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, especially in the last few years. With each project having many moving parts, developing 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 lineup on our media page.

Putting people first at Kaufman Lynn

Innovating through talent

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

Michael Conley: Talent in the industry is difficult to find right now, 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., we try to dive down into the person behind the resume. Who are they, and what have they done? We also ask questions about how they handle challenging situations or think outside the box. Sometimes, you have to be flexible in your communication and get them to give ideas that you might not even think are related to the construction industry.

It could be related to how they deal with something in their personal life, but they use it in the industry. They could have dealt with it 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 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 of years, especially, is employees often struggle with work-life balance or burnout. How does Kaufman Lynn think about this differently to keep employees engaged for the long term?

Michael Conley: Every employee we have has a different skill set, 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, who need a different type of person to work with. We don’t just grab somebody off a spreadsheet and say, “Person A and Person B, mesh them together.” 

You need to say, “Okay, that person is strong at this skill set. 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 and private industry. We need to ensure that we empower the employees to know that it’s not always about work.

I can’t tell you how many times in a performance or 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 must enforce and instill in the people that we support a work-life balance outside work. They return to the office energized when they see their leaders want them to be a part of something other than work 24/7.

Innovating by putting your people first

David Pimiskern: As you focus 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 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. We’ve lost that personal one-on-one connection over the last 18 months to two years. The people working out in the field and on the job site are still going to work every day on a job site, and they need to see their leaders.

I put recurring events in my calendar to remind me, “Go to the job site.” It seems so simple, but if you don’t physically talk to your people, 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 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 in Florida. When you talk to owners like Mike Kaufman and Chris Long, they explain that they have a heart for construction and their employees. They’ve made it a part of our culture, brought it to the forefront, and followed through.

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Creating a ‘single source of truth’ with software

David Pimiskern: We’ve set a baseline here regarding innovation and how putting people first is a strong factor. How do you leverage technology to help streamline some of the things we’re discussing?

Michael Conley: I will start by discussing technology and its different viewpoints. Technology can be a positive and a negative. There are a lot of databases in our industry. You have accounting databases, staffing databases like Bridgit Bench, and operational software databases like Procore, Timberline, and Prolog. We have found that sometimes there’s a double-up between these technologies, and we’re very cautious about identifying what we call’ one source of truth for the organizations and the people around us.’

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 or another accounting system. There’s great software out there that does things, but we make sure we figure out the best technology for the specific problem we’re trying to solve. We try not to 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, integrations between these various software are important. I know you set up an integration with Procore to feed some information into Bridgit Bench to help forecast needs and ensure you’re putting the people on the right projects. Can you tell me a little bit about how that integration between these software has been?

Michael Conley: One of the largest benefits we found with this tool is ease of use. We have approximately 15-20 active users staffing our teams. When we have dedicated management software like Procore and 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, and 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 the right person for the project, 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 users who might not be as tech-savvy as me; it’s making it easy to use and integrating it into a daily process and a biweekly meeting with our teams.

Taking initiative with innovation

David Pimiskern: I want to define innovation through the lens of the technology, the people, and actual execution within your teams at Kaufman Lynn. How does Kaufman Lynn define innovation, and what has that journey 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 you identify the problem.

There’s many ways to identify problems, one is called the A3 process. Toyota designed it many years ago, where you 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 implements it but doesn’t evaluate it, it fails. The other way you implement these innovative ideas into an organization is by putting 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 individuals into the room to be the basis of the committee’s evaluation of the initiative. If you bring 10, 15, or 20 people, it’s like trying to have 18 cooks in the kitchen. You have to trust the people around you to evaluate the solution and bring the initiative’s good and bad to the leaders.

Sometimes, somebody has thought, “This is a great idea.” You spend two or three months evaluating, come to the end, do your evaluation, and go, “Not that good of an idea.” But it’s better to take that time upfront and evaluate it than to 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 software that works for different organizations, cultures, and company structures. You need to be careful about jumping in head first with every initiative or 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 and 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. We don’t try to bring it out to 16 jobs at once. Maybe we talk to a group and say, “Let’s do this here.” So, one tool we use is pilot testing within the company.

With Bridgit Bench, it was fairly unique. We have a list of jobs and people, and Bridgit created a demo account that allowed us to see our company, our names, and 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 allowed us to do, rather than presenting a PowerPoint to our leaders, was actually going straight to a website, logging in, and going to a project. I could put people’s faces 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, and the person’s history. That 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 dirty, figure out what we liked, and, honestly, figure out what we didn’t like. No program is perfect. To think there is a catch-all that does everything for you in our industry would be great, but today, we’re dealing with some very good software.

The importance of sharing failures

David Pimiskern: I want to talk briefly 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 I want to instill in my team is not holding 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 learned how to estimate a lot better. It’s being open and explaining to your team that you have to address it and learn from it, and for me, I think the third thing we forget is not just to 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 telling about how they did it, where they came from, and what they won’t 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 working much 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, and 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.’ Should you ask the question if you’re unwilling to bring something to the table, listen to your leaders, and then have them say no? That doesn’t mean you don’t have a good idea; you may need to bring something new or a different question.

Also, understand that other individuals in the organization, not just you or your immediate team, are part of the decision-making process. So, be willing to look at the organization, the company, and how things are done, and figure out 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, and you get 80% of the time to deal with something else. So, figure out where you’re managing your time and what you deal with most. Try to solve that problem, and you’ll have more time to manage it. So, those would be the two probably biggest pieces of advice I could give.