I recently attended a seminar sponsored by the Construction Contractors Alliance, a group under the guise of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors — National Association (PHCC). The guest speaker was Kerry O’Brien, P.E., owner of K.E. O’Brien & Associates, Inc., Toronto, ON, Canada. His topic was “Jobsite Productivity Management,” something I’ll cover in detail in a later issue ofThe News.

O’Brien touched on a topic which I believe is of extreme importance to all service trades, especially to heating and cooling contractors. He talked about a study he conducted on workplace productivity — how workers were spending their time on the job and how much “real” work was taking place.

O’Brien based his study on three years of research and 22 case studies involving 4,800 observations of jobsite activities. He concluded that workers spend 32% of their day on direct installation. The other 68% involved materials handling, ineffective activities, indirect operations, and miscellaneous activities. In other words, only one-third of the worker’s time involved performing the job for which the employee was hired.


In order to be fair, the other activities involved some functions of the job, such as bringing materials to the jobsite, gathering drawings, consulting with others, etc. But the totals also included unscheduled breaks, performing duplicated tasks, starting late and finishing early — the ineffective activities, as he termed them. O’Brien polled the audience and they felt, on an average, that their workers were engaged in ineffective activities 20% of the time.

So, for an eight-hour day, at least two hours are throwaways. O’Brien’s study went even further, showing a 26% mark — one-quarter of the workday spent away from doing the tasks necessary to complete the work.

I understand that no one is a robot and can be expected to put in non-stop direct installation work. But how do we account for those who spend so much time doing nothing related to their work?

One contractor in the audience said that his workers were taking too many liberties with their company-provided cell phones and the minutes allowed per month. He planned to clamp down on cell phone usage by limiting the airtime minutes for each phone.

The interesting thing about O’Brien’s study was that the figures quoted above were the “before” stats — before contractors worked to improve productivity. The “after” stats showed an improvement to 52% direct installation. O’Brien said he set out to “attack the problem” of low productivity. Surprisingly, the percentage of ineffective activities only dropped to 23%, but material handling and indirect operations dropped significantly.


If I suggest creating a “Big Brother” mentality, perhaps I should clarify my position. I see no problem in borrowing from Big Brother. Look at the number of contractors who use the Global Positioning System (GPS) to track the movement and location of their vehicles. Installers and technicians feel this is an invasion of their privacy. But if privacy is just a shield for ineffectiveness, should it be tolerated? I know from personal experience that employers closely scrutinize Internet activity and software usage. They should. Is your company suffering from 20% ineffective activities? 25%? More? Less? I’d like to hear your stories and compile them for a future article. And please don’t forward me any e-mail jokes or funny chat room tidbits. I don’t need company policy to motivate my finger to the delete button.

Hall is business management editor. He can be reached at 734-543-6214; 734-542-6215 (fax); halljr@bnp.com (e-mail).

Publication date: 03/12/2001