We’re Sending People to the Moon

This post originated the same way many of my others have. I was listening to a Prince song the other day… If you know me or if you’ve been a follower of this blog at any point during its existence you know that Prince has been the inspiration behind a couple hundred other posts on this site. It was only a matter of time before I’d find a way to work Prince into construction technology. You might be thinking, “What does the guy who made Purple Rain have to do with ConTech?” I can work Prince into any conversation.

I was working at my desk while spinning Prince’s 1987 masterpiece Sign O’ the Times on my turntable recently. The title track was written shortly after the explosion of NASA’s Space Shuttle Challenger shook the world in January of 1986. At several points throughout the song Prince questions our prioritization of space travel when things here on Earth aren’t going well. I realize some of it is metaphorical, but there are also moments when he’s literally singing about space travel. I’d love to get Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s take on this song, but this post is about ConTech so we’ll save the astronomy for another day. Prince sings, “Sister killed her baby ’cause she couldn’t afford to feed it yet we’re sending people to the moon.” I’ve always struggled with that line. How do we progress when we fail at fulfilling basic needs?

I think about it often. When I coached my daughter’s fifth grade basketball team how could I convince kids to stop trying to shoot 3-pointers when they couldn’t hit layups? How can I turn the unfinished basement in my house into a rec room when water accumulates down there every time we get significant rainfall? Seriously, if you can figure that shit out for less than 20 grand please DM me. Regardless, I think you get my point. When I apply that to my work I am always asking myself questions like, “How are we supposed to successfully implement (insert name of ConTech solution here) when there are some fundamental processes that we don’t accomplish successfully? Shouldn’t we be putting all of our time into shoring up our weaknesses before we take on something new?” The answer is simple: You focus on both. You have to find a way to feed the baby and take a rocket to the moon.

I don’t believe you can afford to perfect all of your processes before you bring in that new tech because process work is never done. It’s called continuous improvement. Every Lean Construction head reading this just nodded. Legendary Green Bay Packer coach Vince Lombardi thought he was talking about football but unknowingly dropped my favorite lean quote when he said, “Gentlemen, we are going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well we will not catch it because nothing is perfect. But we are going to relentlessly chase it, because in the process we will catch excellence. I am not remotely interested in just being good.” Continuous improvement is just that: continuous. It never stops. If you wait until your processes are perfect you will be waiting forever. If you wait forever to progress the industry will pass you by.

How do you accomplish both? First, you have to be lucky enough to work for a company with the foresight to allow such things to happen. Continuous improvement requires a massive investment in time and man-hours and the ROI isn’t always easy to calculate. In fact, it’s likely going to be a long time before you see a return on that investment. Forgive me for what probably comes off as shameless ass kissing, but I am proud to say that the company that I work for does a wonderful job of improving continuously while keeping an eye on the future. We have had a Core Team working on continuous improvement for the better part of a decade now. We also have people who understand our processes and implement new tech to make them more efficient and user-friendly. Every bit as critical, we make sure that the tech we’re implementing works together and that we’re all going in the same direction. That requires us to avoid a familiar stumbling block: communication. When multiple gears are turning simultaneously we talk frequently to make sure that we don’t have someone moving the wrong way. It’s easy to only think about yourself or your department and not see the bigger picture. If something makes your job easier but causes chaos for people up and/or downstream, what good is it?

After all that work of finding the problem that needs a solution, forming your team, completing the necessary research to find it, making sure your solution integrates with the rest of your environment, getting everyone on the same page and moving in the right direction, there’s yet another serious problem to consider: change fatigue. Even the most well thought out and executed ideas will fall on deaf ears if people have been pushed past their capacity for change. I find myself struggling with this more than any of the aforementioned issues in this post. When I see something shiny and new I’m first in line to try it. It took me years to realize that most in the construction industry – at least most of the people I’ve come across – are not like me. When I see something that could change the game all I can do is focus on how much better life would be if everyone used it and I want to implement it now. Understanding that people can only handle so much change and that I have to wait my turn is excruciating. It’s also hugely important because if everyone is already burned out your brilliant new solution will be DOA.

So yes, construction technology is actually one of the topics about which I daydream while listening to Prince. Most of us in construction are not literally sending people to the moon, but when I see a robot dog with a 3D scanner for a head it doesn’t seem too far off. In “Sign O’ the Times” Prince also sings, “It’s silly, no? When a rocket ship explodes and everybody still wants to fly.” If that makes me silly then call me silly, I guess. If every new project or initiative I’ve taken on over the years has been a rocket ship I’ve had a few explosions. It doesn’t stop me from coming back for more.

Long live Prince.

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