Adding New Tech to Old Business Processes
Many firms have invested in software solutions to improve productivity, reduce costs, and increase profit margins. However, some firms are questioning whether these solutions are meeting expectations.
It can be mind-boggling to inventory the number of applications used daily on construction projects. Each stakeholder on the project has their preferred portfolio of software solutions. In addition, as the project progresses from the design phase to construction, the number of applications increases.
Friction points often arise from the intersection of applications across external project team stakeholders. When it comes to sharing information, and adhering to contractual obligations, technology is often hobbled together with manual administrative processes.
Is the past hindering our future?
Workflows have traditionally evolved around contractual requirements. And many manual administrative processes and procedures were implemented long before automated solutions were available. So, it is not surprising that many of these administrative workflows were designed to support “paper” contractual requirements.
As firms implement automated systems, workflows supporting these “paper” requirements continue to live on. When asked why certain administrative tasks still exist, the answer is often “because we’ve always done things this way”. In addition, firms that had been burned in the past with litigation further complicate administrative workflows by adding manual tasks such as downloading electronic documents to photocopy and file as hardcopy records.
Case in point…the submittal process.
The submittal process is a good example of where contractual requirements have not evolved to keep pace with automated solutions.
The general requirements section for submittal procedures, section 01 3300, is often riddled with what on the surface appear to be “electronic” prerequisites. However, when examined more closely, these workflows require additional manual steps that automated solutions were designed to eliminate.
For example, the clause “submit electronic submittals via email as PDF electronic files” requires document exchange through email. Today there are other more reliable and efficient options.
Following the paper trail.
Many project teams still struggle to replicate the old paper way of stamping a document for approval. Contract clauses such as “provide a digital signature with a digital certificate on electronically submitted certificates and certifications where indicated” and, “Provide means for insertion to permanently record Contractor’s review and approval markings and action taken by Architect”, require manual actions. It can involve downloading documents out of systems, adding multiple coversheets to PDF files, using mark-up software to add stamps, and re-uploading documents back into the system. These types of clauses can also result in hours of debate over where to add the digital certificate (stamp), and who needs to add it.
Even the contract “definition” section may include outdated terminology and methods. For example, “File Transfer Protocol (FTP): Communications protocol that enables transfer of files to and from another computer over a network and that serves as the basis for standard Internet protocols”, restricts project teams to transfer files using a method that might not be the most efficient. It fails to recognize that today we can transfer information between systems via an Application Programming Interface (API).
Time to re-imagine the “how” and “why”.
If new technology is layered on top of old workflow processes, productivity improvements and efficiency gains may not be realized.
The concept of Business Process Improvement (BPI) looks at improving existing processes. However, as firms rush to implement new software solutions, this step is often overlooked.
BPI is about documenting the current state process and then analyzing it to determine where inefficiencies exist. The methodology includes 6 steps:
- Identify what processes need to change.
- Analyze the pain points.
- Conduct a root-cause analysis which is the strategy for determining the best way to fix the problem.
- Design a new process.
- Implement the new process.
- Evaluate and quantify – did the change have the desired impact?
The methodology takes into consideration how technology solutions can be used to streamline and improve processes. After completing this type of analysis, firms may discover that they are not fully utilizing features in the software that they are already paying for.
Try something new.
In my prior role at Newforma as a workflow and training consultant, I worked with construction teams to evaluate how Newforma’s ConstructEx submittal and RFI software could improve productivity. For example, the software includes a role for subcontractors which enables them to electronically submit “draft” submittals to the contractor team. This defined “role” includes permissions and restrictions that prevent the subcontractor from sending information directly to the design team.
However, some contractor teams were hesitant to invite subcontractors to use the software as they were not sure if subcontractors would use the software. After explaining the options of having subcontractors submit via email vs. using ConstructEx, most contractor teams were willing to give it a try. Some project teams started small with one or two subcontractors and then expanded to the rest of the team once they learned how the system worked. By eliminating email as the vehicle for subcontractors to send submittals, the contractor team received all required information on the first pass. They could also utilize ConstructEx email notifications, submittal log tracking, and audit reporting features. It eliminated the need to upload and download PDF files and chase down missing information.
Starting small can have a big impact.
A common phrase used by consultants is “don’t try to boil the ocean”. Transforming business processes does not have to be a complicated, time-consuming ordeal. Choose one workflow, such as the submittals procedure, and identify the top manual processes that are causing the most pain. Then ask the questions, “Why are we doing it this way”, and “is there a better way?” Look for the “paper” requirement traps to determine if there are any manual processes you can eliminate.
If you already have an automated software solution, look at the software feature options to see if there is anything you are not using that might help improve the workflow. Making small changes may result in a big impact. It may only require backing away from the photocopy machine!