Making Innovation Stick: There’s a Better Way than Pushing Ideas to the Field

This article is included in the Great Things: Issue 8 edition of the DPR Newsletter.

Employee uses QR code on construction jobsite
DPR is continuously expanding access to the best tools and resources for craft teams to improve collaboration opportunities, establish greater trust, and foster partnership between teams. Courtesy of Sweeya Tangudu

Too often in the construction industry, there seems to be a disconnect between innovation and work happening in the field, particularly regarding adoption. Between scheduling and skepticism, field crews are wary of the disruption and the presumed consequences that can occur when implementing changes on a jobsite. Even the biggest supporters of introducing innovation into the field can hesitate when there is high potential for disturbing workflows.

So how do organizations efficiently respond when encountering resistance to face the challenges of implementation? According to DPR Construction’s Tyler Williams, construction innovation teams must leverage field leadership to inspire and champion innovation for the field, instead of pushing innovations to the field.

It begins with establishing trust and creating partnerships.

It sounds simple enough to encourage communication between innovation and craft teams, but it’s a thoughtful process that requires resources and engagement opportunities that are more effective than signage and breakfast promotions. However, most construction firms’ field crews don’t have access to traditional intranet tools, creating a communication gap between the two groups. Each face the challenge of how best to share ideas and generate collaborative and meaningful dialogue about best practices and solutions. While this generally still holds true for many organizations, DPR is continuously expanding access to the best tools and resources for craft teams to improve collaboration opportunities, establish greater trust, and foster partnership between teams.

“It has become essential that innovation groups include people with robust field experience who can not only speak the language of the trades but are also willing to listen from that unique perspective,” said Tyler Williams, DPR’s dedicated field innovation leader and one of the first in the industry.

Williams is a former superintendent and union carpenter who now spends time connecting dots between DPR’s office-based teams, industry partners and vendors, and with craft workers on jobsites across the country, listening, relating and learning.

DPR self-perform work leader Jack Poindexter added, “Creating space where it’s safe to learn, ask questions and experiment without the pressure of performance naturally creates engagement and trust between our innovation team, field leaders and craft. This is where we all really work together to uncover challenges and work through issues to find what doesn’t work and what does.”

“Through conversations at every level, I have the advantage of seeing all sides and experiencing firsthand what’s happening in the field and office environments and with other partners in the industry,” Williams continued. “This helps tremendously to source and champion solutions to actual field challenges. And it helps implement new innovations by relating to our craft workers from a familiar viewpoint and addressing concerns from a place meant to create and foster trust among all of us.”

Construction worker testing protective exo suit
Exoskeleton suits were recently tested by DPR innovation and field teams at a Hilti training facility. Courtesy of Kyle Reimers

Innovation champions on jobsites are key to building relationships.

“It is vital for firms to make sure they’re not just coming up with ideas and calling them innovative,” said Williams, “But that strong relationships are built with craft teams to make sure the ideas they’re incubating resonate with them.” When ideas are born—and introduced—in the field, it’s the engagement of frontline workers to identify common field problems that empowers a workforce to assist with solutions and build trust among teams.

“Innovation champions on jobsites are paramount to success,” said Hilti Strategic Business Director Jordan Funk. “From the point of entry, those champions help drive the mindset of augmenting work, not replacing workers. We’re starting to see more field team members at demos, giving feedback and leaning into innovation when they get the chance to be involved and experience new ideas, being able to build relationships and ask questions from the start.”

On a recent Seattle-area healthcare project, a field crew inquired about a better solution for drywallers when it came to dust collection. A hazard and an inconvenience, the standard process of drywalling work creates lots of dust, which also adds extra time for cleanup. That crew gave their feedback to DPR’s field innovation leader, a superintendent who had the network to source a vendor with a tool that aligned with their needs and workflows—not eliminating the crew’s work but changing it to make it safer and more productive. His relationship with a tool manufacturer partner resulted in an opportunity for DPR to pilot a new prototype device that attaches to a router, letting drywallers keep two hands on the router while the device vacuums up the dust simultaneously. It was a perfect solution, but how it came to be is what really made it work.

The worry of being replaced.

In building connections with innovators across DPR, Williams works with field leadership to identify opportunities where innovation can make an impact to front line workers. But before the introduction and implementation of innovation, is the need for transparency in why and how these solutions will impact workers, projects and speed-to-market efforts. In turn, superintendent-led conversations with craft are more on-point, focused and supportive of field teams.

“The benefit, when innovation really sticks in the field, is making people safer and more competent,” said Scott Johnson, field technology group leader in the Pacific Northwest at DPR.

Johnson noted that people often become nervous about innovation eliminating jobs, not having a full understanding that it’s truly about being more effective and efficient with the same amount of effort.

“When you get to use your brain more than your back, that’s a safer, healthier way of working that needs to be highlighted more when we talk about innovation. Demanding less of our bodies and working smarter, not harder—making sure our teams are fully confident that innovation is not something that’s taking jobs away. It's changing the way you do your job and making it better.”

For example, at a jobsite for a commercial office project in Austin, TX, craft teams recently piloted two exoskeleton suits in an effort to reduce or eliminate fatigue and soft tissue related injuries. “While we made the ultimate decision to not move forward with the suits we tested, we are continuing to evaluate EXO-suits and ergonomic training opportunities because of the positive aspects and feedback from our craft that did arise during the pilot program,” said Williams.

“Innovation frees up our field teams to plan the work and move on to other projects. It’s not about replacing workers,” said Poindexter. “These improvements in the way we work not only reduce repetitive stress and wear and tear on bodies, but also help make us more competitive. We’re accomplishing more work at DPR and providing more value to our customers.”

Use of QR code innovation in the field
Having information at field crews' fingertips increases production efficiency and decreases rework and safety incidents. Courtesy of Sweeya Tangudu

Providing field teams with opportunities to share and pilot their own ideas

“It's important that we listen to what our craft see and hear every day in the field,” said Poindexter. “And that we create a safe space for someone to raise their hand and ask a question, point something out, or make a suggestion. We need to provide opportunities for responsible conversations about their ideas and concerns.” And as important, it’s essential to let field teams drive their portion of these discussions and provide accessible methods of engaging.

At DPR, field crews in some markets are encouraged by innovation champions to submit “Opportunities for Innovation” by scanning QR codes connected directly to a submission page, a space for workers to share their ideas in real time. The program was piloted in multiple DPR locations but had the most success where it was supported by a dedicated champion in the field, such as a superintendent.

One such innovation currently being piloted on a data center project in Tennessee is the ‘DFH (doors, frames & hardware) QR Code’ that brings together floor plans, opening locations, wall framing types, security details, low voltage details, hardware sets, rough opening sizes, and easy to miss general notes found throughout the drawings. This idea, envisioned by a superintendent who recognized a reoccurring issue in the field and brought to life with the technical expertise of a project engineer, is helping to lead the way to more predictable outcomes, less rework, a system that works towards zero defects, better quality control, open information sharing to all field workers, and being able to meet owner expectations on the first pass.

A similar innovation being used on a life sciences project in the Bay area is room-specific QR codes containing packs of information relevant to in-wall rough-ins. “Patches and rework are expensive,” said Erin Saiki, assistant superintendent for the project. “They’re detrimental to crew morale, inefficient to production, difficult to coordinate and never part of the plan, and they increase the risk of trade damage and safety incidents. Having this information at crews’ fingertips caught hundreds of potential patches by creating a single source of truth.”