Data-Driven Profitability for Utility Construction

B2W field tracking

Three steps to using performance data to improve your bottom line

Accurate, thorough and timely reporting on what utility construction crews achieve in the field does a lot more than fulfill accounting and payroll requirements.

By leveraging specialized software to track and report on labor and productivity along with equipment and material utilization, contractors gain key competitive advantages. They decrease the data entry burden and increase the engagement of foremen. Analytics on performance versus plan also gives them the short- and long-term insight to adjust operations immediately and effectively, identify and react to trends and base their next estimates on actual, achievable production rates.

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Making it easier for foremen

Step one in a data-driven approach is getting the right data from teams in the field. Utility contractors often struggle with a gap between the data that management wants in order to analyze performance thoroughly and the data teams in the field are willing or able to capture. Finding a sweet spot and the right balance between the two can be tricky.

Foremen typically prefer to focus on completing work, not on data entry. To overcome resistance and get them to deliver accurate, timely information, it’s important to give them a tool that actually makes their lives easier and that they see benefits of. This is where replacing paper or spreadsheets with customizable electronic logs for daily reporting can make a big difference.

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Electronic logs streamline the process of capturing labor hours, production quantities and material and equipment utilization significantly. Sections or fields within the logs can be added, suppressed or customized according to the specific requirements of a business or a particular job. Pre-populated drop down menus for items like employees, equipment and materials make it easier to fill out forms and harder to make mistakes. Electronic logs can also be set up so that only the relevant cost codes for that job are available as options, not the entire list of the company’s cost codes.

All of these features make it easier and faster to record more information with more accuracy. At companies that make this switch, foremen often report spending around 15 minutes per day filling out logs as opposed to an hour or more.

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B2W field tracking

Electronic logs also give foremen confirmation of the value of their data reporting efforts. Summary reporting can provide a snapshot of how crews performed versus how they were expected to perform on a daily basis and give them data points for communicating with project managers and superintendents about how to move forward.

Adjusting operations immediately

The ability to get more in-depth reporting on performance versus plan in a timely manner and a field-focused format is the next advantage of electronic field logs and specialized performance tracking software.

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These applications take the field data input by foremen and immediately turn it into actionable information that apprises managers and executives of how a job is performing. Reports and dashboards allow them to quickly analyze progress at the cost code or tracking account level and to drill down for specific details.

Managers, for example, can look at metrics that show percentage of the work completed per tracking account in relation to the plan at a given point in time, or similarly, whether labor hours or equipment utilization are over or under plan for those accounts.

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This reporting essentially becomes the focal point for data-driven management of productivity and costs on both a single job and across multiple jobs, and for better, data-driven communication between the office and the field about strategic changes or corrective actions.

Utility contractors can rely on their accounting systems for this type of reporting, but the liability is the lag time. By the time an accounting report comes out at the end of the month, or even in a couple of weeks, it may be too late to make adjustments to keep a job on schedule or budget.

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Long-term analysis and estimating benefits

Beyond better management of existing jobs in progress, utility contractors can also leverage reporting on daily field performance versus plan for longer-term analysis and improved bidding. Specialized software, again, plays an important role.

Reporting capabilities of field tracking applications make it easier to slice and dice data on performance versus plan in multiple ways and across jobs. Contractors frequently use this capability to look at specific tracking accounts across all jobs or for a specific time period or category of job. Results can identify trends and provide insight into where they may be stronger or weaker, how they could deploy resources differently, where they may want to put more effort into training or skill development, or even which jobs they should be focused on winning as opposed to jobs they may not be as profitable on.

Leading estimating software can extend this analysis benefit by giving estimators what is essentially a live connection to their performance tracking application. This allows them to bypass the need to pour over paper logs, spreadsheets or accounting reports to get production rate actuals – the production levels that their crews were able to actually attain in the field. Instead, within the estimating application, they can choose an activity or item for which they want to review productivity and costs from past jobs or even current jobs in progress. Filtering allows them to zero in on particular types of jobs, date ranges, tracking accounts or other variables to get production rates that are most relevant and comparable to the upcoming job they are bidding on.

From labor hours to production achieved, the volume of data generated daily on a utility construction site is extensive. Technology gives contractors the opportunity to harness that data and turn it into actionable intelligence. By stepping up to specialized software they can collect more data with less effort and generate reporting to drive operational adjustments and improve estimating accuracy.

This article was written by Tom Willey, a senior solutions engineer at B2W Software, a Trimble company.