Photography by Shannon Drawe
A slip of paper pulled out of a fortune cookie spoke to Mike Sanford: “Embrace innovation and opportunities will follow.” Sanford, the director of virtual design and lean construction at SpawGlass
Contractors, said it’s tough to embrace innovation — especially in the construction industry. But he said it can be done, and done systematically. Sanford spoke at a recent Enlightened Speakers’ Series event on the topic of innovation in construction. He was joined by Corey Blackburn, the director of technology and innovation at Balfour Beatty Construction. Together, Sanford and Blackburn offered advice for leaders looking to build an innovative workplace culture — and applied that advice to implementing new technologies in the field.
Encouraging Innovation Through Continuous Learning
Sanford said the construction industry has a lot of people who are set in their ways and resist change. But SpawGlass has deliberately cultivated a culture of innovation by correlating lean construction with virtual design. How? By engaging and enabling the expertise of every team member, Sanford said. The Japanese Kaizen system, which calls upon everyone from the assembly line to the CEO to come up with a better way to do things, is the first step toward building that culture of innovation.
“When you do things this way, you start to engage the mind of each team member and you find a better way to do things,” Sanford said. “That establishes a
culture of continuous learning — a culture of continuous improvement.”
Blackburn also values a learning organization. “We want to create an organization where people look for new and better ways to solve problems,” he said. One way to do that is to back people who come up with new ideas. “If you can define the key problems you need to solve,” he said, “and you get behind those in your company who enjoy technology and you empower them when they come to you with a solution you feel is going to deliver for you, then watch what happens.”
It’s easy to take for granted the person who has done the same job for 20 years, Sanford said. But those are the ones who need to be prodded to contribute their expertise. Often, it’s as simple as asking an employee, “What would you do?”
“When you turn that around and you start asking for feedback, they are much more apt to accept innovation,” Sanford said.
Innovation In Practice: Introducing New Technologies
Sanford used the example of virtual reality and virtual design to show how innovation can be cultivated. It’s phased in over time, and during that period the leadership spells out its capabilities and limitations for the crew. “We explain how we’re going to use it and the core process for using it, and we decide as a company, ‘This is the one we’re going with,’” he said. It’s at that point the company’s collective expertise surfaces. “Everyone begins to find new tricks and different ways to use it,” Sanford added. “That has worked well for us.”
Sanford said the construction industry is often guilty of premature deployment of technology. Virtual technology or BIM (building information modeling) can be sent to operations before a process is developed. Once it’s in service, those who work with it will discover its limitations, and that can lead to the crew dismissing the new technology.
“Premature deployment is an absolute danger in the construction industry,” Sanford said. “Of course, when that happens, there goes your opportunity for buy-in from the guys.”
Sanford said implementing a new technology can be tricky. Take drones, which are now widely used in the construction industry. Blackburn said there are hundreds of options, and it’s hard to figure out where to start. He shared Balfour Beatty’s process for phasing in drone technology, which it is doing at sites across the country. Not all drones are alike, Blackburn said.
“The first thing you need to consider is the type of data you want to collect,” he explained. “You need to make sure you have the right sensor on your drone for the data you need.”
The camera is one type of sensor, but different cameras are used for different tasks. Photogrammetry — the science of making measurements from photographs — requires a high-quality camera. If the camera is used for close inspection of work that is hard for people to get close to, it needs a long optical zoom lens. For leak detection or quality control, a thermal imaging camera can be valuable.
Then, someone must fly the drone. The FAA considers drones to be aircraft, and their operators to be remote pilots. Drones are relatively easy to fly, Blackburn said, but remember that it’s a small eight-pound object that can fly more than 60 mph and be controlled from four miles away. “To use them well, you’ll want to get some training,” he said. “You do need to have operating parameters in place when you start using these devices. As useful and powerful as they are, you do need guidelines.”
Another construction innovation is virtual design. Sanford said a client can be placed inside a model for an immersive experience with the design. “But how do you take that from being a WOW factor, to something that has credibility and is making you more efficient with what you do?” he asked. The answer lies in the process. Combining the design process with the technology can yield the necessary information. For example, putting a maintenance shop worker inside a virtual model of a mechanical room and asking if he can reach the valves, or if the design needs to be different. “Most of the time these employees don’t look at computer screens all day and may not understand what they are seeing,” Sanford said. “When you can put that employee inside the room, that changes everything.”
Blackburn said Balfour Beatty is now using artificial intelligence to deal with large data sets on some jobs. A startup Balfour Beatty partnered with uses artificial intelligence to categorize photos taken at job sites. It’s similar to the way Google Photos categorizes your photos on a personal computer. In this case, thousands of photos are collected on job sites, and it’s often difficult to find the one photo needed to solve a problem the crew is struggling with. “When you can find that one photo, you often put many minds at ease,” Blackburn said. “It’s an exciting thing to think about the possibilities of applying some of these tools to the large data sets we generate on construction sites.”
Engagement & Trust: Paving The Way For Innovation
Both men agreed building trust is an important step in getting innovations accepted. Sanford cited an estimating process his company uses. An estimator who has been doing the job for 20 years has his estimate in his head, Sanford said. But by using a design model, quantities can be extracted for the estimating group. “If I say, ‘I’ve got the model and I’ll extract all the quantities,’ he’s not going to trust the validity of that model,” Sanford said. “We have to make that model trustworthy and go back to the design team at the very beginning and drive design.” But Sanford added that technology cannot be the only source of information. There must be a human element. “You often hear, I don’t trust it,” he said. “Okay, then we ask how do we find that trust and we’ve built that into our process.”
If engaging every team member in the process is important to developing and accepting innovation, how can leaders engage the team? Blackburn said Balfour uses one tactic called “My Contribution.” That’s a crowdsourcing effort that solicits ideas to make the business better. It gets people involved, and gives them some ownership, he said. Another method is a “hackathon,” where a small group of people with a variety of different expertise is brought together and given a problem to solve — in one day. The hackathon can be competitive, with teams from different parts of the country, whose solutions are judged by a jury of executives. “This is a very effective tool,” he said.
Sanford had a similar experience. He wanted to implement a process called “virtual to field,” which bridges the gap between virtual design and BIM and the construction field using things like robotic technology and tablet PCs. But, he said, none of the available software had the capabilities he needed. So SpawGlass created its own system of individual technologies and combined them. “We won a ConstructTech Gold Vision award for our putting that process together,” Sanford said. “Had I not had the freedom from my company to discover those capabilities and bring them together, it would have never come to be.”
Innovation, Sanford said, is giving employees on every level the freedom to discover, then encouraging them to continue that improvement. To improve operations on a daily basis, enable and engage the expertise, discover the innovation and develop processes.