Friday in the Field: Driving Efficiency in New Markets

John Prosser
I recently sat down with Vice President, Christy Ullo, to discuss my career. Our conversation turned to our Time on Tools® service line and its growing potential in the Nuclear sector.

Christy Ullo: How long have you been with Faithful+Gould?

I have been with Faithful+Gould since 2007, so a little more than nine years now, it’s amazing how time flies! Right now, I’m working as a lead cost manager in our Portland, Oregon office on an estimating project for a major rail infrastructure client, providing independent cost estimates for its environmental department.

CU: How did you get into the construction industry? Did you study estimating in school?

After leaving school, I did a course in general construction and I started my career in civil engineering. I didn’t start quantity surveying until I moved to Hong Kong in the early 90s.

CU: I didn’t know you lived in Hong Kong! How did you end up so far from home?

I took some time off after working for a few years and decided to travel and ended up living there for nine years. I was fortunate because around the time I arrived there was a lot of construction work going on in the area so I was able to work abroad for a few years, that’s what spring boarded my career in quantity surveying. I worked for a French company on major civil engineering projects to do with a new airport being constructed. Then after the handover back to China, things started to slow down so it was the appropriate time to leave.

I think one of the strongest selling points of working in construction is that you are able to travel and learn about different cultures and working styles...

At that point I decided that I wanted to do some charity work and I heard of a youth development charity out of the U.K. that set up operations in South America called Raleigh International. I took a role there as a construction manager on a new facility for retirees in the southern tip of Chile, near Patagonia. That was another amazing experience and I was able to travel around South America, even learning a little Spanish. I didn’t move back to the U.K. until the start of the millennium in 2000.

CU: When did you come to the U.S.?

Once I was back in the U.K., working for a consultancy there, I kept gravitating toward more international projects. I worked on-site in the Caribbean, Africa and Puerto Rico and while I was on an assignment in Antigua an opportunity with Faithful+Gould came to my attention through people I actually knew from Hong Kong; then I decided to relocate to San Francisco. That was in 2007 and I haven’t looked back.

CU: Have you always wanted to travel?

I have. I think one of the strongest selling points of working in construction is that you are able to travel and learn about different cultures and working styles in this manner. I’ve really embraced that as part of my career.

In general, I’ve always enjoyed a challenge, being able to get out into the field and get my hands dirty appeals to me much more than sitting behind a desk. That’s why I’ve been really enjoying working with our Time on Tools® service line. The service is currently expanding, with our team having just delivered the report from a Study Program for a key Energy client on a nuclear power plant in Canada. I served as the lead field observer on this assignment.

CU: Had you worked on a project like this before?

Yes, but in a very different area. Our Time on Tools® service has been used on Oil and Gas projects in the U.S. for more than ten years, but this latest project was our first time utilizing Time on Tools® in Canada, as well as in the Nuclear sector.

CU: Let’s back up. Tell me a little bit about the service. How does Time on Tools® work, for those who are unfamiliar?

Good thinking. I should start by saying that when I refer to a 'study' in regard to the service, it typically covers a full shift of work for the crew on a given project. In essence, Time on Tools® is an observer going along with a work crew throughout the entirety of a shift, and I mean that literally, from clocking in to clocking out. The observer documents any and all interruptions to working time, through the close of the work day to track all activities, in order to understand all aspects of the day and what might be done to improve efficiency.

CU: Is that similar to a Time and Motion study?

The Time on Tools® approach is fundamentally different from Time and Motion studies.

With Time on Tools®, we analyze and capture data for everything else other than the job being performed.

The important distinction is that during a Time and Motion study, the actual work being done is analyzed. With Time on Tools®, we analyze and capture data for everything else other than the job being performed. This includes permitting time, break time and travel time, which are three of our ten categories of Stand-by Time. We call these 'barriers', i.e., everything apart from work that can affect the task at hand. The observer captures all this raw data in the field, then our team categorizes the different events and barriers of the day. Once you take all that away …

CU: are left with an accurate work time.

Exactly. Projects, particularly of the scale on which we perform these studies, do not occur in a vacuum. There is much to consider in the day-to-day actions of the crews and our Time on Tools® service helps to accurately analyze what they are and how the client can realistically improve working time, resulting in significant cost savings.

CU: How long have you been a part of our Time on Tools® team?

The service is something that I’ve been working on from the very start of my career with Faithful+Gould, pretty much from my first day. Back in 2007, I was introduced to the service by Senior Vice President, Dan Leng, when I was assigned to our San Francisco office. The first Study Program I performed as a field observer was at a refinery in the Bay area. In this initial role, I was introduced to the nuances of the day and what can influence productivity. Often, these things were either viewed as insignificant or simply overlooked but added up over an entire shift. The experience was a real eye opener.

CU: In what way? What surprised you most when you took on your first study?

Honestly, my biggest surprise was just how many barriers to work can exist on a given project. Particularly in the industries we have focused on so far, Oil and Gas and now Nuclear, so much has to be considered before anyone can actually turn a wrench and begin work. If you come from more mainstream construction, obviously there will be an extensive staging of tools and equipment, but it was really surprising to me to realize how much time is required at the start of the project for things like permitting and aligning with any and all health and safety requirements. That really amazed me when I began to perform these types of studies. So much you wouldn’t consider can really eat into your time and delay a schedule if you are not prepared. What’s great about Time on Tools® is it’s the kind of service where you become more equipped with every study you perform. Since my first project I’ve led about a half dozen studies on-site and provided my expertise as an advisor as needed and I would say each one has been a learning experience.

