By Dave Henderson

Ten hurdles to overcome on your path to change

What do diets, the metric system and new construction products and methods have in common? If you guessed ‘change,’ you’re partially correct. But while many suggest that people are naturally resistant to change, this isn’t entirely true. We are instinctively resourceful, creative and inventive creatures. Nobody who wins a million-dollar prize in the lottery would refuse to collect because the winnings might represent a substantial change
in their life. 

Although the same change can excite one person while scaring another, we tend to look for the negatives when it comes to a new approach. Perhaps it requires a completely different way of looking at things that makes us feel uncomfortable or incompetent. Perhaps we don’t trust the new thing or find it overly complicated. 

Take the metric system. Canada implemented metric measurements in the 1970s, but many Canadians continue to refer to inches and feet, especially in home building. Our proximity to the United States is partially to blame, and the international trade of building materials causes manufacturers to play to the major consumption markets south of the border. But our building codes are all written in metric and metric is far more accurate and easier to use as a drawing and measurement tool. Still, 38×89 just doesn’t roll off the tongue like 2×4.

Manufacturers may unveil new products, or some inventive person may come up with a new way of building, and yet builders resist the new ‘thing.’ Sometimes cost is to blame, but it’s not always that simple. What a lot of ‘outsiders’ fail to recognize is that many builders would like to change policies or construction practices, but they get caught up in their own systems, corporate culture or red tape. 

Shawn Keeper is CEO of Dunsire Developments Inc., a home building company he launched in 2010. Only six years after its founding, Dunsire made the bold decision to build all of its homes to an incredibly high-performance net-zero-energy-ready standard. Keeper points out, “The single most difficult factor to overcome in making the leap from Ontario Building Code to net-zero-ready was pushing the team to take the first step when you don’t know what you don’t know, and then trying to mitigate for it.”

Not knowing what’s beyond the horizon can be terrifying, and as Keeper states, trying to plan for the unknown is challenging. The following are some typical obstacles that change-proponents encounter:

1. Poor communication travels slowly

Some builders have multiple departments. So while a motivated manager may want to make a change to how something is constructed, the architecture department may already be three steps ahead in the development of the pre-existing condition. To go back through the design process, make the change and alter drawings can be very costly and time consuming. Changes that affect design, construction processes or product specifications need to be considered early. Erminio Labriola, V.P., Low-Rise Construction for Brookfield Residential, says it’s critical to have all team leaders involved from the beginning “so that valuable information is exchanged from the onset and there is greater accountability from everyone for time and change.” 

2. Changes mid-phase in a project

Marketing may have somehow specified the original component or method of construction into a schedule that forms part of every contract established for the subdivision. These sorts of revisions generally can’t be corrected until there is another phase of the project sold or new contracts put in place. From a customer satisfaction or warranty perspective, it is challenging to have two similar models in production with different specifications for fear that homeowners will compare standard features and question who got the better deal. Labriola argues, however, “Our industry is fast-paced and change can be requested at any stage. These are always difficult decisions. You need to listen to all involved on why the change is important, what the costs are and how it will ultimately affect timelines.”

3. Permit Applications

Similar to the concern about changes to plans or specifications, many builders and designers have stock plans that they utilize for permit applications. Minor revisions to plans can sometimes sneak through the approvals process without upsetting the municipality and triggering permit revisions. 

But when a change causes a re-do of the building permit application, delays can be lengthy. Also, permits can be taken out months in advance of actual construction, so things may be lined up long before a project requests a few changes here and there.

4. Process autopilot

Companies may have problems implementing changes due to employees simply doing what they have always done. Asking someone to zig when they have always zagged requires a lot of communication and constant verification of work processes. People go to their computer server files for standard details, standard forms, standard this and standard that. Changing processes means a manager or supervisor must watch to ensure the standards aren’t simply pulled out and dusted off by an employee who isn’t part of the decision-making chain or who perhaps missed their cup of coffee that morning.

5. Lack of support

Everyone within a company needs to be on board with change adoption, as builders, site supervisors or construction managers are generally overwhelmed with day-to-day operations. Adding a change means they need to slow down in order to absorb the new approach and implement it into their daily functions. The change will also require significant supervision on site to ensure trades don’t run on autopilot as well. Because of this hassle, perfectly planned change handed off from the head office can be abandoned simply because managing the new course may be too cumbersome, or the change isn’t actually supported on site. 

