Digging Out More With What You’ve Got

Feb. 28, 2014

As dirt contractors buy into software aimed at automating their tasks, their output of efficient work tends to soar. How much?

“I don’t think anyone would argue with a 40% increase in production,” says Randy Noland, of Carlson Software in Maysville, KY. “And I’ve heard as high as 300,” adds Noland, who is vice president of business development and marketing. For dirt contractors’ needs, Carlson sells software for machine control and automated guidance, job-site management, job-data prep, and site surveying.

Noland bases this broad range on production data specifically from the impact of GPS machine control software, which steers equipment over a job site, following instructions links from a topographic contouring program.

What specifically determines whether productivity hits the stratosphere? Of course, it all depends. There’s a succession of programs and tools applied to a succession of tasks. There’s estimating, digging, project management, profitability accounting, even equipment maintenance. All must harmonize.

Above all, though, the main determinant is the users’ skill. This in turn is driven by personal determination and, basically, how much each user likes the software. Noland says emphatically, “If I have an operator who puts GPS on his dozer and truly embraces what that will do,” then a leap in work output comes almost naturally.

There’s big caveat to stress, though: Your equipment drivers’ good results depend “on the quality of your data files and your data modeling” in preparation. Says Noland: “If he doesn’t have good data prep, then his dozer is like your desktop printer,” sitting silent and waiting “for data to get there. It can’t print until it does. And then,” he adds, “if the operator gets bad data to go in, then his machine gets bad data, and bad grading results, because it is grading inaccurately.”

Meanwhile, the tools and person using them are in constant “motion,” as it were, like the earth-moving machines themselves. Another vendor observes, “One big challenge with software is the way that it is always evolving,” says Steve Warfle, product manager for InSite Software Inc., located in Rush, NY. InSite’s Sitework product yields takeoff schematics; a companion module called Field General helps build GPS machine control models

“So the question is,” says Warfle, “does the user invest in training on a regular basis?” Naturally, this is critical for attaining good outcomes. Over the course of a product’s usage, the added cost of continuing education comes to perhaps 15% to 30% to the software purchase price, Warfle suggests, “in addition to time, ranging from a few hours to days or weeks.”

All vendors naturally agree that the benefits gained from software-measured by greater work accuracy, increased productivity, and avoided mistakes and delays-will easily recoup both the initial and ongoing investments.

Warfle illustrates plausibly: “An earthwork job might be worth $500,000 in revenue. One simple mistake could easily cost you 10% of that-$50,000. So ask yourself, how many people could you train for fifty grand? Likewise, software to handle OSHA-mandated safety training “brings a gigantic return,” he adds.

Warfle sums up: “Companies must take software training seriously on a regular basis. That’s the easy math.”

What size business should be using such industry specific software?

Warfle answers: “If you’re bidding more than $600,000 or $700,000 of dirt work a year, and you don’t have a dirt program, that would be a little crazy,” considering how time-consuming it is to do takeoffs manually.

And don’t overlook office productivity tools, he adds. “If you treat that like a job site too, you would spend even more money on training. Time is money, everywhere,” he says. “And what you get out of training is faster and faster work flow, and greater accuracy, and better quality.

“But, unfortunately,” Warfle has found, “most contractors treat the office environment as a necessary evil, and not like the production environment that it actually is.”

And finally, besides boosting all the work being done, an absolutely key benefit, particularly of estimating software, is the presentation graphics, notes Warfle. This function comes into play when you’re in face-to-face interaction with the general contractor. Warfle explains: “The GC wants you to earn every penny. And he wants to keep as much as he can for himself. You, the subcontractor, want to show him that you’re earning your money, so that you’ll get well paid.

“This is a presentation business,” he continues. “You can show him on the screen, “˜Here are my numbers. Here are yours. Here’s why mine are correct and yours are wrong. Here’s what I expect to get paid and why.’ Presentation is very important to you,” says Warfle. “So, we put a lot into the software so that a presentation really shines to the end users. A graphic display in a negotiation setting is like a trump card in card game.”

So productivity comes from operator skill. And getting skill demands training.

As a corollary, Warfle notes that “Vendors strive to make product as easy to use as possible. Ease of use leads to productivity, an important concept.”

Vendors then sell their products against each other by comparing how much more quickly a new user will get up to speed, thanks to superior usability, support, and resources for training. Several vendors report that a good chunk of their clientele comes from defectors from competitors’ products. “They give up and switch to ours,” one says.

