BIM on the Fast Track

McCall Homes is like a lot of homebuilders. The Billings Montana company was sold on the value offered by Building Information Modeling and had contracted with a provider. But a year and a half after they began putting their new BIM system into place they were getting nowhere. In fact they were in worse shape than before they had started the effort.

Then they tried an alternative approach that got them over the finish line in just a couple of months. Their experience offers lessons any builder could use.

Bogged Down in Details

McCall is a small production builder who will complete around 90 homes this year. Ownership is shared equally by three McCall siblings: Brad, Carolee and Greg. They employ 24 people—10 in construction and 14 in the office and design showroom.

The company has made an ongoing commitment to process improvement. For instance, a few years ago they began panelizing all homes and even built their own panel shop. Then in 2011, they decided they wanted more efficiency and accuracy in their sales, estimating and back office systems.

The company turned to CG Visions for help. They had been using Mark Systems for back office, an Excel spreadsheet for estimating and an old 2D version of AutoCAD for design. They wanted CG to help them transition to an integrated BIM system that included BuilderMT for back office, Sage for accounting, Vertex for 3D design and Pipeline for estimating.

The effort got off to a strong start, with a team of six people migrating data to the new system, but soon took a back seat to daily work demands and eventually stalled. An existential crisis provided a jump-start.

“After about 18 months we hit a cash crunch that nearly smoked us,” recalls Greg McCall. “We were running two financial programs and keeping two sets of books on two systems.” This had made things exponentially more difficult. “We needed to tie up our year-end financials and get them to our banking partners to keep our lines of credit open, but having one foot in each system had created a tangled bees nest of data.” He worried that they wouldn’t make the deadline.

The Secret to Getting Unstuck

Everyone assumed the problem was time—the implementers still had to design homes and run the business. “We were so busy with day-to-day operations that we couldn’t find time to step back and work on the business,” says Greg McCall.

Greg, who describes himself as the company’s “reader and integrator,” had just finished a book called The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time. It was an introduction to Scrum, an agile framework designed for small software development teams who work in short iterations and track progress in daily 15-minute standup meetings. The term gets its name from a rugby formation where players gather in a tightly packed mob and work together to move the ball. It seems chaotic but everyone knows where ball is.

Similarly, a business Scrum may seem disorderly, but it’s an effective way to keep people from different parts of a process improvement working towards a common goal. It’s common in the corporate world, but not so much in residential construction.

Could it help disentangle McCall’s bee’s nest? They decided to give it a shot.

All six members of the implementation team started coming to work 15 minutes early to gather as a group with Greg, who served as facilitator and coach. They met in a room with no chairs. Meetings weren’t allowed to go past the allotted 15 minutes and always followed the same format.

“We would go around the room,” says Greg. “Each team member would report on what they worked on yesterday, what they intended to work on today, and what obstacles they were facing.”

The meetings were part of an iterative process in that the information shared during those 15 minutes helped set that day’s tasks. Each member left the meeting with a goal. The drafter might commit to finish entering a particular floor plan into Vertex, including all wall sections, by the next day. The purchasing manager might agree to getting the options for one master bath into Pipeline. Each team member set aside an hour or two every day for the BIM project, leaving the rest of the day for their normal tasks.

If anyone hit a roadblock, the group would discuss ways to get them past it, including who would help them.

It soon became clear that a lack of time hadn’t been the problem after all. The real problem was that each person had been working in their own silo. Once they started coming together every day—communicating as a real team working towards a common goal—things really speeded up. “The mutual accountability helped a lot,” says Greg. “No one wanted to let the other team members down.”

They finished the project in three months. That included getting those financials straightened out.

Transformative Lessons

Like every builder we’ve heard from who has successfully implemented BIM, Brad says it has transformed how McCall Homes operates. “We now have a drawing environment where we can draw the way we build and where changing a spec or detail in one part of the system automatically updates the rest of the system,” he says. “Hannah, our drafter, draws the house then outputs a file with all key measures. That comes to Pipeline, which generates estimates and materials lists. It also updates BuilderMT, which creates purchase orders and budgets. Everything is more accurate.”

He credits the Scrum approach to focusing the team on making this happen and encourages other builders to try it. “Before we found our focus, everyone would put tasks off because they thought they were too busy.”

Of course procrastination and management-by-crisis isn’t unusual. “I know builders who have been working on a software implementation for two years because they haven’t found their focus,” he adds. I’ve also talked with builders who started an effort like this, then stalled and never got through it.”

Not surprisingly, the lessons have spilled over to other projects. For example when we talked with the McCalls, they were in the middle of launching a new set of plans but had fallen behind schedule. “We’ve decided to go to 15 minute standup meetings to get the project back on track,” according to Greg.

He adds that while Scrum is just one of the business process systems McCall uses, it has become part of the management culture. “Now, when a project gets bogged down we tend to say ‘this is going to be a scrum project’.”

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