TrueNorth Development
President

Scott Sedam, president of TrueNorth Development (www.truen.com), spends most of his time working in the trenches with builders, suppliers and trade contractors. His Lean Builder blog appears weekly at HousingZone.com. He welcomes your feedback at scott@truen.com.

The Lean Builder Blog: Truck or trailer? What would Lean say?

The Lean Perspective is by no means limited to sticks and bricks issues on the construction site. When we talk Lean building we are really talking Lean operations: providing value & eliminating waste in product and process wherever it is found. Many seemingly mundane issues can have significant implications in both cost and value. A great example came up last week while having dinner with builders from several companies at the Bob Schultz “Serious Management Workshop,” a twice-annual event that attracts senior managers from across North America. The discussion centered around whether project managers (superintendent, “builder,” et al,) should work out of a truck or a trailer. 

Before the housing crash, construction trailers dotted the landscape like pepperoni on a Domino’s super party pizza. Seems like nearly every project doing more than a couple of units a month had a trailer. That brought some real advantages. With a home-base in the field the project manager (PM) (aka superintendent, builder, et al,) has an organized place to keep his or her computer, plan sets, start packages and if there is an assistant super or maybe a warranty manager, a great place to exchange information and build the team. It also provides a predictable (maybe too predictable?) place for suppliers & trades to find the PM to get problems solved, sign VPO’s, etc. I am also a fan of large schedule boards that enable anyone at a glance to know exactly how a project is running and you need somewhere to put them. A trailer is a good place for that.

One variation on that theme is to build a construction office into one of the models. This presents a host of problems such as contractor trucks stopping by, blocking traffic, blocking drives and tracking mud through the streets. It does, however, promote good communication between construction and sales. The reality today is that most PMs today do not oversee construction in a single project, let alone build up one street of a project then down another. (Cue: “Those were the days” background music.) In this market PMs typically cover a lot of ground in a day and visit multiple projects, often far apart. That has led to far fewer physical offices in the field and more working out of the truck. “Trailer jockeys” – the guys who seem to never leave the construction trailer – are now a rarity. That’s one good thing.

Twenty years ago, the lack of cell phones made working from a truck difficult. A PM needed a place to place and receive calls. Now everyone has cell phones. 15 years ago, computers for construction in the field were still the exception, but over time they grew common and the issue became how to keep the desktop computer clean. Then came laptops but even these are being supplanted by smart phones and tablet computers, making true portability a reality. A PM with a good tablet system can not merely send messages but adjust the schedule, update the house file and call up plans almost instantly.  All of this conspires to question if a physical office for the PM is necessary today. If I had a large project running at least 3-4 per month and requiring a full-time on-site PM, I’d still consider it. It would be a tough call, though, and if a PM is constantly in the truck travelling site-to-site, given the mobile technology available today, why spend the money on a physical space?

Lean means reducing non value-added product or process everywhere possible. Look hard at your cost for leasing, maintaining, heating and cooling that trailer. Is the value there?

If you add it all up, in most cases Lean would suggest ditching the trailer and getting your PMs a tablet computer (iPad or otherwise) and a better truck – probably a nice crew cab to provide room for everything they need. It never ceases to amaze me the wide range of “presentation” we see out there by PMs. I understand the advantage in both simplicity and cost of letting the PMs drive whatever they chose. Let’s just say that the face presented to suppliers, trades, inspectors and especially to customers is often less than desired. Is this a professional building company or is it a loose confederation of construction dudes?

Make a deal with your PMs. You provide a nice truck on a 2 or 3 year lease and they keep it clean. You also emblazon your attractive logo and marketing slogan you paid so much for all over it. Builders pay significant money for random impression advertising such as billboards and newspaper ads, yet give up the literally tens of thousands of super-cheap impressions available by having your PMs drive around unobtrusive but still highly visible billboards for their firm. While driving down the highway, at every soccer game, shopping mall and school parking lot, potential buyers will be continually reminded that ACE HOMES is there and ready to build their dream. You’ll also get the benefit of having your PMs more cautious about how and where they drive. I cannot prove that; but I have been told it so many times over the years that I am convinced it’s true.

You have now added significant value to the financial calculation on the truck-vs.-office equation. Take the money you save on the field office and spend some of it on nice trucks and iPads for the PMs.  Give a big boost to your advertising with your mobile billboards and keep the rest of the money. Everybody wins. Sounds like Lean to me.

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