immediately. And if you go in and try to change the world and change everything, people are not going to be receptive to it.

But they will be receptive if you start small, and also they'll be more receptive if you get them involved. Ask them.

Maybe it's a matter of, "Hey, if I had better tools, I could be more productive," simple fix.

So, yeah, definitely looking at smaller pieces of the pie, looking for that low-hanging fruit, and then trying to track it, and measure it, and figure out what the benefits, especially monetarily are.

22:35 FP: So, by way of homework, you might go back to your job tomorrow or whenever you're back at work and kind of observe, to start, see what's going on, see who's producing more, what elements may be getting in the way of that production. Maybe it's tools.

If you're an employer, maybe you wanna get rid of some of those pet peeves and employee complaints, such as, "I don't have good tools," or, "I don't have the supplies."

Get rid of those before you start imposing your own ideas in terms of observations that you've had. "Maybe if you do it this way, you could do it better."

The person is more receptive to that once you've listened to and taken care of their...

23:24 KW: Yeah. And I worked with a company, and they did something very simple. What they did was everybody has a smartphone now, this is not new. Everybody pretty much on a job site has a smartphone for the most part.

What they would do is if their crew had downtime or unproductive time, they could go into this app, have a drop-down menu and say, "Why are they not being productive and for how long?"

23:53 FP: Interesting.

23:54 KW: And now, everybody can pull this up and look at it. People are doing it with an Excel spreadsheet. You can have a little spreadsheet on your phone. "Hey, I'm sitting here for 45 minutes waiting on material to be delivered."

We have a thing right now with the electricians; our electricians can't work... It used to be they could turn the power off and on, well, now we have to wait for our electric company. We'll have guys that'll sit out there for 90 minutes, they're still getting paid, but they have to sit out there for 90 minutes and wait for the electric company to come to shut the main power off.

So, things like that, that... And sometimes management doesn't even know that's happening or that's going on. So, something with very simple ways to incorporate the technology that we talked about like I said, everyone has a smartphone.

A lot of companies now, they're giving their foremen iPads. And so, the foremen have access to all kinds of information. And you would think in this day and age of information transfer that is literally a click away, productivity tracking and measurement should be in theory much easier.

25:10 FP: Kristy, it's been a real pleasure. You're a great asset to our industry, and I appreciate so much the fact that you bring this message of productivity, and especially the message of that working construction is actually pretty darn cool. So, thank you so much, and I look forward to having you back again sometime.

25:30 KW: Well, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it. And I hope that I gave the listeners at least something that they can take away or at least something that they can think about.

25:40 FP: I'm sure you did.

Career Toolbox is a production of SGC Horizon Media Network. I'm your host, Fernando Pages, and the show is produced by Dan Morrison.

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