How Kaufman Lynn has driven profitability by putting people first

How Kaufman Lynn has driven profitability by putting people first

The construction industry has seen an influx of technology and software over the last decade, but especially in the last couple of years. With each project having so many moving parts, coming up with innovative ways to improve workflows and processes can be difficult to squeeze into any contractor’s day-to-day work. 

We recently had the opportunity to talk with Michael Conley, a Construction Executive at Kaufman Lynn Construction with over 25 years of experience in construction, about how they drive innovation at Kaufman Lynn from concept to construction.

Kaufman Lynn (KL), #193 on the ENR 400, is a Florida based, full-service construction company founded in 1989 with experience that includes: 

  • Multi-family housing
  • Senior living
  • Hospitality
  • Government/Public safety
  • Education
  • Healthcare

You can watch the full recording of our conversation with Michael Conley below. We’ve also included a full transcript. Interested in checking out the rest of our Innovation Spotlight series? Find our full episode line up on our media page.

Innovating through talent

David Pimiskern: There’s a lot of different ways that companies can innovate that have nothing to do with new software or technologies. So, I’m curious, Michael, how do you think about innovation and talent at Kaufman Lynn?

Michael Conley: Talent right now in the industry is really difficult to find, and finding good talent is even harder. So, we look at the individual. Even though a resume has a lot of metrics – they talk about time, places, projects, etc., but we really try to dive down into the actual person behind the resume. Who they are and what have they done? We also ask questions about how they handle challenging situations, or how they think outside the box. Sometimes, you have to be really flexible in your communication and actually get them to give ideas that you might not even think are related to the construction industry.

It could be something related to how they deal with something in their personal life, but they use it in the industry. It could be something that they’ve dealt with on a community service project that could be brought to the industry. Thinking that ‘it’s just a tool, a hammer and a toolbox’ or a software program can really narrow your mindset. What we’re finding is that our biggest innovators come from our people.

Avoiding team member burnout

David Pimiskern: One of the things that I think has been prevalent over the last couple years especially, is employees are often struggling with work-life balance or burnout. How does Kaufman Lynn think about this differently in order to keep employees engaged for the long-term?

Michael Conley: Every employee that we have has a different skillset and before we start assigning people to projects, we look at who that individual is and what the project teams are. There are individuals like myself, a type-A person, that needs a different type of person to work with. We don’t just grab somebody off of a spreadsheet and say, “Person A and person B, mesh them together.” 

You really need to say, “Okay, that person is strong at this skillset. Somebody else is strong at that skillset.” 

In addition to that, the burnout in our industry is huge. We work long hours, sometimes nights, around public, around private industry. We really need to make sure that we empower the employee to know that it’s not always about work.

I can’t tell you how many times in a performance evaluation or a career evaluation of somebody, I ask them, “What are you doing with your life? Are you planning something with your spouse? Are you going to go on vacation? You need to take this time off.” As leaders, we really need to enforce and instill in the people that we support that work-life balance outside of work. They come back to the office energized when they see that their leaders want them to be a part of something other than just work 24/7.

Innovating by putting your people first

David Pimiskern: As you’re focusing on building the strongest project teams and complementing respective skill sets and personalities, how do you engage your team and keep them aligned? Has Bridgit Bench helped with this?

Michael Conley: The most important thing is actually being there for the team. There are opportunities for companies to have just an office, and obviously with COVID these days, people are not working in the office as much, they’re working from home. What we’ve lost over the last 18 months to two years is that personal one-on-one connection. The people that are working out in the field and in the job site, they’re still going to work every day on a job site and they need to see their leaders.

For me, I literally put in my calendar recurring events to remind me, “Go to the job site.” It seems so simple, but if you don’t physically go talk to your people and say, “Hey, let’s go out to lunch. What are you doing?” They think they’re working in a silo. They think they’re working on an island by themselves. We need to make sure that we encourage and show our employees that they’re just as, if not more, important than the work being done. That’s something we focus on here at KL.

David Pimiskern: Is there anything specific that you think you do, especially at KL, to put your employees first?

