Integration key to lean construction

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By Amanda J. Lamela

North Carolina Construction News special feature

During the Great Recession of the late 2000s and early 2010s, construction companies realized in order to survive, they would have to get lean. Not as well-known as lean manufacturing, lean construction also involves managing and improving processes with minimum cost and maximum value by focusing on customer needs and sustained profitability.

The digital revolution has helped the construction industry catch up with other industries in producing a lean workflow. But as with any new business concept, adoption can be slow while some people remain married to their longtime business processes.

“For many family-run construction companies, changing business processes doesn’t happen overnight,” said Tim Lambert, the director of specialized industries at Practical Software Solutions. “Multi-generational companies sometimes have a hard time of letting go of ‘the way Grandma kept the books’ because for the longest time, it worked.”

While the concept of industry-focused software is not new, the idea of having an integrated, construction-specific software suite is new to the industry.

“When trying to get lean, integration is the key,” Lambert said. “While software itself can help with calculations, measurements, and collecting data, automation truly comes when programs directly connect with each other.”

While many software products will be advertised as “integrated with” construction software, Lambert said it often means the two products may work together, but there’s no formal connection.

“‘Works with’ and ‘integrated with’ are not the same thing,” he said. “Integration almost always means the source code is shared between the parties so a true connection is bridged between two products. If you’re uploading or rekeying in data from one program to another, that’s not an integration.”

According to Lambert, any time a person interacts with the software, it increases the chance that errors will join the equation.

“It’s not just the points where there’s data entry, which obviously opens the door for everything from spelling errors to transposed digits,” he said. “Every point where a person needs to download data from one program and re-upload it into another adds another touchpoint for errors to creep in. This is why a true integration is so important.”

Season West, the CFO at Harker in Charlotte, said switching to Sage 100 Contractor “tremendously” helped their company get lean. She first noticed the difference during the first check run she made after the implementation.

“It saved as 4 1/2, 5 hours a week or more to be able to run our lien waivers through the system instead of check runs,” she said. “It only takes us 30 minutes to an hour now.”

West said payroll is “a piece of cake” now she doesn’t have to double-enter data. With an Atrix e-file connection, she had the company’s W-2s distributed on Jan. 2. “It’s so easy because everything’s in Sage and all I have to do is click a button.”

Having a reliable software partner helped Harker become more self-sufficient, she said, which also lent to a leaner workflow.

“Tim Lambert taught me how to create my own reports to make the software run to our advantage,” West said. “Now the CEO and Owner change orders run through Sage. This helped the construction side get in to Sage and out of Excel.”

Mobile workforce needs integration too

In the past few years, mobile technology for the construction industry has evolved from just being able to receive calls, texts and e-mails while on the job site. But just like any other program mobile technology must integrate with the software back in the office in order to provide a lean workflow.

Lambert said it wasn’t long ago when construction-specific mobile applications were available to use in the field, but they required to be brought back to the office and uploaded into the system.

“If there’s any extra steps involved, there’s the chance of something happening,” he said. “What if the mobile phone is lost, crushed, or dropped in water before returning back to the office?”

While some apps and mobile products still rely on a manual connection, products like Sage Construction Project Center are directly integrated with Sage 100 Contractor and Sage 300 Construction and Real Estate, Lambert said. These mobile solutions allow service technicians, field technicians, superintendents, project managers, office staff and even customers to have instantaneous access to data from the main construction software suite.

“To put it another way, you get a single source of truth,” he said. “Apps and mobile solutions like these are leading the way when it comes to lean construction. Nightly data syncs or administrative postings are a thing of the past. They also highlight the two of the most important attributes of lean construction: improved customer service and sustainable profitability.”

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