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Local builder's integrated operations system yields quality homes, informed buyers

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Del Mar-based builder Brookfield Homes is reaping benefits today for an innovative program that got its start nearly five years ago, in the midst of the building boom. Its practices are setting a new model for best management throughout the industry.

In the earliest years of the new millennium, faced with then sky-high demand for new homes and an ever-escalating construction pace, the heads of three separate departments at Brookfield each had the same sobering concern: How do we make sure quality assurance systems and customer service standards are keeping up?

"Quality means everything to us -- that's our name on that house," said Norm Drury, vice president of operations for Brookfield Homes San Diego/Riverside division. "We had the right standards in place, but as our workload increased, we needed to create a system of responsibility that was more defined -- one that stretched across all levels of operations. As we upgrade our specifications, we needed to upgrade our procedures as well."

Several years later, Brookfield's solution has more than achieved its goals. Within the first year, Brookfield teams reduced the number of pre-turnover construction issues by 40 percent, and since then have reduced them further by another 40 percent. Dissatisfied customer complaints are down a whopping 95 percent from 2003, which were within comparable limits at the time, and Brookfield has reduced its claim-to-completion rate to under 21 days in most cases, a record achievement.

What's the secret weapon? A meticulous, yet streamlined process from the earliest stages of construction all the way through to the first years of homeownership, one that helps prevent issues before they happen, and fosters a close relationship with buyers to make sure that those that do arise are addressed swiftly and appropriately.

Beginnings

The challenge lay not in implementing a program, but in carving out a new operational model more comprehensive than any the industry had seen.

Drury met with Jay Smellie, vice president of customer service, the direct conduit to homeowners both during and following the close of escrow; and Shawn Hill, quality assurance manager, who oversees all on-site construction operations, each of whom had brought similar concerns about the next generation of homebuilding.

Together, tapping more than 50 years of collective experience, they sketched out a plan that touched on three key phases in the new home development process: the construction phase, the sales/transfer phase and the post-sale phase. The new plan, worked out in pieces over the next two years, overhauled the company's self-check systems, upgraded its homebuyer education efforts and emphasized teamwork and cross-departmental accountability.

Construction quality: beyond code

As one of the last and largest truly handmade products, every new home is bound to have a certain degree of human error.

Try telling that to Shawn Hill, director of quality assurance for Brookfield Homes. With over 20 years in the field, there's virtually nothing Shawn hasn't seen, heard or done on a jobsite. He started with Brookfield in 1986 an assistant, and worked his way up the construction management ladder to now oversee all on-site construction operations.

Hill walks every jobsite at least once each week, to spot-check the work and to conduct weekly onsite team meetings at each location for training updates and issues management. He attends standards update seminars at least once a quarter to stay abreast of the latest new technologies and building codes, and imparts those practices to his construction teams.

Hill manages one of the most comprehensively stringent standards programs in the industry -- one that admittedly places an extra burden on his contractors, who at times aren't held to the same requirements on other jobsites. Although all sites are required to adhere to a strict building code established by standards committees and municipalities, Brookfield has instituted its own requirements, in many cases above and beyond their industrywide obligations.

For example, where the industry standard requires that a pipe be centered inside the frame with a minimum distance between the pipe and each side of the surrounding drywall, Brookfield also requires that pipe to have a minimum distance on the perpendicular axis -- between the studs themselves. While not required by code, this simple practice can help prevent one of the most common in-wall issues -- namely, a nail going into the drywall and striking the pipe. By moving the pipes away from the studs, which are often a target for nails, Brookfield reduces the chance of this occurring.

"Our guys know that Brookfield builds one of the best homes on the market -- it's a matter of pride for us," Hill said. "We walk the homes so many times during the construction process -- we look for everything, little or big, and being even one step better than the next project is immensely satisfying."

In many cases, Hill reports that outside subcontractors are taking the practices they learn on the Brookfield jobsite to their other projects -- thereby helping increase the standards across the industry.

"It's been a struggle, asking some of the most decorated members of our trade industry to do something different than what's been working for them for decades, but most of them really see that it makes a difference, and they're adopting those same practices into all their work," said Hill. "We're not just making a difference on our sites -- we're helping improve the quality of the industry as well."

Brookfield homes incorporate what Hill, Drury and Smellie agree are among the most comprehensive advanced construction practices in the industry. "It's a matter of honor to stand behind what we do, knowing that it's far more than what's expected of us," Hill said.

Peer review

In addition to its internal construction practices, Brookfield engaged an outside consulting firm in 2003 to serve as an independent, additional set of eyes on each project. Roel Consulting Group has provided third-party inspection, or "peer review" services, for Brookfield for the past five years, charged with helping identify potential quality issues at the initial blueprint review and during four phases of on-site audits.