Michael Conley: For me, it’s the corporate culture, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m sitting here today at Kaufman Lynn here in Florida. When you talk to an owner like Mike Kaufman and Chris Long, and they explain to you that they not only have a heart for construction, but they have a heart for their employees too. They’ve made it a part of our culture, brought it to the forefront, and then followed through.

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Creating a ‘single source of truth’ with software

David Pimiskern: So, we’ve set a baseline here in regards to innovation and how putting people first is a strong factor. How do you leverage technology to help streamline some of these things that we’re talking about?

Michael Conley: I’m going to start off with something about technology and it’s a little different viewpoint. Technology can be a positive and a negative. There’s a lot of databases in our industry. You have accounting databases, you have staffing databases like Bridgit Bench, you have operational software databases like Procore, Timberline, Prolog. We have found that sometimes there’s double up between these technologies, and what we’re very cautious about is identifying for the organizations and the people around us, what we call ‘one source of truth’.

Where do we go for that information? Today, we’ve chosen Bridgit Bench as our staffing software for where people are on a project. We’re not using it to track RFIs, we use Procore for that, or we use another system for accounting. There’s great software out there that does things, but we make sure we figure out what is the best technology for the specific problem we’re trying to solve. We try to not double up our resources and duplicate processes. That’s something in our industry that can be fixed – people are doing two or three things over in multiple databases or multiple things.

Integrating Bridgit Bench with Procore

David Pimiskern: At Bridgit, we believe integrations between these various softwares are important. I know you set up an integration with Procore to feed some information into Bridgit Bench, to help forecast needs and make sure you’re putting the people on the right projects. Can you tell me a little bit about how that integration between these softwares has been?

Michael Conley: So, one of the largest benefits that we found with this tool is the ease of use. We have approximately 15-20 active users staffing our teams. When we have a dedicated management software like Procore and we open a new project, it’s really convenient that that project is automatically integrated into our staffing software. It gets automatically loaded with data from that.

It brings in costs, time, staffing roles, and it identifies in our workflow that it’s a new job in the system. Now, that doesn’t mean it brings everything over. We still have to have that human element that decides who the right person for the project is, whether it’s the right role, and how the allocation is produced on the job. But to set up the project with baseline allocations, it’s easier to change one thing rather than add seven, or delete one role rather than add six. So, that’s become very beneficial for our team, especially some of the users who might not be as tech savvy as myself, it’s making it easy to use and integrating it in a daily process and in a biweekly meeting with our teams.

Taking initiative with innovation

David Pimiskern: I want to jump into defining innovation through the lens of the technology, the people, but then the actual execution within your teams at Kaufman Lynn. How does Kaufman Lynn define innovation, and what has that journey to get to that definition looked like?

Michael Conley: Innovation within a company always starts with an initiative. It’s a change, which means you’re doing something for so many years or so many times, and somebody comes up and raises their hand and says, “I have an idea.” Now, organizations and companies like Kaufman Lynn that have been around for many years, have a way of doing things. What you need to do when you bring an innovation or an initiative to the table, is you need to be very careful about how many people are looking at it, how many people are looking at what the problem is, and how do you identify the problem?

There’s many ways to identify problems, one is called the A3 process. It was designed by Toyota many years ago, where you really break down the cause and the effects of the problem to get to the root problem, to get to the root solution. Sometimes you think an innovation is great, and if a company just implements it, but doesn’t really evaluate it, it fails. The other way that you implement these innovative ideas into an organization is you put too many people in a room trying to make a decision.

A company like Kaufman Lynn, and a lot of the other high functioning construction companies, have very specific leaders, again, going back to my very specific roles, who have talent. It is a good idea to bring a few of those individuals into the room, to be the basis or the committee on evaluating the initiative. If you brought 10, 15, 20 people, it’s like trying to have 18 cooks in the kitchen. You have to trust the people around you that they’re evaluating the solution and then bringing it to the leaders, the goods and the bads of the initiative.

There’s times where somebody has thought, “This is a great idea.” You spend two, three months evaluating, you come to the end and you do your evaluation and you go, “Not that good of an idea.” But it’s better to take that time up front and evaluate it, than to just roll something out. 

