Many obstacles to productivity reside within an organization, which puts them under the control of the organization’s leadership to overcome. Overwhelmingly, respondents list planning and communication issues as the most negatively impactful internal challenges with regard to productivity, with “lack of planning skills with our field management level” as the most often selected response (Fig. 6). That said, those who reported significant productivity increases instead selected lack of communication skills at the field management level most frequently. While improving planning procedures at the field level is no silver bullet, it is the clear first step in a comprehensive process of improving productivity. Without a clearly defined, formal planning process in place, how is a construction professional able to determine the root cause of productivity problems? With such a process in place, it is far easier to start by asking whether the process was followed and, if so, to then explore what might have contributed to poor productivity.

While poor quality of plans and specs was the most frequently selected external challenge, organizations that reported significant improvements in productivity did not select this external challenge as an issue. In companies where productivity increased, there was more concern for slow responses from other project team members (Fig. 7). At the same time, there was significantly less concern for project coordination with other team members. On the other hand, unrealistic customer demands and availability of qualified field managers are top issues for these firms but are less so for the rest of respondents. While the results of this survey do not answer the question of how some firms manage external issues better than others, they do clearly indicate that internal practices can have a significant impact on potential external challenges.

Other Productivity Drivers

While simple blocking and tackling, such as better planning and communication, are essential to improving productivity, the industry is undergoing significant changes in procedures, roles, and responsibilities. Emerging technologies, methodologies, and practices, such as building information modeling (BIM), integrated project delivery (IPD) and lean construction, and prefabrication, create opportunities for increased productivity.

BIM — A review of industry news media and trend reports clearly indicates that use of BIM is continuing to grow. For those contractors answering our survey, 63% of all respondents and 81% of electrical contractors have worked on at least one project where BIM was employed. As BIM use increases, it is widely expected that its usage will enable greater collaboration across the supply chain of the construction industry. That collaboration, in turn, should also create opportunities for productivity improvement. Survey respondents support this observation, as 62% indicated improved productivity using BIM.

The most common applications of BIM, especially for electrical contractors, are clash detection, prefabrication management, and shop drawing reviews (Fig. 8). Many of these applications create the potential for significant productivity gains. For example, clash detection can save on wasteful rework by allowing clashes to be detected before equipment is installed and has to be taken out again, saving time and money. Beyond the individual applications, BIM usage allows better planning all along the process.

IPD — Integrated project delivery (IPD) is not yet employed as often as BIM, with only 43% percent of electrical contractor respondents reporting that they have worked on at least one project where IPD was used. While a minority of respondents have used IPD, the results for those who have are clear. Productivity improved at least slightly for nearly 70% of total respondents who have experience with IPD (Fig. 9). Furthermore, 19% of those total respondents who had used IPD reported that it improved productivity significantly. As news of these successes spread, along with best practices and lessons learned, it is our belief that IPD usage or some variation of a more collaborative delivery method will continue to rise. When it does, the benefits of the greater levels of planning, communication, and coordination that IPD requires will be felt in the form of improved productivity.

Lean management — Familiarity with lean management practices is high among respondents at 72% of all those surveyed. In response to the question regarding thoughts and perceptions of lean construction, 42% believe it’s nothing more than good management practices that have been relabeled. Another 27% believe it’s a practical way to improve productivity and/or operational performance. Regardless of whether or not it’s marketing spin, 69% of respondents believe the underlying practices are a great approach to increasing productivity.

While firms are very familiar with the idea and believe it’s a way to increase productivity, only 47% of electrical contractors have used formal lean management practices, tools, or techniques. It is unclear what is stopping the remaining 53%, although many respondents did report a lack of clarity around what lean management practices are or how they apply to the construction industry. Nonetheless, 80% of electrical contractor respondents that have used lean management practices report at least slight productivity gains, with 10% reporting significant productivity gains (Fig. 10). Clearly, the underlying practices, techniques, and tools of lean offer a viable opportunity for productivity improvement.

Prefabrication — Nearly 70% of survey respondents and 100% of electrical contractors currently use prefabrication as a strategy for productivity. Of those who are using prefabrication as part of a strategy for productivity, 98% estimated that it has at least some impact on productivity improvement, with 42% estimating that impact to be greater than 10%.

While many of our respondents have incorporated prefabrication into their overall productivity strategy, FMI believes there is room for further adoption across other trades in the industry. FMI’s “2010 Contractor Prefabrication Survey” reported that approximately 75% of respondents used prefabrication on less than one-fifth of their work.

One challenge highlighted in the 2010 survey is that, much like the subject of productivity as a whole, evaluating the improvements that prefabrication may bring to a firm is complicated by a lack of consistent metrics. As a result, some firms are taking a cautious approach, as they are unable to calculate the ROI of developing internal prefabrication capabilities (Fig. 11).

Concluding Thoughts

As challenged economics and depressed put-in-place statistics seem likely to remain well into 2012 and maybe beyond, contractors must cope with the reality that they must make the most of the work they are able to secure. Productivity improvement offers the greatest opportunity to increase the bottom line while top-line figures remain lower than in past years. Although a group of respondents has adopted what FMI views as productivity best practices with the result of improved productivity, it is clear that, even among those respondents, there is more room for improvement across the industry.

techniques and practices, such as BIM and IPD, offer the potential for improved productivity through greater planning, coordination, and collaboration. That said, the benefits derived from the underlying blocking and tackling of better planning and processes are achievable with or without implementing BIM or working on projects using IPD methods. Productivity improvement requires a comprehensive plan and the necessary commitment of time and resources. For the electrical contractor willing to make that commitment, however, the benefits far outweigh the investment.

Kipland is director of FMI Corp., Tampa, Fla. He can be reached at skimpland@fminet.com.