The 5 Processes Your Company Needs to Manage Complex Retrofit Projects

Lynn Hawkins | Sep 18, '23

Managing Complex Retrofit Projects for Fortune 500 Companies

Multiple buildings, sprawling campuses, and square footage that goes on and on. Replacing thousands of fixtures on time, within budget, and without disrupting business operations. And … designing a lighting plan for each space managed by smart controls tied to a centralized IoT platform.

It can make you sweat, just thinking about all the elements that have to come together to make complex retrofit projects successful.

When I first wrote about this topic a few years ago, I focused on how Sustainable Turnkey Solutions (STS) manages complex energy retrofit projects with well-thought-out processes for data, tools, and people. We still count these three as must-have pillars of quality.

However, no process, no matter how well-thought-out, can anticipate the hurdles of every project. So, since that first article, I’ve added to the list:

  • Continuous process improvement helps STS benefit from valuable lessons learned and ensures we always do better the next time.
  • Better communication practices (up, down, and sideways) can head off small issues before they balloon into project-delaying problems.

Here’s how we’ve applied these management techniques to secure, and satisfy, the complex “whales” of big energy retrofit projects.

1. Data Makes the Difference

When we go into an audit, we do more than simply count lights. We ask questions: How and when do you use your lights? Do you want them brighter or dimmer? Do you need sensors?

With this kind of highly detailed data, we’re able to optimize a lighting plan that will meet our clients’ payback expectations as quickly as possible while also creating a superior experience for the people who actually use the space.

A digital audit tool like SnapCount makes it easy to collect this critical data – from fixture type and size, to lens style, to ceiling height – and sync it up in one central location.

Having the ability to log every single light, assign each one an ID number, and color-code it puts us a step ahead of our competition when it comes time to program fixture-based controls for our clients.

2. The Right Tool for the Retrofit Job

As our teams work through a client’s buildings, we’ll encounter hiccups like a locked room or lighting that’s too bright for a work area. With SnapCount on their mobile tablets, installers can just make a note and move on.

At the next weekly status update with the client, we have a punch list of notes and the attention of the client to address them on the spot. Before SnapCount, all this communication was done manually, and it was all too easy for a note in a multipage report to fall through the cracks.

SnapCount ensures that doesn’t happen. If we have a detailed audit, we can mark every room as we go along in the operations portal. Audit data slides seamlessly into project management mode so balls don’t get dropped.

3. People You Can Count On

Effective outsourcing is essential for managing large and complex retrofitting projects. You can’t do it all on your own.

Going with the cheapest source of labor can lead to delays, shoddy work, and customer frustration. You need auditors and contractors who understand your process, share your philosophy, and are as committed to your customers’ satisfaction as you are.

Over the years, we have developed a robust network of contractors at STS – to the point where we can confidently input their labor rate in terms of minutes-per-fixture into our SnapCount calculations. When we need auditors, we turn to StreamLinx for referrals to SnapCount-trained professionals.

4. The Process of Improvement

For us, improvement itself is part of the process. It's not just about one project; instead, it's about building a successful, repeatable process so that we can become a long-term partner. Continuous process improvement is a practice Fortune 500 companies live by, so they appreciate it from the companies they work with.

At STS, our processes evolved over years of trial and error. It started with documenting the standard auditing steps we were repeating on every job.

Then we expanded the scope to include the other phases of the project: engineering, operations, the rebate process, preapprovals, and so on. That mapping allowed us to create a process that covered all the bases. Every time we came across a curveball, we added or updated the steps for that situation.

Over time, the whole process becomes more and more detailed and more representative of the on-the-job experiences of installers in buildings.

Now, we’re constantly tweaking and looking for ways to do things more efficiently, more cost-effectively, smarter. We have calls with the full team where we ask for their feedback; what worked well and what didn’t, what happened that wasn’t in the plan, etc. That’s important in complex projects, because the larger the scale of a project, the bigger the impact of even small missteps. If you mess up once or twice, you can get booted and lose whatever hope you had for more business in the future, just because you didn't do a few small things on the front end.

As the story goes, Michael Jordan never stopped practicing free throws; process improvement is how we make sure we dunk every shot we take.

5. No-Static Communications

Communication has a magical ability to smooth over bumps in the road on complex projects. These days, we’ve found that the best policy is to overcommunicate.

First, before we set foot on property, we get an understanding of who does what, how to reach them, what’s the right schedule for updates, do they have an email, phone, or text preference, etc.

Then we set expectations for what we’ll communicate, how and when, and we make sure to meet those expectations right up to the last day.

It’s good to remember when you’re working with corporations that the people you are dealing with are part of a reporting structure. They may need to have information ready to pass up the chain — and not having that info can make them look bad (and not feel very good about you). You never want your client to have to reach out to ask, “What's going on with the project?” Instead, send weekly project updates detailing what happened last week and what you plan to accomplish the coming week. If something happens that’s going to impact the timeline or the budget, it’s time to get someone on the phone.

Next, understand there’s been plenty of disruption in businesses over the last few years. On the client side, companies are operating with fewer people in the office (or fewer people altogether) or with people in new roles and different responsibilities. Be very clear with the client about what you need from them to get the job done and when it’s needed.

For instance, if you’re expecting Joe to be on-site to escort the auditing team around the building and open doors, make sure you’re not arriving on a day when Joe’s working from home and no one else knows who you are or why you’re there. If you’re waiting to hear back on a decision, make sure the client knows the impact of a delay on the timeline.

On the contractor side, don’t assume everyone has the certifications and training you may have seen in the past. Some of the institutional knowledge has been lost as people have retired or left the business. Be detailed and clear with instructions to people you bring onto the job site, so they work up to the standards you have set for your company and the project. If they need training or to be paired with a more experienced installer, be sure that happens.

Reeling In Complex Energy Retrofit Projects

The big-whale energy retrofit projects are rarely straightforward. There are plenty of elements and players that can throw a wrench into even your most carefully laid plans.

What they’ll expect from you and your team is professionalism, reliability, and the promised impact on the company’s ability to maximize energy and cost savings.

The key to success is to put the right systems and processes in place that allow you to quickly adapt and keep on moving: You need to be prepared with proven processes for data, tools, people, continuous improvement, and client communication so you can see the project through to completion and ensure everything is done right, on time, and within budget.

As STS succeeded and grew, we gradually gained expertise and forged the connections to handle increasingly larger retrofit projects. Follow this roadmap, and your company can, too.

Discover the True Cost of "Free Retrofit Tools

Lynn Hawkins

Written by Lynn Hawkins

Lynn Hawkins brings to STS more than 35 years’ experience in energy management. He has led energy projects for such multi-billion-dollar organizations as AT&T, Intel and Verizon. Lynn literally started in the basement in the electrical industry cutting wire for an electrical distributor in Kansas City. This led to working in the warehouse, counter sales, inside sales, outside sales, and later national account management. He worked on some of the earliest web ordering systems in the electrical industry and helped create an internal auditing tool for SBC Communications that developed into some of the auditing software being used today. He created Sustainable Turnkey Solutions in 2015 to not just focus on lighting but every aspect of energy efficiency. Today STS provides a complete building envelope program where they can upload any facility on to a platform to provide a complete virtual audit.

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