CU: Do you perform these studies on your own or as part of a team?

Typically we have two observers working on a study at a time, but it varies. We have a strong group of individuals at Faithful+Gould who perform these studies including Senior Project Controls Manager, Steve Willcock, Estimating Analyst, Leigh Palermo, and Project Manager, Mykola Pulnyev, in addition to Dan and myself.

It’s great to have such a solid group working together because, as I like to say, the devil is in the data.

It’s great to have such a solid group working together because, as I like to say, the devil is in the data. Once you capture that data on a number of studies, you can begin to see patterns and plan for barrier mitigation with even more accuracy. Our team at Faithful+Gould has put in thousands and thousands of hours of this kind of data collection and analysis allowing us to develop benchmarks across industries of how long certain daily tasks should take. Having observed so much we can establish how long these events should take and what hiccups the client can run into. From that information, we can highlight any areas that we feel should be looked at, identifying issues that the client can mitigate to reduce wasted time.

CU: What has been your most challenging Time on Tools® project?

I don’t know if I can answer that, considering how varied our Study Programs have been. However, one of the largest teams I ever worked with was a group of six individuals, working on a program for Oil and Gas client in Minneapolis. That was an already large program that ended up being especially challenging because of an arctic vortex, which hit the area right when we began our study, with temperatures dropping to -17 degrees. It was absolutely brutal for everyone, the workers and us as observers, but at the end of the day that is the nature of our work: dealing with unexpected barriers.

CU: Are weather issues major barriers for your work?

Yes, I would say they are the most solid barriers because you can’t change it no matter how prepared you are. You can, however, include it in your study and figure out how to best accommodate your crew for the situation. Once it gets down to those extreme low temperatures, it is a necessity for workers to be able to stop what they’re doing and go and warm up, and to provide 'warming sheds', which have become standard.

Equally, on the other end of the spectrum, you have extreme heat conditions on certain projects. That’s been more common, particularly in California, and the working conditions at many of the refineries are often hot anyway. The added hot weather compounds the issue, creating another barrier to work because workers have to stop continuously to take on refreshments. The essence of what we do is recording all of this, not categorizing it in the field, just recording it and then we can analyze that impact later.

CU: Tell me about our expansion into the Nuclear sector.

There are some fantastic opportunities in the Nuclear sector. Many of the nuclear facilities in North America are coming to the end of their planned lifetimes and as such are undergoing major refurbishment projects to extend their operating life. This is an ideal timeframe to conduct a Time on Tool® Study Program on how the crews work in those facilities, as they are deliver large complex upgrade projects in an environment where daily operations of the power stations continue around these upgrades.

CU: Was that an element of your recent study program?

Absolutely. Our client is planning such a refurbishment and our Study Program involved detailed observations by our team over the course of 24 shifts on a capital project at a Nuclear Generating Station. Our team was able to draw on the lessons previously learned from more than 900 Time on Tools® studies that we have conducted in various heavy industries to identify the barriers on site and quantify the impact those barriers have on actual working time. The final report presented a comprehensive collection of data that substantiated our team’s recommendations for low cost mitigations to reduce the identified barriers in future projects.

The final report presented a comprehensive collection of data that substantiated our team’s recommendations for low cost mitigations to reduce the identified barriers in future projects.

The Study Program showed the barriers that were having the largest impact on working time were issues that were very much within their power to resolve, such as large amounts of travel time for the crews to get to the break area with them having a three-break schedule in an eight hour shift. Therefore, while the client expected all the problems to be about operational issues such as permitting, as this was the feedback they had from their work crews, the study showed that their real problems were much easier to correct through simple steps like moving the break room closer to the site, cutting down on travel time and encouraging single longer breaks in place of three short ones. Recommendations like these provide clients with a kind of 'road map' for their projects which can lead to significant return on investments.

CU: I like the idea of a 'road map' in project planning. That certainly sounds like a valuable tool.

It can be crucial. You have to keep in mind these are massive projects that can take more than 10-15 years and tens of billions of dollars in labor and construction costs. With such large projects, if we can highlight a plan or strategy where the client can become more efficient, there is some massive return on investment for our clients. For this Study Program we projected that by implementing our recommended mitigations the client has the opportunity to deliver millions of dollars in additional working time per year for the same direct labor cost, delivering a return on investment in excess of 10,000% for this study.

CU: Do you feel confident to be taking this step forward into a new sector?

Yes. There is a great deal of opportunity in this area and our successful initial Study Program has proven our team’s capability to deliver. Furthermore, having completed this initial Study Program in the Nuclear sector, we have been able to learn even more about the particulars of the industry. For example, the radioactive contamination concerns at a nuclear plant place additional constraints on the workforce that do not exist in other industries. These include not being able to bring tools, equipment and materials in and out of certain areas and limits the amount of time people can spend in certain work locations.

We are currently working to pull together some information from the Nuclear sector to benchmark against our vast database of studies from other industries. This will enhance our understanding of where different performance levels would be expected in the Nuclear sector and will better inform the mitigations that we propose to our nuclear clients.

CU: What’s next for Time on Tools®?

We are continuing to deliver studies for our existing clients in the Oil and Gas and Petrochemical sectors in North America, while continuing to expand. In addition to Canada, we see potential with some of our clients and contacts in Europe, as well as in South America. With all the data we’ve collected in similar scenarios and industries, we are in a very good position to recommend best practices that clients can adopt to help drive efficiency across a wide variety of industries. We are looking forward to taking our expertise in this area to service to other markets and locations around the world.