3 Reasons Why Construction Managers Need Workflow Automation (And How to Set it Up)

The following is a guest post by Erin Vaughan. Erin currently resides in Austin, TX where she writes full time for Modernize, with the goal of empowering homeowners with the expert guidance and educational tools they need to take on big home projects with confidence.

Most industries have already acknowledged that workflow tools save their companies money and time, while also promoting compliance and accountability. However, in the construction world, contractors remain stuck in the pre-internet era of paper filing systems and faxed work orders.

They keep their schedules in their heads, have a wallet stuffed with paper receipts, and use “fill-in-the-blank” copies of contracts and work orders. It’s the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” methodology to accounting and administration.

However, this highly manual process means tons of opportunities for human error.

There’s the customer who never got a receipt because the original paperwork for her work order was lost. There’s the client who wants special terms added to their contract, all of which has to be handwritten and added to the back of a cookie-cutter contract template — and a thousand more things that can and will go wrong.

In The Checklist Manifesto, writer Atul Gawande describes an interview he had with Joe Salvia, a structural engineer who has managed the construction American Dream Meadowland — the biggest commercial project in the world. How, Gawande wondered, does Salvia’s firm manage these huge projects so efficiently?

American Dream Meadowland Concept
An early concept of American Dream Meadowland, the largest commercial project ever undertaken.

Salvia’s answer boils down to one thing: a documented workflow.

“Since every building is a new creature with its own particularities, every building checklist is new, too. It is drawn up by a group of people representing each of the sixteen trades, including, in this case, someone from Salvia’s firm making sure the structural engineering steps were incorporated as they should be. Then the whole checklist is sent to the subcontractors and other independent experts so they can double-check that everything is correct, that nothing has been missed.

What results is remarkable: a succession of day-by-day checks that guide how the building is constructed and ensure that the knowledge of hundreds, perhaps thousands, is put to use in the right place at the right time in the right way.”

Why construction managers should care about using workflows

At Modernize, we consistently hear from contractors who are tired of memorizing details, correcting mistakes, and searching for lost documents and files.

Workflows—specifically customizable, automated workflows—allow construction managers to take a more “set-it-and-forget-it” approach to their day, reducing project management and administration so they can focus on the important parts of running a business. Here’s how workflow automation stands to revolutionize processes in the construction sector.

Easily reduce the risk of human error

Construction managers deal with all kinds of risks in their line of work, from the financial and legal side of the business, all the way to protecting themselves and their contractors from physical harm. They have building permits to complete, inspections to schedule, licensing requirements to meet, and insurance prerequisites—and the accompanying paperwork that goes with each one of those pieces.

The permitting process can easily become bogged down without some kind of digital assistance. Complex projects often require accompanying documentation—such as graphics, drawings, plans, property details, and historical documents—to be submitted alongside permits or referenced in the application.

Sometimes the requirements for this supporting documentation are downright labyrinthine. For instance, Portland, Oregon’s permit regulations have all kinds of specifications for the included site plan, right down to the scale and color.

Oregon Site Permit Page

Automating forms, whether through a large-scale ERP or a small, lightweight workflow program, saves building professionals time when completing these kinds of highly detailed applications.

It’s just one less thing to have to memorize, and in a large project, any mental energy you can conserve is a win. You can use Process Street to manage your regular construction processes and also to automate forms and documents — read on for more about getting set up with workflow automation.

Workflow automation allows construction managers to get through a job quickly

According to Delphi, 60% of a worker’s day consists of managing records, documents and emails…

That’s a lot of wasted time and energy used up on data entry that could be cut out with automation and improved efficiency.

No matter what field you work in, you probably have a lot more things on your to-do list than you have time to get through each day. Building professionals are no different. In fact, the realities of project deadlines and metrics mean that builders must do everything they can to stay on schedule. And, if you’re spending a good chunk of your day chasing down forms or searching for documents, you’re losing precious efficiency that directly correlates to wasted capital.

