Too often the construction industry will implement technology in the "back office" but overlook efficiencies that can generate cash flow and reduce costs on the job site. The net income of the top contractors in the U.S. is as much as 25 percent higher than the rest, and the major contributor to this difference is their use of technology. Accurate information that provides a business owner the ability to make immediate decisions about his/her operation resulting in a boost to profitability is crucial during an economic downturn. If revenue is down and the market mood does not permit price increases, then profitability can only be realized by reducing costs.
So you must ask yourself "What prevents me from 100 percent efficiency?"
Focus on "Faster and Better"
Every asset, machine, tool and person you have must be accountable and cycle more quickly. An airline cannot survive when planes are not in the air producing revenue. Your business cannot survive unless you know where your assets are and how they can be used efficiently. Imagine being able to view where your tools and equipment are at any moment so that you can plan to transfer them to the next job. How important it is to locate a unique tool when it is required on another active job, avoiding any down time? What happens when your employees get to a job site and don’t have the inventory or tools they need to complete the job? These situations and others cause accelerated costs and reduced productivity.
Take a Proactive Approach
Under normal circumstances a business owner will review financial (accounting) information, overhead and direct operating margin at the end of a month or quarter. But these aren’t "normal" circumstances. "Business owners must plan their destiny and not look in the rearview mirror!" stated Bill Allen of W.A. Allen Consulting. "Instead of flying blind (until a project is completed) it’s time to operate from a plan. Understand what prevents you from 100 percent efficiency."
Buy-in Happens from the Top-Down
Start by developing a culture that compels events to conform to your plan. Anything that deviates from the plan is an opportunity for cost-savings and efficiencies. Do you have too much time loss in non-direct labor areas (idle or down time)? By evaluating what interrupts the workflow on a daily basis, you will uncover areas that with improvement will provide an increased bottom line. It is up to the business owner to make a conscious decision to manage from a plan rather than react to circumstances, and to hold all employees accountable for following the plan. This transition will be easier if the technology tools available today are adopted.
What technology is best?
Evaluate your operations to determine where your technology dollars are best spent.
Reduced Down Time
Can you reduce or minimize the time spent looking for machines, tools and other assets or plan maintenance and calibration to avoid machine down time? A tracking system using barcode will show where your assets are at the time they are needed – who took them last or which job site they were checked out to. An integrated maintenance scheduler will flag required maintenance as it is due and assure OSHA compliance.
Make Shrinkage Unacceptable
Proper control of tools and parts prevents costs that result from hoarding, irresponsibility or downright theft. It is up to the business owner to declare that shrinkage is unacceptable and to hold employees accountable for losses that are under their control. This policy is given "teeth" when you can effectively track your assets using technology.
Although you may not be aware of the bottlenecks on your jobs, this is probably the single most important variable. What are your capacities for output and what is the optimal load of people and tools to meet 100 percent capacity? How do you route the work to prevent idle or down time? A computerized system that tracks labor hours to a specific function within the job and on the fly will help prevent these costly issues by identifying those points where workflow gets interrupted.
Avoid Manual Transactions
Does your staff spend unproductive minutes (or hours) manually recording transactions? Manpower that goes into manual recording and recordkeeping does nothing to increase revenue or control costs. Technology can provide the integrated systems control over asset use, capacity, maintenance, location – and do it 24 x 7.
You don’t have to be one of the "big guys" to afford technology. Today, systems are available for a reasonable price that can help avoid many of the costs consumed by inefficiencies in operations and can be purchased as stand-alone systems focused on one aspect of the business. The decision where to start depends on what areas you find are losing you the most money.
Time and Attendance
A Time and Attendance software package will tell you who is working when on what job for how long, and produce reports for payroll. It can be set to automatically account for start and end times, breaks, lunch, etc. to reduce the time your employees spend recording their time.
The Job Costing software adds the ability to track inventory costs plus the labor hours consumed against the job while the job is in progress.
An Inventory Control software package will account for your stock parts and tell you when you need to reorder. It can issue parts to a work order or job and confirm that the correct items have been put on the truck. Barcoded inventory makes it quick and easy to take an inventory count.
Barcode technology has been actively used for over 20 years in manufacturing, distribution and retail to track inventory and jobs. The barcode terminals are similar to PDA’s, and provide immediate and accurate information. There are barcode labels designed for harsh environments that are durable enough to withstand the dirt, grease and rough use that many tools experience.
Making the job of your employees easier by assuring that they have what they need to perform at their best reduces stress. Showing them that you are taking steps to increase the profitability of each job will provide them more confidence in the company.
"Our…ability to readily locate critical tools, monitor routine maintenance schedules, and track broken equipment has saved countless labor hours and lowered the frustration level of our shop employees. By providing our employees an efficient method for obtaining, maintaining, and tracking tools and equipment, the CheckMate Tool Tracking System has effectively helped lower our operating costs," confirmed Thomas Hortman, project manager for AAI Textron Services Inc.
While technology won’t cure the credit crunch business owners are facing, automated processes that improve cash flow and keep lenders in the loop, demonstrating that the business "has its act together" can go a long way in convincing lenders that their risk is low.
(Alison Falco is president of Dynamic Systems, Inc.,)