Subs Weak Link in IPD Process

Posted on July 18, 2010

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Construction is a difficult industry to figure out, loosely held together by a desire on the part of builders to realize the structures that will serve society into the future.  No one will mistake construction for Silicon Valley, and it is a rare event to hear the adjectives “progressive”, “innovative”, “cutting edge” or “entrepreneurial” used in the context of construction. In many respects it is The Industry Time Forgot, dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century with its techniques from the 19th.

Integrated Project Delivery is an evolution of a better process to conceive of and execute buildings. But it takes commitment from every team member for success. Even with the most gung-ho team and client, achievement will rest on the chain’s weak link. Right now, that weak link is the subcontractor.

Subcontracting is a fractured, disorganized market primarily composed of skilled individuals and companies of ten or less. The same could be said for general contracting; however, subcontracting has all the flaws of contracting to the nth degree, and without the risk profile and face time that gets the contractor a seat at the table to influence the project with the owner.

The problem with subcontractors are many. Generally, subs are often undercapitalized and regionally-based. Quality is hard to judge from the outside. Bids can be inconsistent and unreliable. Tools used to deliver work can be inefficient and cause mistakes. Notice these are not mere foibles, but methods of working that directly oppose Lean fundamentals.

Subcontractors unwilling to get up to IPD speed can be a real handicap on a project, and this is not an occasional problem. It is pervasive, often regardless of town, project, work, or contract delivery model. Of all project members, subcontractors are usually the least trained in teaming, invest the least in business technology and equipment to increase productivity, and are the most resistive to change. Culturally, this puts them at odds with the IPD process.

For IPD subs, a commitment to innovation and to being top tier must be evident. Subs in 2010 that do business without transparent ways to determine cost and savings alternatives in their work, that are not customer (team) focused, that do not invest in the absolute basic tools of business and construction—computer drafting, a website, an email address for Pete’s sake—will be relegated to the most local, inconsequential, small potatoes jobs. They will be lost, crushed, and subsist at best. 

Subcontractors need to band together by specialty and self-regulate, create minimum standards for ethics, continuing ed, hanging a shingle, and consequences for not living up to expectations. IPD does not have patience for it, and partner businesses and team members will not have tolerance for or confidence in a company’s abilities for that reason. Until that is remedied, subs will always feel like they are being picked on by the general contractor and asked to do the impossible by the design team when, in actuality, it is just everyone else evolving and leaving them behind.

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