Identifying issues is only the first step, notes Steve Toon, productivity engineer at Bechtel. Toon says activity analysis needs to be an ongoing process of assessing problems and applying solutions.
“The thing that is not addressed with traditional work sampling is what to do with the data,” he says. “We need to identify solutions, implement those solutions and follow up with another study to either validate that those solutions addressed the issue and increased productive time or [find ways to improve].”
In a typical two-day period on a Bechtel site, Toon says, he might collect 2,000 observations to serve as indicators of possible problems. He then surveys workers and foremen in the field to identify common restraints that cause delays. Armed with that data, he crafts solutions and presents them to the site manager and the project superintendent.
“You’d be surprised how many times we sit down and I’ve seen [managers] have an epiphany,” he says. “Often, I come in with a set of data that validates everything they thought, but now they have the data.”
Not everyone likes being watched. Mark Stofega, principal construction support engineer at Fluor, says workers think he is “checking up on them,” when, in fact, he usually seeks management-based problems.
“When you explain the process, there are very few things you can blame on the [crafts workers] other than late starts or early breaks,” he says. “What you find are management issues—the materials aren’t there, designs aren’t there, equipment is not there. All of a sudden, the [crafts workers] see what you’re doing, and they open up.”
Just as researchers hope to get better at identifying productivity issues, work is under way to develop a framework for applying effective solutions. As part of the first phase of CII’s project, the RT 252 research team is investigating the relationship between craftsperson productivity and best practices. For example, CII maintains a benchmarking and metrics database that is used to identify possible best practices.
In the first of the project’s five phases, the team focused on the mechanical trades. It reported a significant relationship between improved productivity and best practices in materials management, safety, team building, front-end planning, and automation and integration. Research showed that projects that were “advanced implementers” of these practices experienced as much as a 50% average productivity advantage over “weak implementer” projects.
The team’s analysis of electrical crafts produced similar results, indicating that the more productive projects are associated with a high level of safety-program implementation, automation and integration of information systems, materials management systems, team building and constructibility.
The practices are proven, and CII acknowledges that many have been known for years, such as short interval planning and work packaging. Still, the team says those solutions are rarely “implemented completely or consistently from project to project.”
Index of Best Practices
Instead of supplying a laundry list of practices, the team is developing an index of best practices with weighted scores based on the relative influence of each on improving productivity. Dubbed the Best Productivity Practice Implementation Index, the system is designed to help determine which practices or combinations of practices might help drive productivity.
General contractors may find there are limits to productivity gains for contractors, owners and others that use subcontractors. The common approach among productivity experts is for each party to focus on its own part of the equation.
Rather than using activity analysis to identify issues for managers, Chris Heger, a Turner Construction project superintendent, tries to remove barriers for subcontractors. Some strategies are basic, such as keeping materials on wheels for easy transport.
Other strategies require extra effort. At a lab project site at which portable toilets weren’t allowed in clean spaces, a portable toilet was placed on three-story staging outside the facility to reduce travel time. “Those are the types of things we can do to help [crafts workers] spend more time on task,” he says.
A steel erector working at Manhattan’s One World Trade Center is taking a similar approach. DCM Erectors, New York City, has arranged for a Subway sandwich shop to operate from a platform that is jacked to rise with the skyscraper’s steel frame, thus helping the ironworkers avoid a trip of as much as 30 minutes down to the street to find lunch.