Productivity is often a misunderstood concept. I am not talking about working longer hours, but rather staying craft employed a larger percentage of the day. Productivity is about what you actually install and produce, not about how hard you work. You can work really hard carrying materials by hand, but maybe a forklift can do the same thing in a fraction of the time. To understand more about productivity, let’s start with some basic concepts. 

Craft time is the time spent actually installing a production. It does not include material handling, set-up, clean-up, nor any non-hands on field time. You must actually be hammering, drilling, gluing, or whatever it takes to move the job toward completion. Reading prints, drive time, layout, material handling, equipment maintenance all is important, but not necessarily craft time activity. 

A few years ago, I was hired by a large interior contractor to help with productivity. They needed to increase field productivity by at least 10% to remain competitive. They were working in a large high-rise building. We counted how many boards a day they were installing per worker and it was right around 35. We shared this data offsite with the foremen and lead people. They were in disbelief and amazement of the numbers. After an argument or two and a couple of adult beverages to ease the pain, they agreed you could easily hang a sheet of drywall (without having to carry it, cut it, etc.) in five minutes. Let’s do the math; 35 boards multiplied by five minutes per board equals 175 minutes, which we rounded up to 180 minutes, or three hours. This meant they were craft employed three hours per day and non-craft employed five hours. 

We also asked, “What caused this kind of problem?” They blamed having the material loaded wrong, not having enough tools, poor blueprints, and several other minor things. After some discussion, they agreed to have one of our consultants help count installed boards the next day. Without any of the changes they wanted, the next day they averaged 43 boards per worker for a 23% productivity increase. Which brings us to the next rule of productivity: anything you measure you get better at. 

Measurement forces you to focus on your goal and not get sidetracked. Focus on specific units, such as how to install a window, how to install a square of shingles, how much footage of roofing membrane per hours, etc. If we had focused on hanging boards faster, quality would suffer, and the productivity problem would still be left unsolved.

Material handling is a key lynch pin in the productivity equation. A large percentage of field labor is involved in handling material, yet little material planning may take place. How you load a roof, how material is delivered, or what products you use, are just some of the things that can impact productivity. Remember, you can move material two or three times on a job site but what you’re really getting paid for is the actual completed installation, not shuffling material. 

Planning is another key to productivity. Many people will say, “Why plan? I don’t know how many days it’s going to rain, which employees may miss time or if a customer is going to be difficult. It’s all too variable and impossible to predict.” What these naysayers fail to understand is that the purpose of a plan is not to come up with a perfect answer, but rather, to envision what obstacles you might encounter. 

Think of a plan as the visualization of your goals. For example, you might decide to drive from Richmond, Va. to New York City. Without a plan, you find yourself in the middle of Washington D.C. rush-hour traffic and a two-hour delay. Plans need not be complicated. They can be as simple as "Where are we going to be at the end of the day?" How many times has a crew gone out to a job but left a key tool or material at the shop?

Estimating is nothing more than a pre-job plan. Yet many contractors do a poor job of handing an estimate off to the field. One of the problems is that estimators are under pressure to do the next estimate, not have a pre-job meeting. Pre-job meetings are one of the key tools we use to help turn companies around. No matter how large or small a job, failure to communicate with the crew leads to trouble. If Mrs. Murphy tells the salesperson, “No matter what you do, don’t damage my yellow rose bush. My great-great grandfather brought it from Ireland.” Well, guess where your guy sets the dumpster? Of course, on top of the rose bush. Without a simple pre-job meeting or communication hand-off, things happen.  

Conduct a simple test. Walk up to your foreman and ask what his crew will get done by the end of the day. The most common answer is, “As much as we can.” That’s like driving into the dark and not knowing where you’re going and when you’ll get there. Focus on material handling, measurement and craft and you might be amazed at the results.