What contractors can learn from the fast-food business

Updated Aug 26, 2014
Credit: Paul Gattis/al.comCredit: Paul Gattis/al.com

One of America’s unique talents is a genius for logistics. We practically invented the concept and have put it to use doing more work in less time with better results in everything from overnight deliveries to fast food.

A few months ago I pulled into the parking lot of a Chick-fil-A restaurant at noon. As soon as the cars started backing up, a young woman came out of the restaurant with a tablet and started taking orders down the line. Obviously the orders were communicated wirelessly to the workers inside. This little bit of extra anticipation prevented one bottleneck in the system from jamming up the whole process.  And I suspect the order entry system is sufficiently well thought out enough that the information entered on the tablet was reaching back several steps into the workflow.

Continuous improvement, continuous refinement. Why don’t we see more of this in construction? Why on so many jobsites, do you see so many people standing around while one guy digs the hole? Construction, after all, is the only industry in the United States that has not seen any gains in productivity since 1964. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. One of my favorite finalist interviews from our sister site Total Landscaping Care was Ted Anthony in New Orleans.  The quote from him I remember most is, “I love problem solving, I love to beat it.”  Anthony’s ability to break down a job into separate tasks and then organize them to make the most efficient use of his labor, material and machines helps him slay the competition when it came to competitive bids and profit margins. It also helps that Anthony rigorously questions his crews about what’s working, what isn’t and how they think they could make it better.

Restaurants are good examples for construction contractors to study. In the restaurant business there are two man-hours of preparation for every hour of actual cooking and serving guests. Everything has to be set up and ready so that when that first customer comes in the door all the cooks have to do is execute. Everything they need is right at hand, ready to go.

On a lot of construction sites there’s this constant sense of hurry. “If you ain’t moving, you’re wasting daylight.” Everybody has to get there early so things feel rushed. There’s pressure to do and no time to reflect. “Just git ‘er done,” screams the foreman.

What too many contractors don’t realize is that a few hours, maybe an entire day each week, spent evaluating processes and looking for efficiencies may save dozens of hours in the field. Thousands of hours in a year. Despite the expense of the equipment and diesel, labor is almost always your biggest cost. OEMs put their engineers through the wringer to get you a 3-percent improvement in fuel efficiency. What are you doing to improve your labor efficiency?

I know a few of our Contractor of the Year finalists who do this instinctively. And they didn’t have to go to Harvard Business School to learn it either. Like Ted Anthony, their minds just work that way. I know others who have come to realize this and make it a point to spend time getting better at process and efficiency.

If you’re not doing this, you’re getting your tail whooped by somebody. Eventually you’ll find it hard to compete against better organized contractors.

At my most recent visit to Chick-Fil-A—same long line at the drive through, same gal with the tablet computer taking orders outside. Only this time the tablet had a visor wrapped around three sides to shade the screen from the glare of the noonday sun. A small improvement, no doubt a suggestion from an employee, that made the process better. That’s how it works.