Additionally, complex builds may have hundreds of steps, with multiple teams of contractors each working to complete their piece. And building a house isn’t exactly like building an online application or program: most of the tasks have dependencies that make their ordering exceptionally important.

You can’t hang drywall until the electrical is done, for instance. If any part of the team gets off schedule, it can derail the entire project timeline.

Using workflow automation software Process Street for a site inspection
Using Process Street for a site inspection

All of those indicators point toward conventional workflows. However, in the construction world, the tasks may be well-defined, but each building site still has its own unique blueprint.

That means conventional workflows often become constraining. Automated workflows are the solution: many allow workers to create processes on the fly, as they’re identified, rather than relying on a programmer to custom-code the workflow steps.

New software allows workers to create job reports and updates on-site, so the work of producing status reports and analyzing timelines doesn’t fall on one person’s shoulders. Instead, it’s a collaborative effort—with some help from technology.

Prepare your business for the future of construction

The construction world—like most businesses—is undergoing rapid change, and most of it has to do with advances in automation. In the near future, it won’t just be project workflow that’s automated. Machine-learning technologies, like those being developed by project management pioneers Autodesk, help analyze the finer details of a job, from timelines to sub-contractor performance.

Autodesk homepage

In order to remain competitive in the emerging economy of machine learning and automation, businesses must have access to highly refined analytics. And that includes those in the building profession, as well.

Construction analytics will help builders form more accurate labor estimates and project timelines and budgets, as well as the amount of resources needed for a particular project.

Contractors who cling to outdated methods will quickly find themselves left behind those businesses who are willing to invest in more automated solutions. After all, it won’t be long until paper contracts and work orders are virtually a thing of the past.

How to get started with workflow automation as a construction manager

As a construction manager, you’re involved heavily in the operations and administrative project management work of the site, and a lot of that work can be handed off to software or automation. For process-driven tasks, a great combination of tools is Process Street and Zapier.

Let’s start with the workflow part of workflow automation. Informally, workflows describe the way you get work done, including the steps it takes to pass through other people and departments.

When documented, workflows describe the analyzed, optimized way to do work. They’re a way to train new hires, reduce human error, and move informal, error-prone work into a structured environment. An example of a workflow is a construction progress report:

The workflow above is a form that helps you generate progress reports for clients, and is also a collaborative document; you can invite your team to work on the report with you, and track their progress from inside Process Street.

This electrical inspection checklist is more of a quality control workflow; by following these steps, the inspector can make 100% certain that they’re safe and carrying out a thorough inspection.

But what about the automation part?

Every action you take in Process Street, whether that’s running a checklist, filling in a form field, or checking off a task, can be the trigger for an automation. So, for example, you can trigger the creation of a Word Document version of the construction progress report by hooking Process Street up to WebMerge via Zapier checking the last task of the checklist. (Read more about this here!)

As soon as you understand Zapier, the possibilities are endless:

  • Run meetings with a proper structure by creating a meetings process in Process Street, then automatically send the meeting notes in an email to everyone involved.
  • Trigger an employee onboarding checklist every time you add a new hire to your HR platform
  • Set a reminder to follow up with clients as part of your client onboarding process

To learn more about processes (and grab 7 for free), check out our pre-made construction template pack. To take it a step further and introduce some automation, take a look at our free book, The Ultimate Guide to Business Process Automation with Zapier.

I hope this post has helped you break free from dull data entry! Any questions? Let me know in the comments.

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Benjamin Brandall

Benjamin Brandall is a content marketer at Process Street, and runs Secret Cave on the side. Find him on Twitter here.


One Comment

As a manager, you have to constantly be on top of everything – ranging from crafting quotes and estimates for different jobs to keeping track of the jobs and making sure they’re executed to taste. One thing you must have also found out is that no part of the project is less important than the other. Thus, distributing your attention to the different facets of the job at hand is very important.
Great article! Thanks


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