Using Data and Analytics to Effectively Make Decisions in Unprecedented Times

By Patrick Hennessy, Director of Scheduling and Analytics, Harkins Builders, Inc.

Patrick Hennessy, Director of Scheduling & Analytics, Harkins Builders, Inc.
Patrick Hennessy, Director of Scheduling & Analytics, Harkins Builders, Inc.
When the reality of the pandemic started to set in early in the second quarter of 2020, one of the most challenging aspects for us at Harkins was determining the best way to maintain a pulse on projects without being able to regularly be there in person; to stand with and work with the site staff who have diligently continued working on sites through the entirety of the events that have transpired this past year. Like every other business in the world, in only a matter of weeks, our organization had been tasked with figuring out how to continue to operate effectively via virtual methods. On top of the standard home office and video call set ups that most organizations moved towards as we all navigated the uncharted waters together, we made a concerted effort to use our data to help manage from a distance and to help us make informed and data driven decisions without physically being present on project sites. Now that those once uncharted waters have started to set in as the norm, the use of data analytics and business intelligence have taken a large role in how we operate today, helping us make actionable choices to reduce risk exposure and put our organization and people in the best possible position to succeed.
Our data journey began when we made the move to Procore as our construction management software of choice in 2013. Moving to a cloud-based management software made the storage of construction data in one, easy to access place, a reality. Previously, data had been kept in an assortment of different places; siloed, untracked, and untouched after the initially input was made. One quote that stands out comes from a study produced by the McKinsey Global Institute in 2019, “[roughly] 96% of data goes unused in the engineering and construction industry.” In a world where the use of data to target consumers, inform decisions, and improve profits is becoming the standard, this statistic is alarming. Unfortunately, we were living proof of this fact. While we began the implementation of Procore in 2013, it was not unit the late part of 2018 when we started to put time and effort into figuring out how to utilize this data that we were now collecting in one sole source (Procore), kicking our analytics and business intelligence endeavors into high gear.
We first focused on the low hanging fruit. We asked ourselves, “what data do we know is accurate and standardized across our portfolio, from region to region, and project to project?” and “what data do we know can make an immediate impact to our organization?” The answer for us was our safety data, and thus our Safety Dashboard was born. During our initial investigative and brainstorming phase, we quickly realized our data integrity was poor. Through the process of developing and creating business intelligence reports, we began to learn that efforts needed to be focused to standardize our processes and procedures across the entire organization, driving an improvement in our data integrity. This led to standardization efforts, the creation and distribution of SOPs, and training to ensure these processes and procedures were being performed correctly. Then, when the pandemic hit in the early part of 2020, a new challenge arose, using our data to help effectively manage and make decisions remotely.
The most important result of data analytics and business intelligence efforts is to generate actionable results. A visually appealing dashboard is only as good as the information that it provides. A machine learning model that can predict results with 80% accuracy is only useful if that prediction allows the end user to act and reduce risk, thus resulting in a favorable outcome (e.g., safer sites, less re-work, more profit, etc.). When the pandemic reduced the ability for upper management and executives to regularly visit projects, one of the biggest risks we faced as an organization was making informed decisions without physically being present. To solve this problem, we tapped into our construction data. We created project specific reports and portfolio level reports that provided insights into our active projects. Metrics and KPIs about safety, financials, manpower, change management, and more have allowed executives to effectively manage resources and make informed decisions remotely. Portfolio level trends have allowed senior executives to determine where and when to focus attention by more efficiently focusing on data that will help solve problems, more effectively utilizing their time.
The biggest challenges we have faced are mistrust in the information and fear of too much oversight (“big brother is watching”). This is an iterative process, and there will always be a natural resistance to change. To breed trust and comfortability within our organization, we look for “light bulb” moments. These are moments when a previously unspoken user gives positive feedback or tells a story of a situation where the insights helped make a decision or solve a problem. These moments are contagious. Like momentum in a sports game or a viral marketing campaign, these moments dramatically enhance your progress. It is key to capitalize on these moments. Culture is the other key. When there is a culture of trust within your organization, the “big brother” concerns go away. Organizational transparency breeds an unparalleled culture. This cannot be overstated.
We may be far from out of the woods when it comes to getting over the unprecedented hurdles that we are all dealing with in response to this pandemic, but the use of our data has allowed us to navigate this past year with more confidence than not. In the future, we hope to tap into more advanced machine learning methods and algorithms to help us predict risk before it even becomes a thought; to move to an entirely proactive approach rather than reactive. Too much of construction is about putting out fires. This leads to loss of productivity, loss of profits, and too much of a focus on the present issues, rather than the ultimate end goal. The use of big data has completely transformed industries across the board since the turn of the millennium. Think marketing, health care, sports, the list goes on. Why can’t construction be next?