So, apparently there’s a certain level of dissatisfaction, or at least a willingness to shop around.

Warfle notes another key point: Anybody can get training, but if they don’t like a product or find it easy enough, they will under-use it. And after a few months of this layoff, they may need re-training.

He observes: “I would go so far as to say that peoples’ favorite software typically is the one that they feel most productive with. And productivity always comes from ease of use.”

For dirt contractors there are plenty of products to choose from. Tools and modules that contractors can find will range in scope and specificity from general accounting software programs to comprehensive, dedicated suites designed to cover every phase of digging work specifically. The later product versions support mobile computing platforms and cloud-based hosting.

There are also “lots of players in this marketplace,” notes Warfle. And competition is keen. This is good, because weaker participants either disappear or are forced to shape up. A number of vendors have now survived a decade-plus. Their wares have evolved continuously and enjoy large customer bases. “Newbies,” i.e., new would-be product adopters, can hear unbiased testimonials from satisfied users. As discussed a bit further below, once a product is newly installed, there’s generally a network of other dirt contractors available who are willing share their knowledge with others, in addition to having access to the usual vendor support and help.

Installation as Change Management
Besides considering ease-of-use and product capabilities, a third critical facet-one likely to apply with any product-is the need for painstaking integration into each digging operation. Or, to put it a bit more directly, this means actually rethinking and restructuring what you do and how you do it, in order to mesh with the new software reality.

Steve McGough, who is chief operating officer of HCSS Construction Software, based in Sugar Land, TX, points out that underappreciation of the magnitude of impact that software can have is a common mistake. “One of the bigger challenges is … getting up and running when it touches multiple departments,” adds McGough, who is also Western Region vice chairman of the American Roads & Transportation Builders Association. HCSS software assists in office management and field management; GPS integration is used for work dispatching, equipment maintenance and job costing.

In the scenario McGough sketches out, you’re not simply installing a new program into one desktop or tablet, but in fact, whether you realize it fully or not, you are reorganizing and reshaping activities across the board. Your workflow must be thoughtfully redirected to ensure that it meshes well with the software.

Says McGough: “If you just take the software and plug it into your existing operation, you’re really not going to get the real value or return on investment out of it.”

Change-management is a well-trodden path faced by many businesses. It is sometimes lengthy and revolutionary. If not well-handled, it can be disruptive or worse. There are lots of elements to juggle, and helpful guidance by your software vendor may be invaluable. McGough suggests that one of the “biggest mistakes” is assuming “it’s something you can get up and running in large part on your own.”

In fact, he continues, it’s often wise to get away from the office, go elsewhere, “and really map out processes” holistically, in a rigorous exercise. “Instead of assuming that, “˜We’ve always done it this way and so we’ll take the software and make it fit,'” it’s more sensible, says McGough, to “step back and ask yourself, “˜Okay, if we weren’t already doing it this way, how would we do it if we were starting all over again with this software tool that’s going to be making us more efficient?'”

He continues: “The companies that we see getting the most value are the ones that will take a hard look at existing processes,” with this eye for change. As the software-aided work processes are newly re-evaluated, “you discover where you can cut out some steps, save time, and add checks-and-balances to minimize risks,” he says.

Afterwards, as you implement the software you also retrain staff on how the operation will change. “That’s where we’ve seen the biggest gains,” he says.

Doing all of this will require juggling of time and work schedules, typically during slack seasons. McGough also suggests drafting a calendar of future training sessions extending one or two years out. “Give people a heads up of what they can expect so they know in advance when things are coming due,” he suggests.

And finally, make a realistic assessment of the challenges faced in such major transitioning. Resolve to keep going and make necessary adjustments in mid-course, as setbacks do arise. Don’t put off planning for all this until after your software purchase, he says, but rather, start thinking about it from the start.

All-Important Training: Phase One
With that background, consider the training itself, as well as who, how, when, and how long it will take. The following suggestions are based on using specific vendor products, but would just as well apply to most others, too.

First, as a sort of all-purpose training management strategy, Scott Meyer, vice president of services for Maxwell Systems Inc. in King of Prussia, PA, suggests using a checklist approach. First, devise a comprehensive list of training events for trainees in sequence. “Then,” he says, “sit down with them and give them a heads-up on what will be covered, step by step. As you progress, check the items off as completed until you’ve covered everything in the product. This works very well and is extremely well received, he says.

