Building Innovation

 Building Innovation


By Valerie Jarvie
Photography by Shannon Drawe

Innovation – it’s the business watchword of our era on the lips of every forward-thinking CEO. Being nimble, meaning rapidly developing and leveraging new ideas, is hard enough for a small organization. How does a large company foster a culture of change? With aplomb, in the case of Turner Construction Company, the largest general contractor in the United States and a leader in innovation in its field.

Founded in 1902, the North America-based international construction services company completes $10 billion of construction in 1500+ projects each year for a wide range of major markets, including health care, education, hotel, aviation, sports, pharmaceutical, cultural and entertainment, commercial, retail, and green building. Among its major projects: the world’s tallest building, the 162-story Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai; the complete renovation of Madison Square Garden (while events were ongoing); and construction of the 46-story Hearst Tower in New York City, integrating within the LEEDS Gold-certified building the restored 1928 landmark’s original façade. Notable projects carried out by Turner Construction that Texans will relate to include Annette Strauss Square and the KPMG Plaza at Hall Arts Downtown Dallas; Bell Helicopter in Fort Worth; the Chase Tower, Wells Fargo Plaza, and Bank of America Building in Houston; the Hilton Americas Houston Hotel & Convention Center; and the historic restoration of the Kress Building for Fidelity Realty Investment Trust in San Antonio.

Turner Construction Company is at the forefront of utilizing cutting edge technology in its industry, but the scope of innovation in the company is broader still. Turner’s corporate philosophy is to strive for continuous learning and improvement via tapping the talent and involvement of employees at every level.

In an interview with Jerry Crawford, Vice President and General Manager of the Dallas office, he discussed the company’s success in cultivating such a collaborative culture. Crawford joined the company 15 years ago fresh from graduating with a degree in civil engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. He rose to his position from within, as did all the company’s senior management, and is committed to the company’s philosophy encouraging individual education, development and participation in contributing to the whole, believing growth requires constant improvement. “Every day we should be doing something differently than we did yesterday,” Crawford noted. “When I walk a project, I don’t leave until I’ve learned at least three new things. We must be continuous learners.”

The culture of continuous improvement means stretching at times, too. “I tell staff that I want you to make some mistakes. That’s how you learn,” he said. “But, hopefully they’re cheap mistakes,” he added, smiling. Once determined, innovations are reviewed, tested, and fine tuned with bells and whistles to optimize their impact.

The Dallas-based office which houses about 80 staff members is an airy, open environment, with doors in only a handful of spaces. When the company moved into its new quarters two years ago, by popular demand of the young-skewing staff, walled off offices were done away with in favor of open areas facilitating more interaction. Bold accent colors and even a bit of construction material punctuate the décor, voted upon by a committee of ten representing every department in the office. A 3D printer stands at the ready to produce items staff come up with to improve the space. Change is embraced here and imaginative notions welcomed.

Formal systems are in place to support the collective brain trust. How does Turner develop and adopt new ideas? “It’s about empowering people at the gemba,” said Crawford, referring to the Japanese term for “the real place” or front line. “You empower people to be creative and come up with ideas. You find a way to implement them. The point of where the work is happening is where the best ideas come from,” he added.

That’s easier said than done in an organization of 8,500+ employees spread throughout 45 offices scattered across the U.S. and Canada. To facilitate communication, a web-based platform, The Turner Learning Tree, connects all employees in a digital forum in which they can access a library of good practices, share knowledge, and collaborate on ideas, problems and solutions. The employee who posts on a concept essentially becomes the subject expert, a resource for others to turn to, driving the value of the information both internally and externally.

Mindful diversity plays a part in establishing the deep pool of human resources from which to draw. The company recruits college graduates from across the country; fully a third of college hires in the Dallas office came from out-of-state university programs. Among the accolades Turner has received are awards for advocacy of minority inclusion. “We are a diverse group of professionals that mirrors the community in which we work,” noted Crawford.

To further leverage the collective creative talent of all these individuals, Turner Construction hosts an annual Innovation Summit to bring employees together specifically to update knowledge of best practices, interact with industry experts, learn about emerging technologies and collaborate on fresh concepts.

Significant innovative contributions made by employees are formally acknowledged and rewarded. The best and brightest are recognized in the Innovation Awards at the company’s annual meeting, in which individuals and teams responsible for developing outstanding ideas are lauded. “It’s amazing to see what they come up with each year,” said Crawford. “It’s very competitive, and an important achievement for an individual to receive a Turner Innovation Award,” he adds. Rewards are tailored to what is most meaningful to the recipient: it may be peer recognition, financial compensation, or more flexible hours to better achieve the work/life balance that is most important to that particular individual. More than 900 employees have been recognized in the awards for advances in technology, sustainability, lean practices, safety, community engagement, learning, and field operations. Last year’s winners included an award for improvement to the safety, health and well-being of workers on company job sites, and recognition of a team which implemented standardized procedures improving efficiency in preconstruction activities.

But, the best ideas amount to naught if they’re not put into practice. A specific Innovation Group in the company is charged with the responsibility of coordinating and supporting innovation and determining what’s needed to implement changes throughout the organization.

Such a culture embraces the latest technological tools and practices in its industry. Turner Construction leads its field in use of Building Information Modeling (BIM,) 3D modeling in which a project is built virtually on a computer well before actual ground-breaking, aiding visualization and the planning process. As projects advance, information related to changes in design, scheduling or materials is monitored. Adjustments to plans are made on an ongoing basis, a boon to containing costs and optimizing efficiency. Smart technology tools such as laser scanning of existing conditions on a site, radio frequency identification tags and barcodes used to track materials in the supply chain, and robotic survey stations further enhance information pertinent to the process.

Technology which Crawford believes will be particularly impactful is the increasing use of prefabricated components constructed remotely per coordinated specifications under controlled conditions and craned in to a project to be installed. The result is a more cost effective, safer, and higher quality job – especially in situations where site conditions are tight or otherwise difficult.

Lean management is a core concept of Turner Construction, the practice of operating efficiently using the fewest resources to deliver the most value to the client. The technological tools such as BIM and prefabricated components support this minimal-waste philosophy. Continuous consideration of process effectiveness and efficiency is yet another area where innovation comes into play.

Likewise, innovation in sustainability is championed at Turner Construction through education, LEED accreditation of employees, reduction of the company’s environmental footprint by reducing and recycling construction waste and reducing greenhouse gas admissions, transparent reporting of environmental performance and supporting research in new technologies to improve sustainability. Turner Construction was recognized as the number one green builder in the United States in 2016 by the Engineering News Record Green Sourcebook.

It’s worth noting, too, that Turner Construction Company has won accolades as “one of the top 50 best places to work” (Glassdoor) and an “ideal employer” (Universum Communications). “At its core, innovation means respect for people,” said Crawford, summarizing his thoughts on Turner’s approach to cultivating innovation within. “Our staff is empowered to make the changes they feel necessary to provide the value to our clients. What we’ve learned is that if we don’t change, we limit our growth and the ability of our staff to best serve our customers. We take the impossible and make it possible.”


Related posts