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The Critical Flaw with Your Project Management and Accounting Software

Contributed article by Rob Tymchyshyn

How often has this happened to you?

You close down a project, issue your last customer invoice, confirm your job costs and recognize a nice, healthy profit.

Then, a few days later, weeks perhaps, that phantom vendor invoice — the one nobody saw coming — shows up out of the blue. Five thousand dollars, maybe ten. Certainly enough to flip the project upside down and into the red.

Why does this happen?

The unique nature of wireless construction — specifically, the need to manage a large volume of relatively short-term projects — requires fast-paced collaboration across the organization, timely status reporting and the ability to reference essential project documents.

However, most software platforms are limited to supporting a specific role, such as field operations and finance. This shortcoming represents a critical flaw: Your employees may not have direct access to the reports and documents they need to perform their job.

For example, project management platforms can help your operations team keep an eye on field activities and milestones but may not provide visibility into relevant financial records. As a result, project managers often struggle to stay on top of job costs, profit margins and outstanding vendor invoices.

Likewise, accounting systems can manage your accounts receivable and payable workflows, but may not provide direct access into the operational status your finance team needs to allocate job costs, generate client invoices and produce timely financial reports.

Additionally, the consequences can be severe, including inaccurate or delayed job costs, shrinking project margins, delayed cash flow and wasted time searching for documents and status reports, which often reside in a tangle of emails, trackers, cloud storage or perhaps a stack of papers on someone’s desk.

As wireless construction companies face increased competitive pressure, delayed payment terms and a higher volume of short-term projects, these inefficiencies often mean the difference between a sustained operational profit or loss.

Roger Mankus, the director of finance at SRU Electric, a full-service wireless contractor with headquarters in Cary, Illinois, faced similar challenges while working to improve the accuracy and timeliness of his company’s operational and financial reporting.

Mankus said that SRU is committed to a culture of ownership, accountability and pride. Mankus’ goal was to help SRU employees achieve these goals with improved software tools and centralized access to all the information needed to perform their jobs.

“Like many companies, we were using fragmented spreadsheets and trackers to capture and share important operational and financial status,” Mankus said. “This complexity created a headache when it came to keeping an eye on budgets, costs and profits. By the time we gathered the data and ran the numbers, they were often out of date.”

Brooke StJohns, the SRU project coordinator, was at the center of the storm.

“I needed a good pair of shoes because I was constantly walking the aisles to get project updates, chase down POs, validate invoices and then cross-reference everything in QuickBooks to make sure our numbers lined up with the reality on the ground,” StJohns said.

Mankus said he understood he would only get so far by leveraging his accounting platform to help move the ball down the field.

“QuickBooks is the final say for our monthly corporate financial and accounting reports,” he said, “but it doesn’t give us the day-to-day insights we need to run the business.”

SRU initiated a search for a new software platform and soon learned that most options didn’t address their need for improved reporting and collaboration across their field operations and finance teams.

“We looked at the usual suspects, including databases, tracking software, construction platforms and ERP systems,” Mankus said. “They were all missing some essential component, such as scheduling, timekeeping, job costing and the ability to manage financial transactions. In the end, they all looked like becoming yet another spot solution in our landscape of software tools.”

After an extensive search, SRU selected the Fieldclix field operations platform.

“Fieldclix offers three important capabilities that we didn’t see in other software,” Mankus said. “It helps our field operations and finance teams collaborate, it provides everyone access to the features and data they need to perform their jobs, and it integrates with our accounting platform to automate our accounts payable and receivable processes.”

StJohns said she agreed.

“No more double entry, no more trackers, no more searching emails and folders and walking the halls to get the data I need,” StJohns said. “It would sometimes take a few days to process and submit a client invoice. With Fieldclix, I can now complete them in a matter of minutes.”

With extra time and access to enhanced reports, StJohns has taken on more responsibility at SRU. She now focuses on improving how the SRU field operations and finance teams can work together to increase productivity and profit margins across the company.

For his part, Mankus was able to clear off the piles of invoices and POs from his desk and spend more time focusing on financial planning and strategy.

“I now have access to P&L and WIP reports that tell me how the business is performing at many different levels, including projects, clients and regions,” Mankus said.

