Growing Beyond the Start-Up Stage
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Most solar integrators start their business with a lot of idealism and only one installation crew. In many companies, this same crew divides up the duties of sales, operations and finance. The first step to grow the company is to separate the crew from the office personnel—in other words, have a crew that focuses only on installations. But even when the company has one crew exclusively in the field, the office staff still has to wear multiple hats. There might be only one or two people selling, and one of those probably also does marketing. Likely one person comprises the entire operations department. This person prepares permits, visits building departments, schedules customers, orders parts, directs the crew and performs inspections. Either the sales or operations person handles the financial tasks, such as claiming incentives and invoicing customers. This business structure is not sustainable for growing PV integrators.
ADDING A SECOND CREW AND TRUCK
When the backlog of installations is more than 2 months worth of work, it is time to add another truck and crew. The type, size and layout of the second truck should be identical to the first so that any installer or warehouse stocker moving between trucks can easily find or replenish parts. This increases efficiency and lowers costs since no one wastes time looking for items. Ideally, the second most experienced person from the first crew becomes the crew lead for the new truck. This helps to carry company processes and acceptable safety practices to the new crew and to ensure that quality standards are maintained.
It is best to work the same crewmembers together on the same truck as much as possible. They get to know their colleagues and each other’s knowledge level, so they work together more efficiently. It is even more important to have regular crew meetings once you add more crews. It is very easy for company standards to slip once there are two or more installation teams. Before you know it, one crew does a particular task one way, and the other does it differently. This is very confusing for less experienced crewmembers. More importantly, jobs may not get done to the required company standards.
Figure 1 is a good representation for the operations function within an integrator company. As the business grows, the personnel wearing numerous hats begin assuming discrete job functions. (Refer to “Operations Management for Solar Integrators,” Oct/Nov, 2010, SolarPro magazine.)
The first step needs to be a separation between predominantly in-house functions, such as customer scheduling, and in-field functions, such as visiting permit offices and meeting the AHJ for inspections. Customers who call the office should not get an answering machine—they should reach a live person. At this stage of growth, the customer care specialist could also act as the operations manager and direct the permit design specialist, the crews and other operations personnel.
To keep a quality control specialist busy full time generally requires two inspections or commissionings per day. This likely will not happen until a minimum of three crew trucks is operating full time. One possibility until then would be to have the quality control specialist perform an inspection each afternoon and stock trucks and inventory the warehouse in the evenings. The quality control specialist should also look for inconsistencies among crew leaders and provide training.
Having documented standard operating procedures becomes even more important as the company grows. These should be located on each crew truck. The operations managers need to be responsible for training at their locations, and the quality control specialist can ensure that quality in the field is maintained.
By the time a company has three fully deployed crews and is large enough to have filled the positions of customer care specialist, permit design specialist, quality control specialist and full time warehouse personnel, it is big enough to justify a separate operations manager. At this stage, the sales department will likely have grown to several salespeople, and the company will have someone acting as a CEO (and not wearing too many other hats).
The operations manager would report to the CEO. An integrator company probably does not need a COO or VP of operations until there are multiple locations supporting multiple operations managers who need higher-level management. The COO’s or VP’s primary responsibility is to give high-level direction to the operations managers while standardizing processes that drive efficiency, cost reduction, quality and customer satisfaction. This person also works with the CEO to drive the direction of the company.