Stephen Dean, vice president of construction at The Ryland Group in Indianapolis, knew all the slogans to repeat to contractors. "You always hear, 'Treat the site as if it were your own home' or 'Just use common sense,' " he recalls. But customer expectations have risen and so have builder quality standards. And sometimes the old slogans never really worked anyway, Dean mused. "There's an assumption out there that we [builders and contractors] share a common approach to our customers' homes, and that's not true," he says. "You find that there's a gap between what contractors on the site know, what they do, and what builders think the contractors know and do."

Early in 2003, Dean decided to try and bridge that gap with a program called "Building Better Relations With Builders," or BBRWB. It's based on three simple principles: "clean site, done right, on time." Every employee on the site must be trained, tested, and certified in the BBRWB principles, which are presented, in English and Spanish, online and on CD-ROM to improve contractor computer skills.

Clear Choice

The BBRWB choice was a natural one for Dean. It was the brainchild of Joe Keppler, a former director of construction for Calabasas, Calif.-based Ryland Homes, and who now runs a consultancy in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. Keppler had done some training for Ryland in Indiana, and it was easy to continue the relationship, says Dean.

Mike Fife (left), Joe Keppler, and Bill Robinson (not pictured) help Ryland Homes certify contractors. Compoa The choice was made even easier because it cost Ryland nothing. Dean required his 50 Indianapolis contractors, who employ a total of about 1,000 people, to purchase the program for $400 dollars a piece directly from BBRWB--or not work for Ryland anymore. "Some companies refused, and we lost some good people," recalls Dean. "But after six months, they all came back." They sense that standards are rising, he says, and they can't do business as they used to.

But the battle is still uphill, says BBRWB president and founder Keppler. "The plumber in the field is used to doing his own thing," he acknowledges. "Sometimes when you tell the person to pick up the chili-dog wrapper, they're concerned with the pipe fitting." They ask: "What's cleanliness have to do with that?"

Cleanliness has a lot to do with that, answers Keppler, and not just in the eyes of the customer, but in the eyes of each builder's trade partners. "If the site is not clean, it's not safe," he says, adding that many job accidents could be prevented if materials, debris, and tools were not lying around. The second point to emphasize is that a clean site is a more profitable one, he says. "If the house is clean, if you show up on time, you don't have to return to the site to fix it up," Keppler says. "You can put more money in your pocket."

Seeing Savings

The money saved is for the builder, too, emphasizes Keppler. He has seen dirty sites attract neighborhood complaints, requiring builders to hire third-party vendors to haul away trash at a high price. Additionally, if someone is leaving lunch waste lying around, they might be throwing around extra piping and drywall, he says.

The program gives backbone to the supervisor on site who needs to enforce uniform standards, says Mike Fife, vice president of BBRWB and a former construction supervisor. "In order for this thing to work, everyone's got to be on the same page."

But it's the customer who is insisting on increased cleanliness, timeliness, and standards, Keppler says. If buyers see a sloppy work site, they assume that the work is sloppy. "They think, 'No wonder my house costs so much,' " he says.

Between January and March of 2003, Ryland's Dean rolled out the program to his contractors, explaining that meeting these standards was now Ryland practice, and that excelling at the program would set the contractors apart from their competitors.

"The greatest resistance comes from people who think that they don't need it," says Keppler. By contrast, Spanish-speaking employees were generally the most grateful for training, Dean found.

Dean says he wants to repeat the program every year, with a more challenging test. "This raises awareness and standards," he says. And those can be improved every year and every day on the job.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Indianapolis, IN.