The role of SRU project managers also has changed because of the enhanced capabilities that come with Fieldclix, including crew scheduling, real-time tracking, automated timekeeping and access to a wide array of operational and financial performance data.

“With real-time updates on job costs, our field operations team can now create budgets and see their actual costs while the project is underway,” Mankus said. “We  put the ability to improve our financial outcomes in the hands of people making day-to-day decisions on project spend.”

Mankus said he strongly advises anyone looking for project management software to keep an eye on the needs of both the field operations and finance teams.

“You can try to optimize your operations on one side of the house but quickly run into a brick wall if the rest of the organization isn’t along for the ride,” he said. “We made the right decision by focusing on the gap between field operations and finance and deploying a solution to help them work more effectively while also making sure there was a seamless way to collaborate on the handoffs.”

For many companies like SRU, a focus on overcoming the critical shortfalls associated with standalone project management and accounting platforms can translate to improved profits, enhanced productivity, and a culture of accountability and ownership across the organization.

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Rob Tymchyshyn is cofounder and CEO of Fieldclix, a provider of project management software for remote construction. His email address is [email protected]. Visit www.fieldclix.com.

5 Steps to Improve Your Wireless Construction Project Margins

By Rob Tymchyshyn, Fieldclix

The unique nature of wireless infrastructure construction — short-term projects, multiple cost drivers and crews moving in and out of different sites — adds to the challenge of tracking project costs.

 

Imagine a football game without a scoreboard. You turn on the TV, fans are cheering, a touchdown is scored, but there is no way to know which team is winning and by how much. It is only at the end of the season, after the teams have played all of the games, that the league announces the standings.

Welcome to the world of job costing for wireless construction.

Every day in the United States, companies dispatch more than 29,000 field workers remote locations to install the nation’s growing wireless infrastructure. Many companies managing these field crews face various daily hurdles: weather delays, incomplete site details, missing materials, dependencies on third parties and other variables that stack the odds against a successful deployment.

Darrin Wagner, CEO of Test Communications.

These challenges affect a company’s bottom line through increased costs and project delays. Because of the unique nature of wireless infrastructure construction — short-term projects, multiple cost drivers, crews moving in and out of different sites — the ability for business owners to track accurate daily spend and project profitability is beyond the reach of many companies.

Darrin Wagner, the CEO of Test Communications, a growing wireless services company with headquarters in Slidell, Louisiana, is one of those owners. Other than a monthly update from his accounting system and a few manually updated trackers, Wagner had limited visibility into where his company spent money on a day-to-day basis.

“We offer a wide range of telecom infrastructure services, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to manage our field activities with QuickBooks and Excel,” Wagner said. “Our monthly accounting reports could tell me how we were doing as a business, but only after the fact. I was essentially flying blind with no way to determine where we were making and losing money at the project level.”

With competition becoming more aggressive and sophisticated, Wagner also faced increased margin pressure during the project bidding process, which further shrunk any margin of error he had to deliver a project on time and on budget.

A Better Way

Wagner knew there had to be a better way. In 2019, he began to explore different options to track his company’s financial performance down to the project level with the goal of establishing baseline measures to identify inefficiencies and opportunities for improvement.

“You can’t change, without the ability to measure,” Wagner said. “For us to be competitive in this new environment, we needed to focus on operational excellence, and that required a new approach for our budgeting and job costing capabilities.”

Reflecting on this journey, Wagner has identified five essential steps to accurately tracking job costs to help measure and improve project margins.

Project costs are captured in the field and displayed in graphic reports.

1. Use software to track project performance accurately.

Wagner’s vision included obtaining accurate and timely updates on all project progress and costs. His reliance on manual data entry from different sources, with multiple trackers, created delays and inaccuracies in the eventual reports.

“I realized I needed a software platform to help achieve my goals,” Wagner said.

His wish list for a software platform included the ability to manage his projects and crew deployments while also providing accurate, automated daily updates on progress and spend.

After an extended search, Wagner selected the Fieldclix software platform to help achieve his goal of measuring performance, establishing baselines, and embarking on a company-wide improvement program.

