The Gift of Learning

A consultant’s holiday present for builders

By Scott Sedam | November 30, 2001


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Being in the business (and the habit) of charging people for ideas and advice, I don’t normally give away things. Especially valuable things. But the holidays are here, and this year has been tough on everyone, so I thought I should make a contribution. So with this column I have a gift for you. It’s an idea, a process, that will make a huge difference in your business by this time next year - if you implement it. Now I know that because it’s free you’re thinking, "How good could it be?" Well, it’s not merely a good idea, it’s a great idea. It is proven, it works, and it’s easy to do.

First, the problem. We are abysmal trainers in this industry. If you look at statistics, home builders spend far less time and money training their people than almost any other industry does. I used to work for Motorola, and I have been an examiner for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, and I can tell you that compared with the best companies outside our industry, most builders’ training programs would hardly make a blip on the radar screen. Why is this? The training in this industry is readily available, and it’s good stuff. You can call Carol Smith or Martin Friedland or Rick Heaston or Steve McGee or Chuck and Emma Shinn - or me - and we can have someone at your door within a few weeks to do about anything you’d like. We’re all making a living, but despite what you might think, none of us is getting rich, not in "builder terms."

We could spend a lot of time debating why we fall short in this area, but what is not up for argument is the price we pay for not doing the training. Mistakes, turn-over and lost opportunities, among other negatives. We have easily one of the least efficient industries in the country in terms of manpower and capital utilization. Although the investment value of training is simple to prove, I know that for a lot of you it is simply the money. So I’m going to remove the bulk of that obstacle for you and show you how to implement a high-impact development program with loads of benefits, both tangible and intangible, for next to nothing. No fees, no materials, no hotel rooms, no travel expenses, no consultants - no kidding.

Right now, make a list of 12 suppliers and trades important to our business. Write down the names of 12 owners or principals of these companies. Call them on the phone and tell them this: "Hey Rudy, we’re starting a new thing. The second Friday of every month (for the next 10 years) is called 'Training Day' at Ace Homes. We will have all of our production people, all of our service guys, purchasing, estimating and - get this - sales come to a meeting from 7:30 to 9:30. We start at 7:30 with coffee and Krispy Kremes, and then a presentation begins promptly at 8 and lasts about an hour. Then we have a half-hour more for questions and an exchange of ideas. It will become a tradition around here. And here’s the best part: You are responsible for the presentation."

So Rudy gets the chance he has been waiting for all these years - he just never knew it. He gets 90 minutes of undivided attention from the builder and all the builder’s people. Rudy explains his business and how it works. He talks about what he needs from the builder to do his job well. He describes what makes things easier and what ruins his day. He explains the impact other suppliers and trades have on his people and their work. He gets to present all the great ideas he has been sitting on that he knows from working with other builders or just thought up himself. He gets to show the latest, greatest technological innovations from his suppliers, such as "hot laser rivet bonding" and "dipolar bondmesh panelization."

Rudy can do the presentation at your site, at his site or out on the job site. He can do the presentation himself, have one of his people do it, or bring in the rep from the American Plywood Institute or Weyerhaeuser or Andersen Windows or wherever. Whatever works for Rudy.

Guess what? You won’t get turned down - ever. I know, because I have helped implement this system at a number of builders, including some who don’t even remember where they got the idea. They just know it works. The results come on many fronts. First and most obvious is the improvement in the knowledge base for everyone. Try as they might, there is simply no way for superintendents or project managers to keep up with all the myriad changes going on in the building industry. Although many resist it initially, some of the most excited participants have been the salespeople. They never get enough hands-on product training, and contrary to what a lot of you construction types think, most salespeople hunger for it.

Innumerable improvement ideas have stemmed from these sessions. Improvements in scheduling, design, paperwork or job-site communication. Speaking of which, communication is a huge benefit on many levels. In this forum, away from the hectic pace of the job site, people get to know each other on a different and often better level. Learning about the supplier’s or trade’s business has great benefits for both sides, enabling each to help each other more proactively. And nothing is more important than the relationship building that takes place. The best suppliers and trades will always be a scarce resource, and this training strategy helps cement mutually beneficial, long-term relationships. It clearly enhances a builder’s ability to get established as "the builder of choice."

Perhaps the most typical reaction companies get is from the trades who say, "I can’t believe no one ever asked us to do this before." And from builders I hear, "I can’t believe everyone doesn’t do this."

So there you have it. My gift to you for 2002. Actually, it’s much better than free because of the payoff in better-educated employees, higher productivity and stronger trade relationships. So put that in your stocking and sleep on it over the holidays. Better yet, sit down tomorrow and write the memo launching this thing. That way you can kick it off in January ’02. Now there’s a deal for you. I’ve given you your Christmas gift and your New Year’s resolution in one neat package. How unlike a consultant! Happy holidays.


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