We did that when we chose the Bridgit Bench. There were other platforms out there, but this was just the tool we chose that fit our culture and our situation better. It’s no different than Timberline, Procore, or Prolog. They’re different softwares that work for different organizations, different cultures, and different structures of the company. You do need to be careful about just jumping in head first with every initiative or every innovation that comes through the table though.

Managing innovation

David Pimiskern: I’m curious about how you’ve kept innovation achievable at Kaufman Lynn, and if you have some examples of how you’ve done so?

Michael Conley: So, one of the things we did was pilot testing. We would bring something in, we’d have a small group to see how it works. A lot of times we would, with that pilot testing, again, be very specific about the pluses and the minuses. And that is one of the biggest tools that we use, is we don’t try and bring it out to 16 jobs at once. Maybe we talk to a group and we say, “Let’s do this here.” So, that’s one tool we use is pilot testing within the company.

With Bridgit Bench, it was fairly unique. We gave a list of jobs and people, and Bridgit created a demo account that allowed us to see our company, our names, our people, with let’s say, four or five jobs. We didn’t need to see all 35-40 jobs in our whole precon department, but what that allowed us to do, rather than presenting a PowerPoint to our leaders, was actually being able to go straight to a website, log in, and go to a project. I was able to put people’s faces up on the system and say, “Here’s a person here. Here’s the job. Let me remove this role. Let me add that role. Let me change the title. Let me use the tool.”

It allowed us to show the Gantt charts, the forecasting, the people within the organization, the history of a person. That really made us feel comfortable with the software that we chose. Like a pig in mud, we got to roll around in it a little bit, get a little bit dirty, figure out what we liked, and to be honest, figure out what we didn’t like. No program is perfect. To think that there is a catch-all that does everything for you in our industry, that would be great, but today we’re dealing with some very good software in the industry.

The importance of sharing failures

David Pimiskern: I want to talk a little bit about how you handle failure at Kaufman Lynn and what you’ve done to tackle it head on?

Michael Conley: Every day is a challenge, and if anyone in our industry says they haven’t made a mistake or failed isn’t necessarily telling the truth. The thing about challenges or mistakes being made in the past is not repeating those mistakes, and learning from them. The interesting thing that I want to instill on my team is to not hold that information to yourself. It’s about the story. Anytime I have a team and a project, even if it might not be related to the job, it’s humbling to say, “Let me tell you, I’ve made mistakes.”

I’ve estimated a job, and I forgot an entire elevator. It was more than my salary for the year as an engineer, 25 years ago. Guess what? I’ve never missed an elevator since and I’ve learned how to estimate a lot better. It’s being open and explaining to your team that you have to address it, you have to learn from it, and for me, I think the third thing we forget is not just learn from it, but to share it. It breaks down that ice cold conversation in a conference room with the team. Then they feel more comfortable to tell about how they did it and where they came from and what they’re not going to do later.

It empowers them in the future to say, “I have a question about something before I fail.” So, it allows that person to trust you, when you’ve explained you’ve made mistakes, but learned from them. If you can instill that in your team and drill it down three, four, five levels, you’ll have a team that’s working a lot more cooperatively together, and I’ve seen great success in that.

Final thoughts and advice

David Pimiskern: Taking everything that we’ve talked about today, people, technology, innovation at large, not being afraid to fail, how would you sum it up with some advice to our listeners today?

Michael Conley: Don’t be afraid to ask a question, but be willing to accept ‘no’. If you’re not willing to bring something to the table, listen to your leaders, and then have them say no, should you ask the question? That doesn’t mean that you don’t have a good idea, you just may need to bring something new or a different question to the table.

Also, understand that there are other individuals in the organization, not just you or your immediate team, that are part of the decision making process. So, be willing to look at the organization, look at the company, look at how things are done in the organization, and figure out what’s the crux that could help drive change. There’s a theory that I’ve used a lot, it’s called the Pareto effect. The 80/20 rule. If you’re spending 80% of your time on 20% of the problems, you knock one of those down, you get 80% time to deal with something else. So, figure out where you’re managing your time and what you are dealing with the most. Try and solve that problem, and then you’ll have more time to manage that. So, those would be the two probably biggest pieces of advice I could give.