“It was important to find a software platform that captured operational and financial data in real time to help make informed adjustments for active projects as well as ongoing improvements to my business, and Fieldclix fit the bill,” Wagner said. “With Fieldclix, our office and field teams have one platform to collaborate across dozens of active projects with instant access to the data, reports, and documents they need to perform their job.”

Pro Tip #1: Capture both operational and financial data in one platform. It is challenging to manage the entire project life cycle without an understanding of field progress, visibility into daily costs and the status of your client and vendor financial transactions. Many software platforms only offer either operational or financial workflow support.

Budgets are updated automatically to reflect project costs and margins.

2. Establish project budgets, and track costs daily.

Wagner’s project managers did a great job managing against projected milestones and dates, but they had limited visibility into the amount of money they were spending to achieve these goals. “We didn’t know which decisions and events were increasing our project costs,” he said. “We focused on getting the job done, but often at the expense of our project margins.”

Wagner’s goal was to have his project managers focus on both the operational and financial aspects of their deployments, with an emphasis on project P&L (profit and loss).

“With Fieldclix, we get accurate daily updates on all our costs, including labor, materials, rentals, subcontractors and field expenses,” Wagner said.

His project managers now establish an operating budget for all cost items at the beginning of the project, which receives a review and approval before they spend the first dollar.

“Instead of finding out on day seven of a five-day build whether we’re under or over budget, my project managers can now see where they stand and make adjustments while there’s still have time to make a difference.”

Pro Tip #2: After establishing your project revenue from the client’s purchase order for a specific site build, remove pass-through costs, such as materials to create something called service revenue. Service revenue is the amount of money you have on the table to play with as controllable spend. Remove the amount that reflects your desired project margin, and consider removing an additional amount that reflects your estimated overhead costs (such as project manager hours and equipment). The remaining budget is what the project manager has available to execute the site build.

3. Redefine roles, and establish measurable goals.

It is one thing to deploy a new software platform and an entirely different matter to get the organization to adopt the new operating procedures.

“A software platform like Fieldclix absolutely changes the game,” Wagner said. “It changed our perspective on the project manager’s role and how they are measured.”

Wagner now looks for financial management experience when hiring project managers and has trained existing employees to operate as P&L managers.

“We’ve established a set of objectives and key results across the business, starting at the corporate level and cascading down through the regions to the project level,” Wagner said.

He can now track his revenue, cash flow, work in progress (WIP), accounts receivable and profitability at all levels in the company.

“Now that we can measure with accuracy, we’ve been able to establish a culture of accountability,” Wagner said. “Everyone knows what is expected and can see how they’re performing against their targets and peers. More importantly, we can now reward employees for meeting and exceeding their goals.”

Pro Tip #3: Let the system be the bad guy. In the absence of accurate data, the resolution of internal issues can pose a challenge due to differing points of view — such as how much time a crew spent onsite. By using data and reports accepted as accurate across the organization, a company reduces the potential for internal friction, resulting in more positive working relationships.

4. Track locally for global improvement.

While rolling out the new software platform and setting up his measurement program, Wagner realized there were no existing standards for project performance he could rely on.

“A lot of people fall into the trap of measuring teams against a national average or other external baselines,” Wagner said. “However, the reality is the time required to hang an antenna differs by customer, by region, by site type, and by project team.”

Because of this, Wagner created targets based on historical performance and set expectations for continuous improvement at the local level.

As a business owner, Wagner keeps an eye on corporate performance with the confidence that his remote teams are working to meet targets he has set across different layers in the organization.

Pro Tip #4: In addition to P&L, keep a close eye on your project WIP (work in progress), which can tell you how much revenue is expected to come in the door before completed work is invoiced, as well as the amount of committed costs you have for external vendors. Accounting systems do not often track these metrics, which limits visibility into your true cash position.

5. Keep raising the bar.

With his new operational and financial reporting system in place, Wagner now has the confidence to step out and grow into other markets. “I can confidently pursue new services and clients because I have the data to project what our performance is going to look like,” Wagner said. “Since we’ve implemented Fieldclix, we’ve already grown into two new markets.”