Maxwell Systems, says Meyer, is an “all-in-one solution, and we’re really the only product on market that does offer all-estimating the job, project management, job costing, digital takeoffs, regular takeoffs, and accounting, for small and large organizations.”

As for training tools and components, these consist (again, speaking broadly of all vendors’ wares) of on-screen text, pdfs, videos, sit-down lectures, tutorials, and old-fashioned comprehensive manuals. Although the latter are sometimes disparaged as unwieldy, “they are fantastic,” says Meyer stoutly, because, being comprehensive, they’re an all-in-one, authoritative, single source and easily searchable and updatable as a common reference.

As for training duration, this ranges all over the map, depending on the product, the size of the organization, and users’ skills and needs. Meyer, for one, states that “Our goal is to have you up and running in under 90 days.” This applies, however, to Maxwell’s far-reaching “complete solution” software that covers project estimating, takeoff drawings, project management, and financial accounting of cost and income. However, adds Meyer, “If you’ve used estimating products in the past you’re likely to get up to productive work in just a few days. If you’re experienced at doing digital takeoffs, you’ll be up in just a few hours.”

However, don’t make the mistake of trying to rush things, he adds.

Carlson Software’s Noland also offers training tips as well. For one, if are wondering who if anyone on your staff should go to training first, consider focusing on the lead foreman.

“We call them the “˜site champion’ or your job site mangers,” he says. “This is one of best ways to start training, as an entry point.”

A site leader, he explains, sets up a base station point that becomes integrated with the GPS software. Other equipment will be coordinated from there. The trained site leader now knows how the terrain modeling will proceed, just as he understood traditional wood stakeouts. So he can guide the transition of others, from the old to the new. “He knows the steps needed to make it work,” says Noland. “Once that supervisor is trained and well versed, then the software break-in is less of an issue, to move that to one or all machines. That one site supervisor can check grade for multiple machines, and they can be working in a traditional manner,” he says. “He oversees others’ training and the installation of GPS software guidance. And if they hit a snag-which they’re going to do-they have that supervisor’s site champion there to offer immediate support.”

How much time would that champion need with Noland’s software to get into that comfortable state of familiarity?

Noland suggests that a “quick study” individual, “assuming that the base station is already set up and localized for him as a demonstration,” then, “in the morning I can then teach him how to collect and stake points, check grade. And then he can be somewhat productive that afternoon. Beyond that,” says Noland, “Honestly I think two weeks is reasonable to become pretty good with what’s going on. We can put him in pretty good shape to then live with this thing for a little more time, maybe thirty or sixty days. Then at that point I think that person is a real asset to the technology and the rest of the operators.”

On a similar note, Noland adds that with any new software experience, “That first 30 or 60 days is critical, because if they hit too many obstacles that can’t be remedied right away, they’re going to put it in the closet.”

Noland and others take note of the fact dirt machine operators, as an occupational group, suffer a bit from a “technology chasm,” in that they’ve been sitting by their control lever, rather than in front of computer screens. Hence, they may be a bit behind in terms of keyboarding and confidence. However, lately, the advent of smart phones and tables has been making many of them much more familiar and comfortable with using software generally. Says Noland: “If I can send and receive a text with my wife saying, “˜Bring home a gallon of milk and three loaves of bread, why can’t I get instructions about a job? What’s so different about the job file coming into the machine that way.”

Warfle relates a similar point about diggers’ skills to his company’s training: “What we tell everybody is, we would much rather have somebody who knows the business of excavation and doesn’t know anything about computers, versus somebody who’s very good about computers but doesn’t know anything about the industry. Give me somebody who knows the industry, and we can get them productive in somewhere between four and eight hours… for basic training on Earthworks [software].

“Then there’s a continuation,” Warfle goes on. “We then take them through a sample job so they learn the interface properly. It gives them results so that they know that they learned everything properly,” he says. “Then we take them through their own job.

“Even though, theoretically, after four hours you should be able to jump on the system and get going, it’s realistic to say that your first takeoff will be sort of cautious,” says Warfle. “You walk, then jog, then sprint. Sprinters are those who really take training seriously. They read the newsletters we publish. Employers put them through additional training, provide them with good learning environment.”

Warfle also takes note of an earlier point that “it’s common for one estimator know the software really well,” in a small- to medium-size contracting business. “But there’s a danger in that,” he adds. “People should be cross-trained. There’s no guarantee that every employee shows up tomorrow at work. If you have a situation in which somebody isn’t there, what do you do then?” At a recent InSite Software training session, an entire management team were all were trained on using all the software, on the theory that “everybody should be able to handle the business side of company.”

