Anyone who has watched live TV news reporting of a remote event has experienced latency. The news anchor sets the context, then “tosses” the broadcast to an on-the-scene reporter who looks blankly at the camera for a few seconds, then suddenly starts speaking. That delay between the toss and the catch? That’s latency.
Distance is one cause of latency, and its effects are obvious when looking, say, at the effort to explore Mars. Even when Earth and Mars are at their closest, it takes about 3 minutes for a radio signal to travel one way; when the planets are farthest apart, travel time is about 22 minutes. That means the roundtrip toss-catch latency is an impractical 6 to 44 minutes.
This type of latency can be further compounded by network latency—the delay caused by the number and capacity of intermediate components involved in transferring the signal. If you’ve ever used wireless headphones or had a bad cell phone connection, then you’ve experienced network latency firsthand.
Network latency is also a continuing challenge for virtual reality developers, as anyone who has been betrayed by a sluggish Xbox or PlayStation controller at a crucial moment in a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game can tell you. But VR technology is not just for games—it’s a critical feature in the future of space exploration, disaster response, and, yes, construction, all of which are experimenting with using human operators to control robots at distance over a network.
The Team Is the Network
But you don’t need Asimo on your jobsites to experience latency. The delay in information flow is a long-standing problem for remodelers of all sizes. It’s an affliction that is particularly challenging for growing companies, one that has less to do with electronic tools and digital networks than with the increasing distance and complexity that separates company owners and managers from the information they need to make sound business decisions.
In a remodeling company, the team is the network. Early on it’s a very simple network, typically a company owner who is hands-on with both sales and production, and who works alongside one or two employees. Information flow is effectively instantaneous—client to remodeler, office to field, project manager to sub—and latency is small.
But it still exists. Timesheets are a simple example. Instead of collecting them daily, when memories of the day’s work are fresh, most companies collect them weekly or even biweekly. Besides creating outright inaccuracies, this delays the ability to evaluate what is likely the most vulnerable part of the project budget: the cost of labor. Timesheet errors may be small, but they add up. Over time, the result is often death by a thousand cuts.
Management from 10,000 Feet
As a small company’s activity grows, the owner has less time to manage it. Instead of finishing one job before starting another, there are two or three jobs running simultaneously. That requires multiple production crews and additional support from the office. And so on … we all know the drill.
This predicament, whether you call it “overwhelm” or “lack of bandwidth,” eventually prompts most business owners to delegate responsibility. It’s a good solution, but the increased bandwidth also increases latency. Instead of direct daily exposure to all elements of the business, the owner now relies on information transfer from the management team. The increased “friction” in the system causes not only delayed information throughout, but a downgrade of its quantity and quality. The owner’s window on the business changes from a clear, in-person, on-the-ground view to a less-detailed, secondhand 10,000-foot perspective.
Under these circumstances, success depends heavily on the quality of the people involved, the systems they use, and how often they use them. A job-cost report, for example, is more useful while a project is still ongoing rather than after it’s complete. And a monthly report is less useful than a weekly report, which is less useful than a daily report.
Latency makes the game of toss and catch harder than it looks. The best way to contain it is for all players to keep their eyes on the ball.