An Interview with Bill Scanlon, Senior Project Superintendent from the Christman Company
Welcome back to our Productive Construction Q&A series. This is the second in a series of short interviews we’re publishing to highlight significant stories and helpful advice from construction industry experts on how to improve construction productivity.
For our second interview in this series, we sat down with Bill Scanlon, Senior Project Superintendent from the Christman Company. The Christman company was founded in 1894, but has grown into one of the largest and most successful firms in the country — with revenues of over $700 million and over $2 billion in construction currently underway. In fact, the Christman Company was ranked #122 in the 2017 Engineering News-Record ENR 400 list of top contractors nationally.
Bill Scanlon’s construction story actually begins in 1988 when he started working in residential construction after high school graduation. Scanlon stayed in the residential field until 1999 when he began working at Christman as a carpenter. After a few years at Christman, he was asked to fill an open superintendent role in 2001, and he’s been there ever since, working his way up to the role of Senior Project Superintendent.
It’s no coincidence that Christman is one of the top construction firms nationally. Christman’s success can be directly tied to their philosophy regarding innovation. At Christman, they believe that “technological evolution is driving unprecedented change in today’s building industry.” Fundamental to Christman’s efforts to leverage these advancements is a “focus on the employment of best practices and latest technology.”
Because the Christman company is a leader in software innovation, Scanlon is able to provide unique insight into how technology can help solve the construction industry’s current productivity problem by helping those in the industry to work in a much more collaborative and efficient way.
Q: What do you love most about construction?
Scanlon: It’s difficult for me to determine what I love the most because there are so many aspects of construction that I love. But if forced to pick, I would say the relationships that you build throughout a project and a career would be the one. I’ve been fortunate to have worked for the Christman Company and in the same general geographic area since 1999. That’s allowed me to build very strong relationships with colleagues, owners, subcontractors and the trades and as a Superintendent this gives me an edge that you cannot replace.
Q: What’s your proudest moment in the construction business?
Scanlon: Bringing my children to the project just prior to opening, seeing the look on their faces, and hearing them say, “Wow, you helped do this!” Awesome feeling!
Q: Do you see them getting into the family business? What do you think it will take to encourage the next generation of builders to join the construction industry? Do you think technology is helpful there?
Scanlon: My kids are 13 and 10, so they’re a little young, and it’s hard to say, but I would love for them to be part of the business. I’m a firm believer in technology. It has a place in construction and is and will become a more integral part of of what we do and how we do it. It’s not just the boots on the ground building the buildings. It’s also the people making the technology that help us do our jobs. One way to get the new generation in the field is technology. They’ve grown up using iPads and computers.
Q: How important is technology to you personally in your work as a senior project superintendent?
Scanlon: Technology, to me, is key to improving how efficiently we do things. And I believe we have only begun to scratch the surface with technology in construction.
Q: What sorts of things does technology help you do more efficiently? Can you remember a project where technology made a difference in how efficiently you completed a task?
Scanlon: An iPad, for example, allows me to spend more time out in the field tracking issues, working on QC and everything I need is at my fingertips. It helps me provide more detailed and accurate information in real-time. I don’t have to take notes in chicken scratch and have to input it into a system later. Don’t have to carry drawings around or set up lan stations with paper documents anymore.
Q: Has technology changed the way you interact with people on your team?
Scanlon: From a collaborative standpoint, it’s changed a ton. A lot of times we’re separated by geography. When people are in different regions, it allows people to work in a bubble, not being able to talk or collaborate in real-time. But technology removes the bubble. Your team can work together without people having to travel across the country. A lot of times designers and engineers are in NY, but we’re building in Michigan. Having that technology can bring people together and gets them out of their bubble.
Q: What’s the biggest change that you’ve seen in the construction industry as a result of technology and software?
Scanlon: The ability to communicate and process information.
Q: In what way does technology make it easier to communicate and process information? What sorts of issues did you used to encounter that you see less of now due to technology?
Scanlon: An architect or engineer could be working in their own environment, but we’re at the jobsite in the trailer, yet we’re all reviewing drawings in real-time. Everyone’s had a chance to review the drawings before the meeting. As we go through them, we have the architect or engineer comment and make notes on the drawings as we talk. By the time we get to the submittal, we’ve covered all the issues. It’s allowed us to do several submittals at once because it’s such an effective and efficient way to get the submittal process done in a collaborative approach.
In fact, you can see them markup it up, so you can make sure they understand what you’re saying. Instead of sending these out via email and letting someone review them in a bubble, we’re doing it in a more open and collaborative approach as a team to streamline the process.
Technology has stopped the constant back and forth: review, resubmit. Now you get it done one time. The schedules are getting more and more ridiculous all the the time, so we need to find effective ways to improve the process to bring these jobs in on time. This is just one way to do that to avoid the back and forth.
Q: What did the old way used to look like?
