It was no different at Cincinnati-based Messer Construction. While people were focused on meeting deadlines, building to specifications, complying with regulations and getting a project done, the bigger picture was being lost by both the employees and the clients they serve.
CEO Peter Strange and the company’s employee-owners began to realize that, while the company was great at focusing on project details, it was losing sight of what the client wanted and needed during the construction process. That needed to change.
“We get caught up in our own excitement, our relationships with all of the participants in the construction project, and the paying customer (doesn’t) get the position at the center of the circle that they deserve,” says Strange.
So in early 2003, Strange and his employees pulled together to develop a new plan for action, one that focused the company’s efforts on both the details and the big-picture impact of a construction project. Clients would be involved and excited about their project, and employees would be motivated by a better understanding of how the project would make a difference in the community.
They would create a new identity for Messer by changing the way it does business.
In analyzing the company’s priorities, Strange and the company partners Messer has an Employee Stock Ownership Plan, with 86 of its 300 employees qualifying as “partners” realized that the culture at Messer was very project-centered. It was focused on serving goals rather than on serving people, and while this brought satisfaction, it didn’t offer much in the way of personal growth.
Everyone thought it was important to create a culture that gives employees the opportunity to grow and to work on projects they find personally fulfilling.
“It’s the difference between digging a ditch and helping cure sick kids,” says Strange. “You can do either with a shovel in your hand. If you’re a craft worker and you’re working at Children’s Hospital on the new research tower, well, the ditch may need to be dug, but if it’s connected to the business plan, that just changes the game for everyone.”
The person digging the ditch needed to be better connected to a broader purpose so the work took on more meaning.
The company needed a structured way to illustrate how each project could help the community at large and establish a close working relationship between clients and employees to help all parties gain satisfaction from the project.
They began the process by identifying three key areas where Messer could improve its performance basic performance, reliable systems and connecting the project to a bigger picture for both employees and clients.
“The basics are the price to entry in any business,” says Strange. “The basics in construction are that you perform on cost, schedule, quality and safety. What we wanted to be is that next level up in terms of service and performance and professionalism.”
The next improvement was to build reliable systems in construction projects. The company had always employed buildings systems experts people who understand things such as heating and cooling systems but the focus was on completing the system rather than on completing the system to the client’s specifications.
Strange and his employees thought they should involve the client early in the building systems decision-making process, then hold themselves to concrete goals and measurements based on performance rather than on completion.
The third goal was to connect the project to the big picture, both for customers and for employees.
“Most exciting to me is this idea that construction, which is often the greatest or largest capital investment that many of our customers are going to make, be an energizing experience for the organization rather than an energy-sapping experience,” says Strange. “Too often, construction is associated with the distraction of arguments and litigation and fighting. Just having the absence of fighting is not energizing.”
After defining its three improvement goals, the next step for Messer was to figure out how to reach them.
The first attempt didn’t work out. A five-part program laid out all the necessary details, but it was too convoluted and loaded with confusing jargon.
So, the group reconsidered and developed ValuePath, a three-part program with more accessible language and clearer meaning.
The ValuePath program redefined Messer’s identity and how it would do business to reach the goals it identified as important.
The first part, WorkSmart, focuses on giving every person involved in a project, from the client to the electrician, a voice.
“It uses lean management processes to fully engage all of the project participants,” says Strange. “We’re going to measure that by the reliability of the promises that we make. We’re not just putting schedules on the wall and having them be static images. We’re measuring the reliability of commitments week by week on the project.”
The second part, WorkRight, focuses on helping owners have clear expectations and make informed decisions around building system performance before the project building starts.
WorkRight also focuses on ensuring all building systems are up to standard before the project is complete.
“If we say the humidity and the temperature is going to be at a certain level in a certain room, and we all agree that we’ve designed a system that is going to provide that, we don’t wait until the system is occupied to validate that that has happened,” says Strange. “We validate it from the first day.”
The third part of the ValuePath program is called WorkGuaranteed.
This focuses on giving the owner control of performance.
“Too often in construction, the construction industry is saying to the owner, ‘You need to step out of our way,’” says Strange. “We want to pull the owner in. The way we’re doing that is by sitting down with the owner’s leadership team and identifying their goals for the project, whether it is for the project not to disrupt the students when we’re working in an acting school or infection control when we’re inside a hospital.
“We put our fees at risk against the owner’s goals instead of just getting the building built, no matter how difficult the process. We’re having the owner’s goals be at the center of performance.”
While the new, three-step ValuePath has been in place internally for a while, it’s only recently been introduced to clients.
“We kind of have a bias for using things in our own lives before telling other people it’s good for them,” says Strange. “Because we perform both lump-sum and competitive, negotiated work, we’re able to test these processes when our dollars are at risk.
“So what we’ve done is we’ve adopted processes and started applying them, and then after we have them validated, (we) ramp up the communication process around them. We didn’t want to go out and push something on the sales side until we had measurement of the results on the performance side.”
Thus far, the results have been good.
While the project continues to evolve and Strange expects ValuePath to be the work of a lifetime, preliminary results are promising. In 2003, the company brought in revenue of $404 million; in 2005, it completed more than $500 million worth of commercial construction projects.
And maybe more important, the project has helped change the way Messer employees approach new projects. It has given the company an identity that focuses construction in the right direction.
“What this is really about is taking a circle that has traditionally faced inward, where construction people dealt only with construction people, and turning that circle and facing it outward,” says Strange. “[We have to make] sure that everywhere we can, our efforts are connected directly to the owner’s purpose. I’ll tell you what that has done for us we’re very proud of every project we do.
“We used to be in a trap of measuring progress by cubic yards you know, 1,000 cubic yards is better than 500. But small projects can have just as much an impact on the community and on the outcomes as large projects. We know that now.”
How to reach: Messer Construction Co., (513) 242-1541 or www.messer.com