Money Found

By Elizabeth Bennett  |  Posted 2007-10-29 Print this article Print

When FNF Construction made the move from oudated project-tracking software to a customized business intelligence system, it hit pay dirt.

Money Found

Saunders observed the obvious business opportunity in the yawning gap between the realities of a construction project and the outdated technology FNF used to track them. "My goal is to find big sacks of money and hand them back to the company," he says. "If I can automate a task that used to be done manually, that's found money."

Saunders realized that getting timely and accurate information to project managers about equipment and materials usage would save time and money on each project. If he got it right, the company could save hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.

First Saunders migrated project data from 300 Excel spreadsheets and an outdated proprietary database to a custom application running on a Microsoft SQL database. Once the data was cleansed and proven accurate over the course of six weeks by Saunders and his staff, IT Synergy and Strategic Consulting Group helped implement a construction management software application called Viewpoint, from Viewpoint Construction Software.

The off-the-shelf program pulls data from the SQL database and generates reports analyzing all aspects of a construction project, such as how many hours in a month a particular backhoe was used or how efficiently dirt was moved on a project, and calculating the resulting profit margin. Margins vary according to type of work and range from one percent for guardrail installation to 45 percent for dirt moving, so keeping a close eye on the numbers could mean millions of additional dollars in profit. In Viewpoint, a project manager can even see how many bottles of water workers have consumed; if those numbers don't meet minimum safety requirements, the manager might schedule a meeting with workers to talk about the dangers of dehydration.

Workers can also upload project updates into Viewpoint from the field. A project foreperson with a Motorola Q smartphone running Microsoft Windows mobile operating system can e-mail equipment and materials updates to the project manager. The project manager, in turn, working from a Panasonic Toughbook laptop in an onsite trailer, can review the information before e-mailing it to accounts payable or entering it directly into Viewpoint.

Once the data is uploaded, reports can be run to compare, for example, the amount of asphalt used that day with the budgeted amount. If the project is under its asphalt-laying forecast by several tons, the manager can determine if the level of compaction in a road's shoulder is exactly as it should be or if the depth checks on the site were done incorrectly.

If there's a mistake, Saunders says, it could cost half as much to fix while the trucks and materials are on hand as it would to haul everything back later. A delayed fix could lead to increased client scrutiny and slower production.

Saunders attributes the spike in project efficiency to this sort of rapid analysis and physical assessment, which helps project managers identify problems shortly after they occur. "The idea is to give notice of when a project is sick, not dead," he adds. To do an instant examination of a project, Saunders built a piece of custom software that essentially takes a project's temperature.

It is a dashboard that provides a graphical representation of a project's progress. For example, if a project is beginning to veer off budget in any way, the component that is off-track will automatically be highlighted in yellow. A supervisor can click on that element—guardrails, for instance—to determine what went askew when. Each project has its own variances for healthy (green), sick (yellow) and flat-lining (red). "Every project should end up green," Saunders says. "But if a job ends up yellow or red, we have a large data record that maps the history completely."

Next year, Viewpoint plans to migrate its product, including FNF's implementation, to a Web-based thin client via Microsoft's .NET Framework. The application will then be accessible from mobile devices other than laptops, an advance Saunders says will introduce a level of accountability to those who gather information in the field and will expedite data gathering and analysis.

Until then, Saunders is focused on maintaining the more than 150 percent boost in project efficiency and 100 percent jump in project profitability he has wrung from the business intelligence tools. Oh yes, and sniffing out his next sack of money.

Senior Writer
Elizabeth has been writing and reporting at Baselinesince its inaugural issue. Most recently, Liz helped Fortune 500 companies with their online strategies as a customer experience analyst at Creative Good. Prior to that, she worked in the organization practice at McKinsey & Co. She holds a B.A. from Vassar College.

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