Warfle sums up: “You may invest $1,500 to $2,000 sending your estimator to a class. The bottom line is, every job that InSite is used on represents risks of many, many times that. It’s not uncommon for jobs to be worth $100,000 to multimillions of dollars. The reason you invest in your employees’ training is to minimize risk. And that is really the name of the profit game in this business. Everybody who get on with software becomes way more productive than they would ever be without it.”

Tech Support, Continuing Ed
It’s one thing to master a training exercise when the instructor is holding your hand, but quite another when you’re in the field under pressure. This is where extensive vendor tech support becomes critical.

Naturally, all provide it and tout their commitment. Several offer 24-hour live access by phone, and/or chat, or text messaging, for example.

Online web-based resources are standard. Some software vendors also work through local dealers; others offer support directly.

A newer innovation offered by several vendors is “contextual help.” The concept outlined by Doug Hess, communications manager for iSqFt (formerly Construction Software Technologies). iSqFt sells subscription-based construction bidding leads and software:

“People just want to know what they need to know when they need to know it,” he says. Reflecting this principle, iSqFt’s integrated user manual is peppered throughout with graphical “little circled question marks,” Hess says. “Each one of those, if clicked on, takes you to a very short video that tells you how to use just that feature.”

The software publishes bidding opportunities and connects general and subcontractors.

An example of more exotic support brings to bear direct intervention into problem-solving. One vendor offers to “take control of the computer display and push the keys for a user” who has found himself in trouble. By means of an installed SIM card, says the vendor, “We can actually log in and check data files and operate the software remotely,” while talking through the problem on the phone. Another vendor lets clients upload problematic work files to the vendor website, for diagnostics.

Maxwell’s Scott Meyer sums up by describing what is effectively an industry standard practice: “We’re giving people more than one avenue to get to the information they need. That is what we find to be most successful.

Warfle adds: “Time is money, and the quicker you can get a customer back into using software productively, the more time they’re going to save with it.”

So much for support.

As for continuing training and refresher courses, these are also standard fare. Initial training is only “round one.” Warfle observes: “The reality is that ongoing training in any technology is required. Over time, software changes, and you have turnover of employees”

All vendors agree that polishing of skills must be ongoing. All provide a mix venues and means of access. For example, user groups regularly meet for face-to-face training sessions with peers and with vendors, often one or more times a year. They discover new product features or suggest new ones they’d like to see. Peer uses compare experiences solutions to commonly encountered problems. It’s quite commonplace to visit a conference and come away with awareness of product features or ways of doing things that were sorely missing before, then return home much more productive

Online webinars also typical. Meyer reports that his company offers weekly 19-minute sessions for changes in product, which website visitors may use either live or recorded.

Warfle’s company offers a two-day advance training program “that turn good users into great users,” he says.

Randy Noland wraps up the discussion with thoughts about dirt contracting computerization.

“If you add it up worldwide, this is a trillion-dollar-plus industry. It’s also a manufacturer industry, in the sense that you’re making roads and clearing sites. Yet, for all that,” he says, “it’s probably one of the least automated, and, at least historically, not very well versed technologically.

He recaps how laser guidance was the first big tech breakthrough, four decades ago. Then digital drain modeling followed. “It’s a fairly young industry. Then 2D and 3D machine guidance came in the mid-1990s,” he recalls. Industry reception to all these was rather slow, he says, “because dirt contractors who learned their trade without needing or using these tools seem to see them as complicated, as not what they’re used to.”

Eventually though, “after much time has passed and other people in industry are constantly referencing these things with each other, the earlier generation comes to believe it’s something they need to look into.”

Finally, he says, “What’s really going to push people into adoption of this technology now, is population growth: because we don’t have enough infrastructure to handle the growing population. And what we have is aging. There’s not enough money to pay for it all. And so the way you’re going to do it for less, is with technology.

“Yes,” he continues. “People have limited time if they’re busy, and that can be an obstacle. But it’s more about embracing the technology and changing your work flow and your approach to it, from what you’ve done forever, to what is more productive.

“Of course, there’s always a lack of time for it all. But, if there is really a good return on investment, when do you really not have time? Time pressure is a reality, but probably more an excuse,” he says.

“The software may not be perfect yet, but it absolutely works, and it absolutely will return on investment. Whatever the questions or apprehensions, it is worth pursuing and getting into. Because I’m positive your competitors are.”