Sunday, July 05, 2009

Warning: Warranty Service May Induce Violence

You know, we in the construction industry do a darn good job of stressing-out our customers. Have you read Lean Solutions by James P. Womack & Daniel T. Jones? While their previous work, Lean Thinking, discusses the elimination of waste from our value streams, this book focuses on the elimination of waste and frustration endured by our customers in procuring our products/services. Here are the titles of a few chapters from the book: "Don't Waste My Time," "Get Me Exactly What I Want," and "Solve My Problem When I Want." In my experience as both a homeowner and a construction manager, I've yet to see an example of these requirements being consistently met by a builder (especially with respect to performing warranty service work). Ughh.

Typical Construction Industry Approach

We're pretty bad at this. We have to face this reality. Especially in the homebuilding sector, and specifically with home warranty repairs, some builders seem to make a living out of wasting customers' time, getting them something other than what they want, and not solving their problems when they want want. If you've ever bought a home with a builder warranty, you probably know what I'm talking about. These are just some of the difficulties I've personally encountered with getting my home serviced:
  • -Sub didn't show up
  • -Sub showed up extremely late
  • -Sub showed up without the proper materials
  • -Sub showed up on unscheduled or unconfirmed dates when nobody was home
  • -Nobody cleaned up the mess caused by the repairs
  • -The repair didn't actually fix the problem
  • -Sub needed 4 days advanced notice to schedule an appointment
  • -Sub only provides service during normal business hours
  • -Sub had to wait for approval from the builder
  • -Builder pulled the sub off of my repair to work on new construction
  • -Builder didn't inform the sub of the full extent of the repair
Like I said, these are just some of the problems I've encountered. Also, that list doesn't take into account all the problems that I've created for other customers in my former role as a construction manager for residential work. This is definitely an example of the pot calling the kettle black! I accept my mistakes, but I can't accept not doing anything to improve the way we handle warranty service.

The Lean Approach

So, lean thinker, what would you do differently if you were a construction manager? And you can't say "find another job." Here are some thoughts:
  • 1) Eliminate Defects...This is a blinding glimpse of the obvious, but we should begin by eliminating the root cause of warranty service--poor quality. Fewer defects lead to better quality, so we should use all the lean tools at our disposal to eliminate defects: standard work, job instruction, job methods, poka-yoke, visual management, etc.
  • 2) Hassle-Free Warranty Service...Since even Toyota can't achieve perfect quality, we must have a good warranty service process. This should be hassle-free for the customer. A big part of this is getting over the whole "we only set appointments for Monday thru Friday between 9 am and 5 pm, and we can't give you an exact time" mentality. That's just not practical for the typical customer. Most folks can't or don't want to take off several hours during a workday to wait around for a sub that might or might now show up on-time. And most of us don't want to leave strangers in the house alone, so it's not like we can just leave them a key or anything. Smart builders will work around the customer' schedule, which will often mean working on nights and weekends. Might this cost the builder more in the short-term? Absolutely. We'll either have to hire weekend crews or pay our normal crews overtime. We'll have to make our superintendents available over the weekend. This is reality. But, these short-term costs will be far outweighed by the long-term benefits of increased customer satisfaction. How much value would you assign to a customer who enthusiastically touts your customer service to everybody they know?
  • 3) One-Piece Flow Warranty Service...In addition to being hassle-free for our customers, warranty service needs to be as productive as possible for the builder. By definition, any work done in response to poor quality is waste. Therefore, we should seek to minimize the amount of resources we have to expend to perform this type of work. As any lean thinker knows, the optimal approach to production is one-piece flow. As I've previously discussed here, we typically "batch" construction work into specialized trades performed by specialty sub-contractors (drywallers, electricians, plumbers, etc.) who strive for local optimization of their scope of work, even at the expense of the overall project. A better way would be to look at warranty repairs holistically, and put together cross-functional teams capable of performing all the work required for a particular repair. When I had a wall repaired at my home, I had to wait for the drywall hanger to tear out the sheetrock, then the framer to replace a stud, then the drywall hanger again to replace the sheetrock, then the drywall finisher to tape, mud, and texture the sheetrock, then the trim guy to replace the base board, and finally the painter to paint the drywall and trim. It took over a month for this to happen, partly because we had to schedule the installations around my work schedule. What a nightmare! This work could have been performed in less than eight hours on a single Saturday had the builder utilized a cross-functional approach.
So, that's my prescription for better warranty service. Use lean tools to eliminate as much of it as you can, make the process hassle-free for the customer by working around their schedule, and minimize the waste for the builder by employing one-piece flow via cross-functional teams. Now, what are the myriad reasons why we can't do this? Old-school thinking? Short-term costs? Tradition? Lack of leadership?

Are those reasons more compelling that the potential of becoming the Toyota of homebuilding?

1 comment:

Builder Jack said...

I believe agreeing the schedule of works before the first days work by the tradesman or builder is essential. This helps negate any sticky situations and is good advice. You can download a schedule of works for free from I hope this heps