Wagner can now meet budgets on 70 to 80 percent of his projects and expects to continue to find opportunities to weed out inefficiencies and extend his profit margins from a 5 percent improvement to 10 percent and beyond.

Wagner said he strongly believes the investment in the software and associated operational changes brought his company a significant payoff.

“We have not only achieved an ROI financially regarding increased profits, but also culturally,” Wagner said. “Our team members are striving for individual improvement and being the best version of themselves. They welcome the visibility that Fieldclix provides because it allows them to show off when they win. And my team loves to win.”

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Rob Tymchyshyn is cofounder and CEO of Fieldclix, a provider of project management software for remote construction. His email address is [email protected] Visit www.fieldclix.com.

Taking the Mystery out of SaaS Implementation for Field Operations

By Rob Tymchyshyn

SaaS platforms offer a significant opportunity to increase productivity and profitability for wireless construction — but they represent unknowns for organizations looking to deploy them for the first time.


The photo had to be somewhere. On the camera, or maybe on a phone. The entire crew was jammed into the break room, combing through hundreds of pictures taken during a three-day antenna upgrade.

The closeout package couldn’t be completed without a clear image of the Alpha Sector RRH serial number, and the business owner couldn’t get paid without it.

After three hours of jpeg diving in the digital abyss, it was becoming painfully clear the photo did not exist. Which meant only one thing: Two crew members who were originally assigned to start a new project instead had to drive 400 miles, check into a hotel, coordinate access to the previously completed work site and climb the tower to take the missing picture.

The carefully planned, low-margin project would now show a loss.

Across the wireless industry, the business of deploying crews to sites to construct towers and small cells is jam-packed with risks that can delay projects and eat into margins. Missing tools and materials, incomplete site details, weather conditions, dependencies on third parties and many other variables all combine to stack the odds against a successful deployment.
These challenges will increase dramatically with the anticipated wave of small cell deployments, which contain the same milestones and critical dependencies as macro builds, but in a shorter time, that shrinks the margin of error required to get to profitability. CTIA’s survey, “The State of Wireless 2018,” projects that wireless carriers will need to deploy roughly 800,000 small cells by 2026, a 550 percent increase over the 86,000 that exist today.

SaaS to the Rescue?

This emerging challenge to effectively manage an increasing volume of small, yet complex, projects can be supported with enterprise software platforms specifically designed to bring alignment, standardization and orchestrated workflows across an organization.

These platforms offer the potential for a significant increase in productivity, in contrast to relying on legacy, spot solutions — such as Excel, databases, basic timekeeping tools, accounting platforms and digital cameras — that many organizations have deployed over time.

A growing number of these enterprise platforms are available in the cloud and can be purchased on a monthly subscription model, often based on the number of users. These software-as-a-service (SaaS) platforms bring many advantages over conventional software offerings, including limited up-front investment, eliminating the need to maintain IT infrastructure, continuous upgrades with new features, integration with mobile devices and access from anywhere via web-based portals.
However, many SaaS platforms have been designed to support standard functions generally required across multiple industries, such as customer resource management (CRM) or sales pipeline management and accounting systems. Adapting these platforms to suit a company’s industry-specific processes flows, user interfaces and data structures can be a costly, time-consuming and frustrating experience.

Going Vertical

The good news is there are a growing number of vertical SaaS solutions, such as FieldClix, designed specifically to address the unique requirements associated with niche processes and industries, including managing field operations for wireless construction.

These vertical SaaS platforms come with many out-of-box capabilities that can be deployed with minimal configuration, includingcrew scheduling and resource management, workflow management, mobility tools, budget tracking, timekeeping and payroll automation, document management, material and asset management, vendor and client invoice management and reporting and analytics.

And let’s not forget photo checklist management.

By making use of these vertical SaaS platforms as a starting point, it’s possible to accelerate the implementation timeline, adoption curve and path to benefits because the processes and features already align with the way your organization works.
Immediate benefits will include increased visibility into the operational status of projects, real-time visibility into job costing and the ability to improve project margins. Standardized processes and improved alignment and collaboration capabilities will put your teams in the best position to succeed while managing an increased volume of work. In addition, tighter controls for financial processes to help manage client- and vendor-related cash flow.

