by Brian Lewis
No one ever said it would be easy being an MEP contractor. And if they did, they were wrong. Today’s tricky combination of tight schedules, increasingly complex building initiatives, and shortage of skilled labor aren’t making things any simpler. Challenges like these can drain an organization of energy, people, and resources if left unaddressed. But if confronted head-on, they can become opportunities for inspiration, new vigor, and new growth.
Five years ago, even before the labor crisis hit its peak, Interstate Electrical Services Corporation embarked on a journey of reinvention. Interstate, an electrical subcontractor headquartered in North Billerica, Mass. with offices throughout New England, decided to take a close, hard look at itself. Cross-functional teams gathered to examine and analyze all aspects of the way the company handled projects, from award through warranty. The conclusions were sobering.
Interstate, a well-respected and successful subcontractor, was doing well, but it could do better — much better. The company was delivering quality workmanship and hitting schedule milestones to the complete satisfaction of project owners, but the burden of doing so was overtaxing project management and field teams alike. The chronic pressures of project demands threatened to overshadow the joy and excitement of accomplishment. Workers were beginning to feel burned out.
The conventional wisdom was (and still often is) that a general sense of “organized chaos” is part and parcel of the “feast or famine” construction game. Interstate’s cross-functional teams were convinced otherwise. Fully supported by management, they set about to overhaul the way Interstate would approach and manage projects using Lean manufacturing principles, a system and management philosophy of “continuous improvement” pioneered by Toyota in the late 1940s. The results of those initiatives transformed Interstate and provided a clear vision for the company’s path forward.
Central prefabrication and material management take center stage
The most pressing challenges identified through this analysis were twofold: reducing the physical and mental burden on field teams, and insuring that critical information flowed unimpeded throughout the course of the project.
In Interstate’s climate-controlled, 100,000sf UL-certified Operations Center, fully assembled, UL-stamped parts, along with tools and incidental parts, are packaged with installation instructions and delivered to the point of installation. No longer are field crews required to receive, unpack, manage, and assemble light fixtures, transformers, receptacles and switches, or temp lighting, or lug material, pipe, and huge wire spools, around a jobsite. Everything is delivered in bite size, installable units, ready to install. Field electricians can focus completely on the job at hand, safer, more efficiently, and more effectively.
Technology drives communication and data sharing
Intelligent 3D design and visualization software enable field teams and office-based engineering, design, and detailing staff to validate and coordinate MEP spaces and identify components for custom fabrication in the shop. A notable benefit of 3D coordination is that precise positioning data for all electrical components can be dynamically extracted from the model in real time and projected on the jobsite using robotic laser technology: no more tape measure, stakes, and string. For those instances where the model data doesn’t exist — renovation of an old building, for example — Interstate’s coordinators employ a 3D room scanner that creates a point cloud that can be the basis of a fully coordinated model.
The value for our partners and ourselves
Innovation was one of the founding principles of Interstate, which has been in business since 1966. Lean methods represent an extension of that idea — an innovative way of being innovative. For Interstate’s partners and its 600 employees, the value of this approach is that it builds and sustains the organization’s overall resiliency. Interstate is always improving, always getting better, and always getting ready for the next challenge, whatever it may be.
Brian Lewis is regional vice president for Interstate Electrical Services Corporation.