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The Role of Rhythm and Tempo in Home Building

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Business Management

The Role of Rhythm and Tempo in Home Building

What sets the very best builders apart? The key is beautifully coordinated rhythm and tempo

By Scott Sedam, Contributing Editor April 5, 2021
Jazz band rhythm
The principle of tempo, in conjunction with rhythm, is so much of what separates the merely good from the truly great players in home building. | Illustration: Isaxar / stock.adobe.com
This article first appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Pro Builder.

My wife, Jana, and I had just finished a two-weekend blitz watching the Netflix miniseries The Queen’s Gambit, a compelling tale of a young female Cold-War–era chess prodigy. The star’s life bears a remarkable resemblance to America’s most famous real-life chess star, the first and (so far) only home-grown world champion, the late Bobby Fischer. When I was growing up, Bobby Fischer was constantly in the news, achieving hero status both as a chess player and cultural icon, at a level difficult to imagine today.

I played chess a bit during my youth, especially when stuck on the early bus, which put me at school 35 minutes before class. To get a game in, you had to play fast. To win, you couldn’t waste moves. When the chess concept of “tempo” was mentioned in an episode of The Queen’s Gambit, it really struck me. And it occurred to me that the principle of tempo, in conjunction with rhythm, is so much of what separates the merely good from the truly great players in home building.


The very next morning, Detroit Free Press columnist and serial entrepreneur Josh Linkner published a column titled, “Study a Winning Secret From Chess Masters.” It turned out that Josh, too, was watching the series and had seen tempo at work in the five companies he had launched, grown, then sold, as well as in so many of the other firms he had consulted.

Tempo in chess is a bit different from tempo in music, but it can serve as a baseline for our industry. In music, the simple definition of tempo is the pace or speed at which the piece is being played. You don’t have to be a musician to know that a passage played “allegro,” for example, is played at a faster clip than one played “andante.”

Rhythm, on the other hand, is a repeated pattern, a regular sequence of sounds, actions, movement, or process. With those simple definitions, it is readily apparent that you can have rhythm, or not, at any given tempo. And it’s the combination of rhythm and tempo that provides the “feel” of a particular piece of music.

Pop music tends to run at a constant tempo with only occasional shifts. Google search “best-selling pop singles” and start humming along. You’ll find there aren’t many tempo changes. Similarly, you’ll find comparatively few in jazz, too, and even fewer in blues or folk music. Or, if you prefer country, one of last year’s top songs, Eric Church singing “Stick That in Your Country Song,” drives a constant, unchanging tempo from the first note to the last.

Classical orchestral music, on the other hand, routinely has numerous tempo changes, even within a single movement. Sit back a moment and let any piece by Bach, a Beethoven symphony, or perhaps The Blue Danube Waltz by Strauss run through your head. Or go to YouTube, pick one, and listen. You’ll get lost tracking the tempo changes. And with all of those changes, just imagine how hard it is to keep 80 musicians playing 80 different parts in perfect synchrony. That’s what makes the conductor’s job both so important and incredibly difficult, offering a parallel to real life—and to home building.


Tempo as Efficiency—Applied to Home Building

Coming back now to chess, the idea of tempo takes on another nuance, this time related to the concept of efficiency. In chess, tempo is a single move or turn from one side, so a player who achieves a desired result in one move fewer than his or her opponent “gains a tempo.” In chess, “tempo” essentially describes the economy of a player’s moves. Having the tempo can mean gaining a preferable result on your turn and forcing your opponent to respond, thus giving you control and more options to influence and control the match. One tactically brilliant move can turn the tide. Strong chess players understand the power of controlling the tempo and making their opponent play the game on someone else’s terms.

Of course, by definition, both players make the same number of total moves in a game, except when the player who goes first wins. But let’s say your interim goal is to trade bishops, and you achieve that in three moves rather than four, then you “gained a tempo.” Maybe your goal is to protect your queen, but you blew two moves getting that done, so you lost two tempi. Or your Budapest gambit opening was supposed to transition into a Poisoned Pawn strategy but was forced back into a Sicilian defense (got that?) and it cost you six moves (or tempi), leaving your opponent sitting pretty.

The player who gains tempo (makes the fewest moves) virtually always wins, barring a major error by his or her opponent, which forces more moves than intended. Compare that with home building and the various projects and elements within each project. Ask yourself: Did I waste any steps along the way? More specifically: Did I lose any days or blow excess resources? In other words, lose tempo.

Ask yourself: Did I waste any steps along the way? More specifically: Did I lose any days or blow excess resources? In other words, lose tempo.

Now think of your suppliers and trades and how many extra trips they make in a year because of schedule problems or just basic communication fails. What have you done to their tempo? How are they supposed to win at this game?

I first experienced the importance of rhythm and tempo while working at a car wash at age 15. The wash was about 150 feet long, a bit of a hybrid type with huge rollers and brushes, yet it still employed people as steamers, window washers, and as many as four guys drying with towels on the back end. Designed for a tempo of 60 cars per hour, we rarely reached 30 even on a busy Saturday. We just could never get ourselves and the machines fully coordinated.

But it did happen briefly now and then, and as we approached the tempo of one vehicle per minute, the job rose above the common drudgery and became almost fun. We all helped one another and did extra work just to keep the tempo going. Curiously, the customers sensed it as well, with higher average tips per car during those rare times. Sadly, we seldom maintained that pace.

When I “graduated” from washing cars to running farm equipment, I never did find that elusive rhythm busting endless acres of dirt with a 10-bottom plow in the spring. There were too many variables to contend with—including the hydraulics, which were never quite able to keep the damn plow level. Hence, my tempo suffered. But running an eight-row corn picker on a cool autumn evening, I could make that thing hum, and as my movements became more coordinated, my tempo steadily increased—along with my paycheck; high production without product waste or wasted movement, just how John Deere imagined it in the 1800s.


