Canberra construction firm shows how to automate systems in the field

With crucial staff spending many hours a day on manual and paper-based processes, PBS Building decided to speed up its operations by automating systems

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Using digital technology to move away from manual processes may seem very 1990s, but not every company has been able to make the move. For example, Canberra-headquartered construction company PBS Building faced two barriers to creating end-to-end digital workflows that it only recently was able to solve.

One was the overall state of the construction industry, which relies still on siloed applications often running on PCs or even using paper — with information typically stored in Microsoft Word and Excel forms — whose information must then be put in back-office systems through manual data entry. That situation was particulary true for PBS Building’s health and safety management team, COO Matthew Rayment told Computerworld Australia.

Another significant challenge is network availability onsite. Because its primary job is being the first builder in a suburb, PBS Building sometimes goes into undeveloped areas with no existing network. That reality often meant that even digital processes were effectively separated from the back-office systems, Rayment said.

So, a few years ago, PBS Building embarked on a 18-month scoping process that allowed the business to trial different solutions and figure out what was best for the entire organisation. In January 2019, the company completed the deployment of its new systems and today PBS can now capture 45 percent more hours worked by its staff, and it has been able to record twice the number of incidents, helping it mitigate risk. Most importantly, the PBS now staff has full visibility of site and project information.

PBS’s scoping process identified the goals and possible solutions

PBS wanted to be able to analyse the data acquired in real time but since the team had no time for that it was generally left for end of the month consolidations. Being able to analyse data straight away would enable PBS to make better decisions and generate immediate impacts on projects, so legacy manual processes had to be replaced.

During the scoping period, PBS ran a full review of all the organisation’s applications. The long scoping was so PBS could find a solution to last for years to come. “Our aim was to fully digitise our entire integrated management system and we knowingly undertook trials on a number of solutions at once, including HR management, project financials, quality and safety, invoice and progress claim systems, while also undergoing a full infrastructure and virtual desktop upgrade,” Rayment said.

How PBS Building addressed the networking gap

Ensuring access to a cellular network for users in the field was a major challenge for teams relying on mobile tools. And it still is a challenge. Rayment said the way PBS deals with it is “with difficulty” — although some tools work offline, sometimes there is no option but to wait until the worker has a reliable connection to be able to use a particular app.

In some situations, Rayment explained, PBS has to time usage to specific times when the cellular networks are not congested. So if they are near schools, the construction staff will avoid the 8am-9am and 3am-4pm drop-off and pick-up times.

PBS is also paying closer attention to its overall network posture. “To provide greater oversight on our network, we have implemented network monitoring through our routers that are monitored centrally from our head office. This way we can see in real time when we have a network issue and can get on the front foot to identify problems and resolve it with our ISP.”

How PBS connected the field operations to the back office

PBS needed an integrated stack of system applications that immediately transfer data between one another and consolidate this information, to replace the manual “front office” processes in the field of getting data from Word, Excel, and paper records into the back-office systems.

In evaluating its options, PBS found most tools were inflexible and limited. “A number of the solutions we looked at had a set way of doing things that really didn’t fit with our management system model,” Rayment explained. “It would have meant that we would have had to change the way we delivered our projects, which was not what we were looking to do.”

After evaluating the options, PBS opted for SignOnSite for the people management platform, integrated with Procore’s project and financial management platform. PBS had previously used Australian startup SignOnSite as a standalone tool for several residential projects, which proved to still be a fit in its desired integrated workflow. During the evaluation period, PBS found that Procore worked well wth SignOnSite, so it adopted that platform as well to complete the “front office” integration. It also introduced HH2 digital mobile timesheet application and the Textura Project Management progress claim tool across all parts of the business.

On the back-office end, PBS implemented Elmo Cloud HR and Payroll, Sage Paperless and Abby Flexicapture on-premise invoice management systems.

All the systems integrate with Sage 300, PBS’s existing ERP system.

Now, PBS’s IT department is working on a proof-of-concept effort to develop a business intelligence and analytics system.

Changing the workflow was the most difficult effort

Rayment said the rollout phase was the most challenging, with an initial negative impact on the business because it changed how teams operated. “Changing the way our diverse and distributed workforce operates day-to-day came with many challenges, which at times caused more frustration than efficiencies,” Rayment said.

A critical insight was that each individual had a different level of technology knowledge — construction is not a business with a history of technology usage, after all. That led to more customised training to suit the different staff needs. Additional raining and the hands-on time that followed ultimately made their use “second nature” to staff, Rayment said, leading to a positive business impact after that initial negative impact.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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