6. Training

Trades training, site training, internal training, sales and marketing training—there are multiple reasons why change doesn’t happen easily. Sometimes it’s as simple as people not knowing enough about it or understanding why it’s happening, and so the support for change begins to crumble from within. Sometimes a trade must be taught how to adopt the change and any hands-on application or tricks to make its implementation relatively painless. Site staff have to understand as much as the trade so that they can monitor implementation for applicability and quality control. Internal staff need to be taught what the specifications or pricing structure is for this new way of doing things and what might be the implications to the internal administrative structure. Sales and marketing staff must understand the benefits so they can relay that information to purchasers—to offer and educate. So sometimes change doesn’t happen because the change instigator recognizes that there are far too many moving parts for them to chase and still fulfill their daily obligations. Training is often a full-time commitment.

7. Specifications

Like process autopilot problems, specifications tend to sit on hard drives and servers until the contracts manager says, “We need the bid packages out now!” and can consequently remain relatively unchanged from the time they were originally written. In order for change to be adopted, the person responsible for writing and editing specifications has to have clear information about what the change is, how it is to be adopted, what trade(s) are going to be responsible for and what the step-by-step scope of work is going to entail. It they don’t grasp all that, they can’t articulate it in a clear and meaningful way. 

8. Changes to Contracts

For a trade to be expected to adopt something new, the change needs to find a way into their contract. In some companies, this is little more than a request. In other companies, this requires a complicated addendum to a contract—a contract that may have been in place for a year or more. There are documents to sign, prices to negotiate, terms to be decided, penalties to be considered.

9. Money

It’s easy enough to point the finger at something new and say it costs 10% more than the pre-existing widget. However, there’s usually more to it than a simplistic price tag. Change may sometimes come with a significant operational overhead cost that is extremely difficult to monetize. Perhaps a piece-worker loses money when they have to learn something new, or maybe the new thing is more time- and labour-consuming than the previous thing. A trade might lose preferred pricing if they have to change suppliers and establish a new relationship. Consider that everyone in the chain who touches something new has to take time and resources to adopt the change into their systems and processes. Productivity losses due to such adjustments are often difficult to explain. One can argue it’s for the greater good. However, if the change is a blip with no lasting effect (such as trying something new to see if you like it), then operational and opportunity costs are lost if the change is never adopted.

10. Behaviour

I hate to say it, but humans, like most other animals, are conditioned to be lazy. If you can shoot a gun rather than chase down your supper, you expend less energy to obtain more. It’s easier to continue doing what you’ve always done because you know it works, you don’t need to expend energy or resources learning something new and, of course, there is often fear and distrust in the unknown. 

“Change will not occur without behaviour change and persuasion on the part of managers,” notes Robert Rawlings, Regional Construction Manager for Parkbridge Lifestyle Communities. “Leading change requires high-level vision, but also ground-level execution.” 

Rawlings has seen—and had to deal with—change on many levels over the years. As an award-winning R-2000 builder, he was an early energy-efficiency adopter before green was cool. “Change is a process that takes time and reinforcement and it’s best to engage people on an emotional level,” he says. “With your team on board, though, it can also be incredibly rewarding.”

Keeper agrees. “The most satisfying part of implementing the change from OBC to net-zero was witnessing the daily actions of the team that ignited momentum to create lasting change and to do things better,” he notes. “The most frustrating part was those that would not try and wanted to stay exactly where they had always been.”

Change is hard; not impossible. But proposers of change have to understand that it’s not always as easy as a handshake and an impassioned “Yeah! Let’s do it!” Most of the time, it requires full-time commitment to adopt the change and never look back. This is why diets typically don’t work. A diet is a short-term attempt to lose weight. Only a long-term approach to a healthier lifestyle will achieve the permanent results that a dieter truly desires. It’s the same sort of lifestyle shift that’s required for builders pursuing change—an absolute commitment to a new way of doing things.

So how do you get there? Start by spending quality time in two-way communication with your team members to explain the change and understand their perspective about the change effort you are proposing. Explain clearly to them why your change effort is beneficial to them as a group and as individuals. And give them a role in implementing the change effort. Never assume there will be 100% acceptance simply because people were told the change was happening. Plan your strategy around the difficult conversations with those opposed to change.

Next, tie employee performance to adoption of the change. In order for this new approach to take root and be long-lasting, there has to be full buy-in from everyone in the company. But keep in mind when you are communicating the change that no one likes to be threatened. Performance reviews can be used as a metric to determine how people adopt change but should not be used as a hammer to forcefully drive change.

And finally, celebrate change! Behavioural psychology shows that when we celebrate our achievements, there is more success in long-term adoption.

It’s all part of ensuring that your new approach will be a change for the better.

—Dave Henderson is Director of Builder Services with buildABILITY Corporation and a residential building quality control, building scientist and process efficiency


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