"Detecting potential issues at the planning and construction stages helps our clients resolve those items at the most appropriate time, before the house is finished," said Steve Grimes, vice president of consulting for Roel.

Brookfield's construction teams excel in working proactively with their third-party inspectors to resolve issues quickly, a trait that Grimes said is vital to the success of the relationship.

"There has to be a supportive culture within the company, an understanding at all levels that we're here to help them build a better house -- otherwise it can be difficult each time we set foot on a site," he said.

"It's not immediate, but once the site team gains a trust in the caliber of our people and realizes that we are there to assist in their success, a mutual respect develops, and the program really takes off, Grimes added. "Brookfield has been very proactive in the way they deal with the information that we provide them, which means we all win -- most importantly, the homebuyer."

Engaging the homeowner

In almost half of homeowner complaints, it is eventually determined that the issue stemmed from the homeowner's failure to keep up with the recommended maintenance schedule. In fact, SB 800 (2003) holds homebuyers responsible for the proper care and maintenance of their homes.

Where many homeowners are simply handed the keys and a binder full of paperwork, Brookfield informs buyers about their specific maintenance responsibilities during an orientation session and project walk that can take up to four hours. In addition, representatives demonstrate how to properly care for the home and its components during the orientation. This service is again offered 30 days after close of escrow, and again around the 10th month of ownership, close to when many of the standard one year fit-and-finish warranties are due to expire.

"The sales process is an incredibly busy time for our home buyers -- there's so much information and paperwork coming at them all at once," explained Smellie. "That's why we take the time to explain the obligations to them during the orientation, and walk them through the property, physically showing them what needs to be done. The paperwork is the backup -- but we find that personally educating the homebuyer goes a long way toward making sure they're taking care of their home properly.

Getting the construction teams to educate the sales and service personnel was a challenge, according to Smellie, but necessary. "We wanted our sales and service teams to understand the construction side, and be able to explain things to buyers," he said.

"One of our largest markets is our former buyers looking for their next Brookfield home, or those that have been referred by other home buyers," added Smellie. "It's in our best interest to keep our buyers happy."

The increase in cross-education has also resulted in an added benefit. "Not only is there more education; there's been an increase in personal involvement with every home," he explained. "Each member of the team knows that house inside and out before the buyer even sets foot through the door for the final walk-through. And with more involvement, there's more pride, more of a drive to make it better -- it's a self perpetuating process."

Integrating the systems

Getting the sales, service and construction teams to work together posed one of the greatest challenges for the fledgling program to succeed, since each was operating successfully, independently and at full-speed. But Drury, Hill and Smellie felt that cross-interaction and co-education were the keys to improving the process.

Field managers Jesse Acuna and Dennis Foyil have been instrumental in the success of this program," Drury said. "They're the ones on site, managing the implementation of these practices on a day-to-day basis, constantly balancing needs and maximizing skills across the departments to make this work. We're tremendously fortunate to have them on site keeping everything flowing smoothly."

To take it to the next level, Brookfield also initiated top-level weekly meetings between the departments, where every home in progress, open issue ticket and evaluation result is reviewed by Hill, Drury and Smellie. Data is analyzed to spot opportunities for further improvement, and the system changed accordingly.

It's been nearly three years since the program hit full-force, and Smellie, Drury and Hill are still tweaking it. Yet with the results they've achieved so far, each is satisfied with the enhanced overall performance.

"Making sure the homebuyer is informed, and happy, is only two-thirds of the job," Drury said. "Knowing we've put them into a good home, that there are a thousand things we've done to make their lives easier that they'll never know about -- that's the personal satisfaction in what we do."

To further integrate its departments, Hill, Smellie and Drury developed a five-facet internal grading system to evaluate the company's performance on each home. The internal evaluation covers everything from statistics, such as the number of items needing correction and the time it takes to resolve them, to aesthetic values derived from the customer satisfaction survey conducted 30 to 60 days post-escrow, plus a discretionary supervisor's score, which weighs factors such as special project-specific challenges.

Brookfield also incentivized the evaluation program, presenting quarterly awards for the team with the best scores, along with such deserved perks as gift cards for tools. Colleagues with little prior interaction were united in friendly competition, vowing to outdo their co-worker teams on other Brookfield jobsites.

The result of these efforts is more reward than Drury, Hill or Smellie thought possible. Colleagues once on opposite sides of the operational fence are united, driven both by common pride in their product and individual satisfaction in being the best. Outside inspections and new techniques are welcomed as valuable tools for improvement, rather than hindrances. And, most importantly of all, each Brookfield employee feels a personal connection to the house they build, and the buyer who makes it a home.


Farrell is an associate account executive with Scribe Communications.

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