Careful attention to how you work can have a positive effect on profits and job satisfaction.
A common reaction to today's “do more with less” environment is to work longer hours and insist crews work harder. This strategy quickly hits a wall. How effective are workers when fatigue sets in? How much harder can you really make people work? The answer to time compression and resource starvation isn't working longer hours or working harder. The answer is working smarter — that is, more efficiently. Let's see how to make that happen.
Doing the right things.
In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey talks about machete wielders who are doing an outstanding job of hacking away at jungle brush. One day, a fellow climbs up a tall tree, looks around, and hollers, “Wrong jungle!” What's the lesson here? Applying talent to the wrong things is pointless.
You must look for, and eliminate, non-valued activities, including hunting for tools, making “emergency” trips, redoing poorly done or poorly planned work, waiting idly for a design decision, and looking for information that should be in the job documentation.
Doing things right.
Not everyone assigned to a job understands accepted practices for doing electrical work. Jobsite superintendents often try to resolve this problem by assigning a senior person to watch over a crew. However, this detracts from that person's time for applying skill to the job. If you can't find enough qualified people to staff your jobs, consider improving skill levels of the people you do have. This approach can pay for itself the same day training occurs.
Examine each activity to see if you can improve efficiency. For example, if your people bend much conduit with hand benders, consider a powered conduit bender or pre-fabbed bends. If you do much field fabrication, set up a workbench or cart with a vise and expected job equipment. If you do many wire pulls, use a spool reel. These minor investments in equipment can eliminate fatigue and improve worker productivity.
People in the field often know how to improve the work process. Sponsor a monthly best practices contest with an award for the best submittal. But remember, never consider ideas that conflict with safety practices. Doing so causes a net loss of time — not to mention the human cost.
Prioritize the work.
Field supervisors often pull people off one task to do another, and before that task is done, the worker has been assigned to yet another. Or they suddenly realize the critical path is behind schedule and then put so many people on a task that they get in each other's way. The cure? Prioritize tasks. Assign the correct-sized crew to each task, moving down the list of priorities. Have crews tackle the most difficult or most dangerous high-priority items early in the day while they still have the energy and attention span required (Photo 1 above). Do the easier tasks later when fatigue sets in.
Plan the work, work the plan.
Measure twice, cut once. Avoid the “I cut it twice, and it's still too short” syndrome by planning the job thoroughly. Planning needs not be highly detailed, but it must outline the steps required for proper on-time completion. Crews should have written procedures and good working drawings. Procedures should include stop points for quality and safety checks. Plans should provide easy access to the project manager or designate (usually the project engineer) who can be the project decision-maker for the field crews. When planning, consider your team's capabilities, the resources they will need, other demands on the team, and the relative importance of each task to the whole project.
Understand human limits.
An IEEE study on worker efficiency showed a team of engineers working 35 hr a week accomplished more in a month than did a team working 65 hr a week. This wasn't a matter of becoming less efficient after that 40th hr. Because fatigue induces errors, those 65-hr engineers spent more than 30 hr a week correcting mistakes. They weren't mentally alert enough to come up with creative solutions, communicate clearly, spot developing problems, or optimize their work. The additional hours caused people to move backward — undoing much of the work they did while rested. The study set the optimum workweek at 35 hr to 45 hr — depending on the nature of the work and the individuals doing it. Going beyond 45 hr a week in the same general activity will likely cost you more progress than stopping at 35 hr.
Have the right resources.
Technology can make a huge difference in job efficiency. For example, consider something as seemingly simple as making a set of holes in a cabinet. One electrician uses a hole saw, hacksaw, and files to make oval, square and even some round holes. This takes all day, and it will likely result in touch-up work. Another electrician uses the right punch set and is done in less than an hour.
Power tools with today's long-life batteries often eliminate the time-consuming task of running and routing portable cords. Wireless communications from the jobsite save time. Laptops and PDAs allow field people to analyze startup test data, quickly modify wire schedules, download instructions, and communicate via e-mail.
Having industrial-quality tools and equipment on-site — with crews trained in how to use them — means smoother workflow and more accurate work (Photo 2, right). But crews also need the right materials. Each week, assess the critical path for the following week and make sure everything necessary will be on-site. Don't forget about long lead-time products and services — identify them early in the project and monitor their progress often. These items include wet-cell batteries, transformers, and switchgear.
Regardless of the process, it's always possible to make your approach to it more efficient. Everything from jobsite safety to cost-saving techniques can be handled better, cheaper, and faster — but only if you apply the right techniques. As long as you keep an eye toward maintaining best practices, efficiency will fall into place.
Photo 1 courtesy of Capital Electric; Photo 2 courtesy of FCI Burndy.
Sidebar: Top Tips for Time Savings
Watch for these specific items on any jobsite:
When loading the truck, use a checklist to prevent the “I forgot to bring” problem. Include spare tape, saw blades, connectors, and other consumables.
Stock the gang box with battery chargers, extension cords, and spare batteries. Recharge spare batteries while others are in use — not at night, or you invite theft.
Equip work crews with wireless communications so they can contact project managers or design engineers with minimal delay.