The ability to track and report on operational and financial metrics at a much more detailed level sets the stage for measuring and improving performance across several key areas, including increased field productivity (20 to 30 percent), reduced repeat site visits (5 to 10 percent), accelerated cash collection by (10 to 20 percent) and reduced material and asset costs (10 to 20 percent).

That All Sounds Great, However…

The good news is you’ve determined it’s time for a significant change to the way you operate your business. The tipping point could be a desire to expand into new markets, streamline and standardize operations or coming to terms with the fact that your finance platform can’t provide timely and accurate details on the financial health of your projects. Most likely, it’s all of the above, along with your long-held desire to get more control and a better view of your day-to-day operations.
However, your resources are stretched thin; the business is running at max capacity; and you’re pulling together the funds to upgrade part of your fleet. And there are so many unknowns that come with a software deployment at this scale. How long will it take? Will your employees see this as a distraction, just another imposition and beyond the already hectic daily workload?

When will you start to see benefits?

These are all legitimate concerns, especially if your organization hasn’t been through a software deployment that requires participation across multiple departments. The paradox is that many of the current challenges and distractions — the day to day fires — can be mitigated through the enhanced planning, coordination, visibility and risk management that come with a field operations platform.

So how do you get to the other side of the chasm?

A Road Map for SaaS Deployment

The truth is, this much more than a software deployment program. The decision to move into a SaaS platform is a commitment to transform the organization. The software will not only enable the transformation but is a bold statement of intent to your organization that the old way of working is no longer sustainable.

And this transformation will not happen overnight. If managed correctly, it is a gradual process that brings continuous improvement over time without overwhelming the organization.

At FieldClix, we’ve been through this journey with our clients many times, and have developed the following checklist list of critical success factors to set the stage for a successful SaaS deployment and hopefully demystify the experience by providing a sense for what to expect as you make your way down the road:
·      Demonstrate commitment and engage your employees
·      Identify and empower the program manager
·      Stage the rollout in manageable bites
·      Set clear expectation for roles and measure compliance
·      Train close as possible to going live
·      Pilot and run parallel to your existing systems

Demonstrate commitment and engage your employees: It’s important that employees across the organization understand that leadership is fully aligned and committed, that that they understand what is expected of them.

Regular communications should take place during the implementation program, starting with an email, or preferably a town hall type event (in person or via phone) to lay out the timeline and goals for the implementation program, together with the expectations for everyone’s participation.

Offer an open-door policy to make it clear that you value their feedback. Many of the best ideas for enhancements and ways to successfully deploy the software will come from your employees. By engaging employees in the journey, their natural resistance will be replaced by enthusiasm for the new platform and help set the stage forthe program’s eventual success
Identify and empower the program manager: Your implementation project manager will play a critical role in planning and executing the project — herding cats, if you want to get technical. As part of the initial communications, make it clear that they are empowered to gather data and schedule everyone’s time for mission-critical activities, especially end-user training.
In some cases, this may be your software partner, who often brings experience managing organizations through implementation projects. They will also need the backing of company leadership to help navigate the organization and get timely access to the data and other insights required to set up and configure the software platform.

Stage the rollout in manageable bites: All businesses are the same, and all businesses are different. When you’re selling, you want to emphasize the latter: the quality of your team, your track record of delivering on time and the shiny new fleet and test gear. When it comes to software implementation, the safe bet is to align with industry-standard processes.

There will be an organization pull toward replicating the unique processes, estimating models and tracking spreadsheets that have evolved over the years. These are the processes you’ve established and that your team is comfortable with. Some users will show up with a wish list of exciting new features and processes. Others will see an opportunity to finally bring operational discipline by designing complex workflows to track activities down to a granular level.

Because of these different tendencies, there is a risk of generating a large volume of requirements deemed necessary to be configured before the SaaS platform can be deployed. In extreme cases, this analysis paralysis will add unnecessary complexity and delays to a timely deployment of the new platform.

Just jump into the pool. The water doesn’t change temperature, no matter how long you stare at it.

