FULTON HOMES IN PHOENIX HAS ONE OF THE more forward-thinking visions for how builders can use enterprise, resource, and planning software FAST.

Patrick Hindall, Fulton's director of information systems, says the data mining capabilities within FAST let the builder produce real-time trend reports on just about any activity in the business.

“The idea is for our managers to read trend reports about the construction process or financial results the way they would check their personal stocks every day over the Web,” he says.

The results from delivering this kind of real-time information are striking: On the construction side, the FAST system helped Fulton Homes reduce its home delay average by half, to between 8.6 and 9.8 days. (The industry average from start to closing is 32 days.) Fulton tracks roughly 40 “reasons” the project would be delayed—everything from site and weather conditions and late subcontractors to theft and administrative issues. Armed with the delay information, Fulton can track schedule variances daily, weekly, and quarterly, and make adjustments as required.

“Basically, we look at the FAST system as enhanced communications,” says Jeff Nadreau, Fulton's executive vice president in charge of land development, vertical construction, and customer relations. “It lets us know where we are, where we were, and where we want to be in terms of the schedule.” The builder closes roughly 1,400 homes annually, Nadreau says.

Now, much of the paperwork that used to bog down supers and accounts payable (AP) clerks is eliminated. Instead of having supers approve invoices by hand that are rekeyed into the back-office system by AP clerks, the purchase orders are automatically issued by the software when the job is released into construction.

So, if the drywall is up and the painter does his job according to schedule, the painter's bill is paid automatically. If the job goes off-schedule, the super makes the changes on a handheld and the system automatically adjusts the schedule and notifies all the affected parties. Since all Fulton subs are required to have Internet access, the company expects subs to frequently check Fulton's extranet to keep up-to-date on any schedule changes. Subs are also issued performance report cards based on the trend reports.

Hindall says when FAST migrated to an open database based on Microsoft's SQL server it allowed Fulton to take a major step forward. He says the old system was based on a proprietary report writer that was cumbersome to use. Now, Fulton employees can pull data out of Excel spreadsheets or a Microsoft Access database and build real-time, Web-based trend reports.

Of course, the reports are only as good as the back-end data that gets entered into the system. Today, instead of processing paper invoices, the back-office staff spends most of its time maintaining the database, entering costing and scheduling information into the system well before salespeople start selling a new community.

“Now, we have representatives from the back-office staff in our planning meetings,” says Hindall. “So, if there is a change in the site plans, their job is to tell the managers that it will take, say, three weeks and four people to rebuild the data.” In the past, he adds, each home was handled in its own universe. “We didn't take the time to build the data correctly,” he says.

For Hindall, preparing accurate data up front is what makes FAST's concept of managing the variances or managing by “exception” really tick.

Use these tips for a FAST implementation:

  • Get your business processes in order. Meet with your department heads so you can create a work flow that shows how FAST will affect the company's business processes.
  • Set up re-training classes. People won't cooperate if they feel they are being automated out of existence. FAST will automate much of the work accounts payable and purchasing clerks used to do by pushing paper and keying in invoices. Make provisions to retrain the accounts payable and purchasing clerks to be data managers who will ensure that all the data that goes into FAST is up-to-date and accurate. Supers will also need training on using handhelds and operating automated schedules, and managers will need training on how to make the most of the real-time data FAST delivers.
  • Meet with your subcontractors. Your subs have to know that the company is moving to a purchase order system and will no longer be accepting invoices. It must be made clear that subs will be expected to bid for the work—and what they bid is what will be paid. Builders looking to expand their extranets should work closely with subs to help them find the right technology and offer classes so they can learn how to use the new system.
  • Be patient. Deploying a back-office system is not a plug-and-play operation. Expect this to take six months to a year. Lean on FAST to help you come up with a phased deployment schedule that suits your business.
  • Learn more about markets featured in this article: Phoenix, AZ.