When I taught supply chain classes, I liked a quote by Henry Ford that said the manufacturing process begins when the raw material is removed from the earth and ends when the final product is delivered to the customer. He didn’t call it a supply chain, but he set about managing or controlling all of the links from beginning to end.
When I heard executives from Bentley and Topcon referring to supply chains, I had to ask if we were talking about the same thing. Their point was that construction supply chains need to be managed beginning to end, and they need to be managed better. Specifically, information needs to be available and shared with stakeholders all along the supply chain. This will reduce delays, rework, and outright mistakes. Construction has a reputation as the least efficient process, and applying supply chain principles and methods will definitely help.
To help those students who didn’t come from a manufacturing background, I used an example of planning to make a lamb curry for a dinner party. I broke down each ingredient and process from the recipe and started assigning sources and lead times. Some spices were on hand, some would be acquired from a specialty shop, and the butcher only had lamb on Thursday. We needed bowls and tools and time at the stove. So, we plotted and scheduled every step, every ingredient, all of the processes, and any “machine time” that might be necessary.
It’s easy to take people from a universal example like cooking into their own world. What’s not easy is making it work in each of those environments. Construction is particularly challenged in that projects are usually one-off and involve a different set of stakeholders each time. But if everyone speaks the same supply chain language, it doesn’t matter what project you work on, you bring that knowledge.
For surveyors who might start with an initial survey and stake out, the first process is straightforward. But, as the project moves forward and more survey work is needed, it gets complicated. If weather delays a survey, that could have nearly immediate impact for the concrete pour and a longer-term impact for the carpenters framing in the walls. One day lost amplifies as it moves along the supply chain. Good communication and accurate data help.
How many times have you showed up at a site and found you can’t get access to do your work? How many times has the call come in that “we need a crew right now or we’ll face delays in the next process.” Wouldn’t you prefer to get the call that says, “We’re ahead/behind and it’s going to affect your survey.” You could avoid sending a crew to a site where they can’t complete the survey or grabbing a crew from other work to rush them over to the construction site. Not only is your time better spent, your costs don’t take a hit, and you are able to keep the construction client and your other customers happy because work gets done on time and on budget.
This is only the most basic introduction, but it isn’t the last time you’ll hear about supply chains. The fact is, you’re probably already practicing many of the principles, but like Henry Ford, you just call it “good business.”