One of the keys to success along the transformation journey is getting to the start. Staging the deployment into small, manageable steps will get you past the starting line while also minimizing the deployment risks. Many assumptions about the need for certain features will fade away, and new ideas and paths forward will open up as the organization grows into the tool.
A gradual rollout can also help control the pace at which an organization is required to adapt to change while also managing their day-to-day responsibilities. Over time, as a deployment and training cadence is established, new features can be rolled out as seamlessly as a new Chris Rock special on Netflix.

Set clear expectation for roles and measure compliance: Remember the time you were forced to switch hotel rooms in the middle of a business trip? Even though the hotel offered an upgrade to a suite with a fruit basket and balcony overlooking the pool, it was still more of an aggravation. At least that’s how it felt.

People will embrace change, but not before resisting it. That’s just human nature.

When deploying a new software platform, end-user compliance can have a significant effect on achieving the projected benefits. Your time-to-benefit can be accelerated through clearly defined business policies and expectations for individual roles:
·      Project managers will have access to enhanced operational tools — such as scheduling calendars, budgeting interfaces and streamlined material ordering — to help plan and manage risk, which means an investment in time up front pays off with improved crew deployments and less time spent firefighting.
·      Field crews will spend more time working from the mobile app, which can support timekeeping, insights into their schedules, work order details, expense management and photo checklists. The adoption process is typically painless as they are generally grateful to have access to the information and only need to be reminded to keep their phones accessible and charged.
·      The finance team will spend more time in the new platform, managing financial processes and generating executive dashboards and reports. This represents a shift from relying solely on the accounting platform to do their job. In some cases, they will be moving among applications, but the payoff is the ability to generate more insightful reports with less manual data manipulation and access to a much broader set of client data required to support efficient client invoicing and vendor payments.
·      IT’s role will change, with a focus on managing the creation of new users, configuring laptops and phones, and in some cases, keeping track of company-owned assets.

Most SaaS platforms will provide reports to help monitor compliance and identify those users who may need an extra nudge now and then to align with the new mode of operation. The ability to track operational metrics also creates an opportunity to give incentives and reward employees for positive results. Lastly, encouraging your early adopters to help pull others along into proper use of the platform will also help overall compliance.

Train as close as possible to going live: End-user training is one of the most critical activities in preparing for a successful software deployment. This is the first time many end-users will experience the new software, and it often is only opportunity to prepare them before you go live.

A good training program offers an overview of the new processes, software interfaces, expectations for compliance, and the ability to work directly in the new tool. To help with retention, train as close as possible to go live to get the program off to a healthy running start.

Pilot and run parallel to your existing systems: There’s only so much risk you can plan for in trying to orchestrate a seamless transition from one mode of operation to another. Going live in a new platform inevitably brings issues and challenges: a phone app was not installed, access for a key user was configured incorrectly. There will be more than a few forgotten passwords and other problems as employees become accustomed to using the new software.

The good news is that there is a proven two-step approach you can deploy to minimize these challenges and accelerate the adoption cycle.

Before going live, take a week to put the new platform configuration through the paces in a live, but low-risk area. As an example, for photo checklists, trial the capability on an existing project to iron out any wrinkles before rolling it out to the rest of the organization. For crew deployments, have one of your seasoned project managers schedule and deploy his crews for a few days to validate they receive the correct notifications and work orders.

In other cases, such as timekeeping, run your existing system in parallel with the new approach for one to two weeks. This approach provides a safety net that will allow your employees to adjust to the new processes and mitigate the risks of missing timecards. It’s important to track compliance daily and remind everyone when they skip a critical step, such as deploying a crew without a work order.

By the end of the parallel trial, end-user compliance in the new platform should be sufficiently robust to give you the confidence to turn off the legacy system.

A Final Word of Encouragement

Be patient, be persistent and be open to changes. The desired results will arrive, and in many cases, they will surprise you. There will be bumps in the road, but with a measured and structured approach, they can be minimized.
The good news is that you have just taken the first step in changing the way you operate your business and are on the path to increase visibility, operational discipline, scalability and improved profitability.
And no more missing photos.


Rob Tymchyshyn is CEO and cofounder of FieldClix, the provider of a field operations platform of the same name designed to help improve operational and financial discipline for complex field construction programs. His email address is [email protected].