Finding a Rhythm

I did the restaurant thing way up in Northern Michigan the summer before college, and anyone who has worked in food service knows the good, bad, and ugly of rhythm and tempo in that world. What you find most often is forced tempo without the rhythm to support it. At the restaurant where I worked, we combined continual turnover with under-trained staff, old-school cooks with bad attitudes, waitstaff burdened by unimaginable quirks and emotional problems, a Vietnam vet bartender with a Napoleon complex, all led by a glad-handing, maniacal owner who lorded over the front end of the house while engaged in a never-ending battle with his depressed, tyrannical wife who ran the back. How did they keep the place open? 

But even with all of those obstacles, I recall one night when the owners were gone, the regular bartender called in sick, and we all just did our jobs the very best we could and helped one another. For the briefest of times, we found a rhythm, a pulse, we went up-tempo and kicked butt—if you can actually do that in a restaurant. We left that night hugging and smiling, which just made it all the worse the next day when we found ourselves back in our old, bedraggled routines, laying low to escape the wrath of the boss, the wife, and the bartender. Once you experience a better way, then lose it, everything seems worse. I left not long after.

I have mentioned many times in past columns how much I learned during college working for a large commercial lumber dealer in Ohio, but in all those years, the number of days where I experienced a sense of rhythm approaching an allegro tempo could fit into a single week. When it happened, all of the pull tickets were correct, all material in stock, all of the forklifts worked, everyone was sober, no one was nursing grudges or acting out against management, no trucks were stuck in traffic, and all loads were dropped clean. Again, so many variables. So many, in fact, that no one believed life could really be like that. When it happened, we had just been lucky. Yet again, what a feeling! And it’s a feeling not easily forgotten.


What's It Take to Operate at a Positive Tempo?

My first job out of college was at U.S. Steel South Works, then the No. 1 structural steel mill in the world. On those special days when the mill truly hummed, it was an incredible sight to behold. To find that rhythm, everything had to go right among about 200 workers and a range of machinery from end-to-end.

It was huge, exciting, dangerous, and frustrating to the max because the mill constantly started and stopped, with something breaking down every 10 or 15 minutes. On some shifts, the breakdowns were so critical we had to stop the entire mill and send everyone home while millwrights, pipe fitters, and electricians worked frantically to bring the mill back up for the next shift. But oh, that feeling on those night shifts (it was always a night shift) when everything worked for hours on end, or once in a long while, for an entire shift.

We’ve all experienced the phenomenon of rhythm and tempo. You can see it in sports. It explains why the no-huddle offense in football works so well ... and why it’s such a disaster when it falls apart, when either mistakes or the opponent’s adjustment interrupt the rhythm.

On one shift under a full moon, we set an all-time production record and you’d have thought we’d won the Super Bowl. That’s tempo. And here’s a funny thing: On such a perfect night, as you walked through the mill and saw the workers in their pulpits and along the roller lines, it wasn’t at all unusual to see them dancing as they worked. Their moves may have been small and subtle, but you could see it. They danced to the music of the mill.

We’ve all experienced the phenomenon of rhythm and tempo. You can see it in sports. It explains why the no-huddle offense in football works so well ... and why it’s such a disaster when it falls apart, when either mistakes or the opponent’s adjustment interrupt the rhythm.

What does it take to operate at such a positive tempo? Of course, you already know. It requires skilled, well-trained people, a great game plan, all of the support staff working in sync with those in the field or on the operation’s front line, a steady flow of resources, and finally, great coaching. Now think back to what I hope were times when you experienced this in home building. All of the elements were there, right? And those times when you just couldn’t find the rhythm, and the andante tempo was a daily slog with mistakes and missteps ... How many of those factors were missing?


A Tale of Two Home Builders

Early in my consulting career, I had two clients I’ll never forget. One was building around 300 units, the other 800, with the same number of employees. For the smaller of the two builders, each day was a “hair on fire” experience, everything on critical alert, with a lot of yelling, screaming, and finger-pointing. The builder’s processes were a wreck. The larger builder was also very busy, yet not stressed out, and was constantly working to refine processes.

You could instantly feel the difference at each. The smaller builder sounded and behaved like a local sixth grade band playing a new, unfamiliar tune from old, battered sheet music, led by a recent college grad bandleader. Out of tune. No rhythm. Forced tempo. Painful to watch and harder to hear.

The larger builder, by comparison, was like the New York Philharmonic, with talented, superbly trained people and great music (aka, a solid plan), led by a top conductor. Everyone in tune, with no waste, no missteps. A joy to both watch and listen to.

Guess who built in half the time? And who made double the profit margin?

During the big downturn 12 years ago, the builder with the smaller payroll went bankrupt. The up-tempo builder not only survived, but builds around 3,000 units today. I have found no better way to describe this builder, and all of the very best builders I’ve worked with over more than three decades, than as operating with beautifully coordinated rhythm and tempo. As Duke Ellington’s famous song from the 1930s says, “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.”

And one last note about chess: Statistics show the player who goes first wins 55.1% of the time. So what are you waiting for?



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Written By

Scott Sedam is president of TrueNorth Development, a consulting and training firm that works with builders to improve products, process, and profits. A senior contributing editor to Pro Builder, Scott writes about all aspects of the home building business and won the 2015 Jesse H. Neal Award, business journalism's most prestigious prize, for his commentary in Pro Builder. Scott invites you to join TrueNorth's Lean Building Group on LinkedIn and welcomes your feedback at scott@truen.com or 248.446.1275.

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