How To Be Successful With Truss Design Outsourcing
During previous years in the truss industry, design outsourcing was always a “last resort”, only used out of desperation. Designers were expected to be in the office. Working remotely was highly frowned upon. Today, things are quite different. Some companies have recognized the tremendous flexibility outsourcing provides and have embraced it with open arms. Others avoid it like the plague.
Why the vast differences in preference? This question is answered in 3 parts:
- When the downturn in the building industry was thrust upon us in 2007, a lot of companies downsized, laying designers off. Other companies closed up shop. This left a lot of good designers out of work. With families to feed, they were forced to look at different careers. There is a shortage of proficient designers out there now. Software has changed. Codes have changed. Material values have changed. Why would the victims of the downturn want to come back to it after what happened before?
- Some companies have indeed tried outsourcing. Sometimes successfully, sometimes it’s the opposite. This has left a bad taste in the mouth of the manufacturers that were initially open-minded to it. The individual designer or design company exaggerated their capabilities or worse, they disappeared at the first sign of trouble, leaving the manufacturer in a really bad position. By “muddying the waters”, there is now a reluctance to try it again. This is sort of like drinking milk for the first time that was spoiled and vowing never to try it again. Since it tasted so bad the first time, you expect it to always taste this way. This just isn’t realistic.
- And the biggest factor here is qualified, trained professionals. We are in a unique position in that component designers are the “middle man” between the Architect and the Engineer. It is the component designer’s job to catch the oversights of them both and correct them before fabrication. But how can this be? Both the Architect and the Engineer have a college degree, which was acquired from a defined curriculum. Most component designers do not, nor are they required to. Around 95+%, sometimes even 100% of their training and education comes at the manufacturer’s expense, on the job. Since each company is different, each individual is trained differently. Since there are no curricula or consistency in this process, it is totally up to that company’s needs at the time of training.
So what is the solution? Can outsourcing work? And if so, how does it work? To describe this in detail, I am going to fall back on (in my opinion) possibly the best book ever written by a human being on how to be successful. Of course, I am talking about the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, written by Dr. Stephen R. Covey. I am also going to include his follow-up book “The 8th Habit”. You can learn more about these habits and how they can improve your life your business here.
- Referral Source
Habit #1 is: “Be Proactive”. Reputation is essential to success, since the manufacturer’s reputation is on the line when product delivers. So many “one-hit wonders” came in went in the music industry, never to be heard from again. This may also prove to be true for your design resource. Be proactive and ensure legitimacy, much like you would with a new employee.
Do you really want to take that chance with your workflow? Where did your design outsource referral come from? How valid is it? Was it referred by your software provider? What do others say about this source? Can there be references provided of past experience?
Habit #2 is: “Begin With The End In Mind”. Working successfully from a remote location requires a commitment on both ends. The level of trust truly must exceed that of office employees. No one likes a late delivery or a “surprise” invoice. Without transparency in any relationship, failure is certain. If you begin with the end in mind, goals will be established in advance.
Is your design source a seasoned veteran at outsourcing? Or is this their first attempt at it? What real-time experiences can be shared, both good and bad? What is the level of experience available? What “checks and balances” are already in place? What are the turnaround times and pricing?
- License & Insurance
Habit #3 is: “Put First Things First”. Would you get into a car with a driver that is unlicensed and uninsured? Why should your design source be any different? A driver without a license is totally irresponsible. And drivers without insurance are the reasons why rates go up so often. These types hurt us all. Architects and Engineers are required to have General Liability Insurance. Engineers are required to have Errors & Omissions Insurance (Professional Liability). Put first things first and require this from your component design resource.
Does your source already have software licensing, or is your company providing it? Can they provide a liability insurance certificate? Would you drive on the road without a license or insurance? Why would you consider a design source that doesn’t have any then?
- Expectations Defined
Habit #4 is: “Think Win/Win”. Every company is different. Each has its own needs and requirements. Design sources that are triumphant will ask the right questions within the first few minutes of the initial conversation. In order for everyone to win, there has to be defined expectations.
How thorough was the qualifying interview? Did the salesperson conduct a thorough interview, asking relevant questions to your needs? Was any setup process initiated to put details on paper?
- Design Criteria
Habit #5 is: “Seek First To Understand …Then To Be Understood”. There are companies out there with people sitting next to each other that are doing things differently. One optimizes splicing, while the other optimizes webs, etc. Are you pricing your jobs differently, depending on who is designing it? Well you should be! Profit margins fluctuate, based on the designer’s level of detail and time efficiencies. The problem is that there is usually no design criterion to hold them accountable to the same ideals. A reputable company run with integrity will seek to understand and insist on protocol establishment.
Does your company have a uniform design criterion? If the answer is no, then why? If you do have one, is it current? Does everyone use it, or only a select few? Doesn’t your business deserve consistent margins? How can your design source know what you expect without design criterion? Was this even mentioned during the initial interview with your potential truss design source? If it was mentioned, was there a sample of what it should resemble provided?
Habit #6 is: “Synergize”. Simply put, we all recognize the fact that teamwork is essential to success. For example, if there were no farmers, there would be no grocery stores with products stocked on the shelf. The same is true with remote assistance. Frequent interaction is required much like it would be with an in-house employee. Regarding truss design outsourcing, synergy is critical.
How does everyone interact? Is it via email, Skype, or teleconferencing? Is there common ground with your team and the design outsourcing team? Do the personalities mix, or do they clash? Are the communication skills and strengths easily recognized?
- Performance Measurement
Habit #7 is: “Sharpen The Saw”. Any successful business takes regular inventory, no matter what. Stock is taken and critiqued. Some stock is purged. Employees get a semi-annual or annual review. The same should be true for your outsourcing firm. Sharpen the saw and heighten performance requirements.
Why should your design source be any different? How do you measure your design resource’s performance? How does your design resource measure its own performance for you? Are you “settling” for what you have now due to fear of change, or for comfort reasons? Doesn’t your customer deserve the best talent available to be utilized?
- Professional Development
The 8th Habit is: “Find Your Voice And Inspire Others To Find Theirs”. So many companies out there today are just “winging it”, flying by the seat of their pants and doing the minimum required to get by. It just doesn’t make any sense. Companies and people who do things well are not afraid to share their secrets. In doing so, we make the world a better place. We help others to reach their full potential. This is where development comes in. As mentioned above, there is nowhere on earth a truss designer can go to learn how to do his job proactively, at his own expense. The closest we come is the SBCA’s TTT (Truss Technician Training). This course does a great job at truss math and 3d skills. However, it leaves out the two most important factors: field experience and software knowledge.
Does your design firm have qualified people? How do you know this to be factual? What is being done to ensure continual growth and education? How much time and money is being spent toward professional development? Does your source have a proven system and a track record to back it up? What specifics are involved, and can they be provided to you?
By applying Dr. Covey’s habits, we can see that each one is particularly relevant to determining if your design source is qualified to handle your company’s workload. Using these habits together, all concerns can be addressed in advance. This not only allows a quality product and consistency, it ensures unity.
After all, you worked hard to “weather the storm” of the economy and to maintain a happy, loyal customer base. Shouldn’t your design team work symbiotically, no matter what location they happen to be in? Do your customer a favor and ask the important questions above before you try outsourcing. Your company’s reputation and sustainability demands it.
Christopher Gould – President
Gould Design, Inc.