Scanlon: The old way would be submitting them through some CMS that everyone had access to. But after you would submit it, they would have a week or two weeks to review it, and you would sit around and wait. You wouldn’t hear anything back from anyone and instead you’d get something back with all these comments and questions because no one has talked to anyone else. And then we’d have to answer the questions and resubmit it, and then they would start their process again. A lot of wasted steps in that process.
Q: How important is productivity in construction to you and why? What can/should be done to make the industry, and people in it, more productive? Where does the industry need to focus?
Scanlon: Tough questions and there is no single solution. I believe that technology and software like PlanGrid are significant contributors allowing the construction industry to head in the right direction. Ultimately though, it’s the people in the industry and the decisions they make on a daily basis that will determine if we can get there. They just need the right tools to help them!
Q: What, if anything, is holding those people back from making the decisions that lead them to using the right tools?
Scanlon: I’m almost 47, so I’m old, but not too old, so I’m in that in-between group of people where not everyone in my age is tech savvy. The people in the next age group ahead of me are very resistant to technology. This goes across the board from the office to the field. In the field, it’s even more, even the younger guys can be reluctant. But they just don’t know better because they haven’t had the opportunity to learn.
With the subcontractors, what we see is that they aren’t providing their people with the tech they can be using to improve the way they do things. This results in lack of improvement on our end. As construction managers, all we can do is guide. We’re not the doers. We need people to do things. The subs are the doers. The more successful they are, the more successful we will be. The reason we do the things we do will be to benefit them because it will benefit me and our project. It’s a win/win for everybody, but it can be hard to get that message across because subs may look at GCs as a negative based on bad experiences that we make things difficult. But that’s not the case.
The tools are out there and you can provide them, but sometimes people aren’t embracing them. A lot of guys may not have seen an iPad in the field. Once I show them what I use it for and what i do with it, they’re like “oh wow” and they get it. They just need that exposure to it to see the benefits from it. Show them these products and the power they have and how it can help. It’s absolutely being exposed to it so they understand what it can do for them and training.
I went to a training, and it was a pretty good introduction to it. But in my experience, I’ve always been a hands-on type of guy through trial and error. That’s how I’ve always learned how to do stuff. Everyone’s a little bit different, but that’s how builders tend to be.
Q: How has technology and software changed the jobsite and how work gets done? Do you see opportunities for technology to improve jobsite work even more?
Scanlon: Technology has completely changed how work gets done at the jobsite, as it has allowed us to work in a much more collaborative and efficient way. It has allowed me, as a superintendent, to complete a much larger portion of my daily work activities directly in the field, which is more efficient and gives me the ability to provide more accurate details and information.
Q: It makes sense that you can save time by a larger portion of your daily work in the field instead of wasting time schlepping to an office, but how has technology allowed you to provide more accurate details and information? What sort of issues did you face before that kept you from doing that in the past?
Scanlon: I’m standing there, I’m looking at it, and when I type up the issue, I can do my daily reports right on the iPad and take the notes right into the system. I don’t have to retype up my notes into a computer later. I don’t have that loss of going back and ciphering through my notes the next day. Maybe the notes won’t make complete sense to me.
On top of that, you can take pictures for an issue. Mark it up on the photo as i’m looking at it. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Q: What causes delays on projects, or causes them to go over schedule?
Scanlon: Unforeseen conditions, poor planning, lack of communication, inability to make decisions when they are needed, in-accurate documents, project durations in general are not sufficient as we are constantly being pushed to complete them in less and less time. I could go on and on, but these are some of the key reasons.
Q: What was one of the most exciting projects you have ever worked on, and why?
Scanlon: The Jackson National Life Headquarters Project in Okemos, Michigan for several reasons. Mostly because of the very collaborative approach, the type of building, the people that we were working with, and technology (including PlanGrid) played a huge part in the project’s success.
Q: What can be done to improve collaboration between the jobsite and the office? Does technology play a role, need to play more of a role?
Find ways to continue to bring the office out to the jobsite by being more mobile through the use of tablets and apps like PlanGrid. They need to continue to evolve to provide us with an even more powerful tool in the field to improve efficiencies, the quality of our work, and the safety of our people.
Q: What makes people at Christman excited/happy to use technology for work? What would get people more engaged, or make it easier for them to use it?
Scanlon: Continue to provide them with technology that is easy to use, is powerful, and will allow us to more efficiently perform our duties.
Q: What, if anything, do you think gives people at Christman a reason to hold back from fully embracing new technologies on the jobsite and how do you think those issues can be overcome?
There’s always a balance. The biggest balance on technology for whether or not it’s right for a company is a main driver we have to think about because we have to be conscious of cost. We can’t always have everything. Understanding what we can use and utilize effectively from a cost standpoint has to play a role in that. Other than that, our company is always open to exploring new things. We want to be the best and one of the best ways to do that is to be open minded. They like to listen. The upper management is always listening to people across the company.
At Christman, they’ve always looked at their people for ideas. They’ve always set the idea that they wanna hear what we have to say out in the field since we’re the ones out here doing it. I think some of the times the people out in the field may not speak up. You need to be able to hear what’s happening out in the field to move forward.