DOES YOUR BUSINESS have time to spare?
Oct 1, 2000 12:00 PM, Alan Kruglak
As the former owner of a systems integrator, I've always had a strong bias toward sales. I always believed (and still do) that you can build the most expensive car (infrastructure) in the world, but without gasoline (sales), you will go nowhere in a hurry.
This sales bias also spilled over into my perception of how projects actually became installed in the field. Like most sales-oriented people, I assumed that the installation process for a booked project was a linear process, religiously following the documentation prepared by the salesperson. It would work as follows: Technicians would pick up equipment from our facility, go to the job site, install the equipment, train the client, finish the job, then go to the next project - a smooth, continuous process. I was in for a rude awakening. After fielding numerous complaints from both the salespeople and the installers about jobs not being done properly, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I spent some time in the field with an installation crew to see what really happened during a project.
What I learned was astounding. The entire process is rarely linear. Also, there are always undocumented surprises and hurdles. Finally, I learned how little management knew about how our technical workforce actually allocates its time in the field. It was no wonder that we were always going over budget on projects.
Addressing the problemAlthough it is a good idea to spend time in the field with your troops, someone has to man the helm and maintain vigilance on the direction of the ship. As any captain knows, you need data to avoid icebergs. To get a handle on our labor overage problem, I began by collecting information from the field via the primary input document - the time sheet (required both for hourly and salaried production workers at our company). We used a format that contained the date, job name, job number, state (where work was performed for worker's compensation), start time (hours), and end time (hours).
Although this format enabled us to pay our workers for the time they spent on a specific job, it did not tell us how they were spending their time. We resolved this problem by redesigning our time sheet to include another category - labor codes. Consisting of two digits, the codes included setup and breakdown (01), installation (02), project meetings on site with the client or other contractors (03), product training (04), shop time that was attributable to a specific project (05), travel time (06), warranty (07), service (08), design (09), project management (10), and drawing (11).
Classifying labor into those categories allowed us to quantify, for the first time, how our labor was being used in the field. As a result, we made several discoveries. First, travel time was a large portion of our labor. We resolved this issue by having technicians report directly to projects rather than come to the office to check in and out. This increased labor efficiency by 25%.
Next, we found that a sizable amount of time was used for equipment setup and breakdown. Setup included going to the vehicle, unloading ladders, cable, cable racks and other heavy items, and setting them up in order to begin work. Depending on the job site, this could take anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes. About 60 minutes before the end of an 8 hour day, the installation crew would begin to break everything down and move it to storage. No doubt, this consumed a fair amount of non-productive time.
To reduce the amount of time used for setup and breakdown, we made the following changes. We incorporated a clause in our proposals requiring clients to provide on-site storage for equipment and tools. Also, for those projects where secured storage was not available, we installed lock boxes for the heavier items.
Although the above steps may seem obvious, I present them as examples to highlight the type of information you can collect with a more detailed time-sheet system. Not only will this information tell you how your labor is being used in the field, but it can also provide critical information for measuring the productivity of different labor crews.
FAQs regarding time sheetsHow many and what types of labor codes should we use for our time sheets? Collect information in whatever categories are relevant to your business. For instance, if a large amount of your time is spent installing cable, adding a separate labor code for cable installation will allow you to analyze productivity for this task type. Although we used the standard codes listed earlier, we always supplemented our time sheets for larger projects, asking our installation technicians to write down the specific activities they performed.
How often should the time sheets be given to management? Time sheets should be turned in weekly. If they cannot be brought directly to the office, they should be faxed.
How do I prevent technicians from entering the wrong labor codes on their time sheets? There is no perfect way to prevent people from providing erroneous data, but common sense should rule. A periodic spot-check of time sheets should identify any problem technicians. Also, all time sheets should be signed by a supervisor - another subtle type of check and balance.
Although many integrators are scrambling to hire more technicians to fill the labor shortage, a more cost-effective approach may be to examine ways to improve the productivity of your existing workforce. The rewards are great, and the end result is a more efficient business. When challenged, I always followed the advice Yogi Bera, who said, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." Ultimately, it is your business, and it is up to you.