Maverick Award Winner Q&A: Suffolk’s Jit Kee Chin, talks data and the jobsite

Maverick 2019_ Jit Kee Chin

We sat down with Jit Kee Chin, Suffolk's new Executive Vice President and Chief Data Officer, a new role we're seeing cropping up in the industry. One of our Maverick Award winner, Chin is doing a lot of exciting things to leverage data on the jobsite. BuiltWorlds's News Analyst, Jim Lichtenwalter, sat down with her to talk about data and Suffolk's commitment to diversity.

What is your name and your current title?

I am Jit Kee Chin and I'm an Executive Vice President and Chief Data Officer for Suffolk.

Can you give me your elevator pitch for Suffolk? What do you all do each day?

Suffolk is a building construction management firm, but our vision is to not just build buildings but to “transform the construction experience by building smart.” We don't consider ourselves just another building contractor. We're an innovation company that is always challenging the status quo and pushing the boundaries of what is possible in our industry.

At Suffolk, we leverage sophisticated technologies and processes, like virtual design construction, Virtual Reality techniques, Artificial Intelligence tools, and lean construction principles, to deliver more predictable projects on budget and on schedule. We constantly measure our progress on projects by continuously mining for data and leveraging that data using complex algorithms we have developed in house so we can continuously improve our approach and processes. We believe our unique approach to data gives us a huge competitive advantage in our industry. We believe our entire approach to planning and constructing buildings is redefining what it means to be a builder.

How long have you been with Suffolk?

About a year and a half. I joined Suffolk in June 2017.

Can you talk a little bit about what your current role entails?

Often in offices, you can't manage what you can't measure. So, that's my job (laughs). To put it differently, I came in with the mandate to leverage the power of data analytics to help us build better and continuously drive improvement. And this spans the spectrum of data analytics, including simple data and simple analytics through to big data and advanced analytics. It was a new role, not just for Suffolk but, but more broadly in the industry. Setting the vision and the strategy was really important. I'm also responsible for the implementation. And when you get into implementation, it's very much about experimentation, seeing what works and then scaling what works. I measure impact and results off the backend of that. So, it is an end-to-end CDO role all the way from vision and strategy, through to implementation and getting results.

Data at large is a real hot topic right now, and not only the construction industry. Recently, we’ve seen news stories on Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, and then Vizio selling people's data out the back door without telling them. I'm just interested personally in data in general and how it's leveraged across a lot of different industries. With that in mind, how is Suffolk effectively leveraging and managing data information that you all collect on your job sites?

I think there's a certain perception about whether data and Artificial Intelligence, is used for good or bad. There's a lot of debate around the ethics and the regulation.

The construction industry is coming a bit later to the data game. It's not yet fundamentally a digital business. Many of these cutting-edge concerns around cybersecurity, ethics, and regulation are hitting digital natives first. As construction is earlier in the data maturity curve, there's a lot of potential for data to drive positive impact in the industry.

When it comes to how Suffolk is managing leveraging data and information on our job sites, there are a couple of principles I have set out.

First, we need real-time data transparency via dashboards. Historically, reports were slow (typically monthly) and backward-looking. And information is out of date by the time it is reported. Real-time transparency is one of the things that we have put in place.

You often hear about data integration and interoperability. Integrating the information across diverse systems, not just your document management system, but your scheduling system, your safety system, your estimating system etc., is difficult. But when you get it, then you really have a holistic view across the whole project. We can figure out the correlations and the insights that spans different systems. In addition, everybody working on the same set of facts actually helps the collaboration aspect, which is very important in construction.

Finally, we want to be forward-looking instead of backward-looking, so we are driving to forward-looking analytics wherever possible so we can better manage risk.

We are also pushing the boundary--where it makes sense--of advanced analytics. For example, we did an R&D project on predictive safety about half a year ago. And that's about how can we bring image recognition techniques and predictive analytics techniques to the construction world.

I would end by saying data needs to be embedded in a workflow and management system, which together with really good change management, is essential to push things out because otherwise, data for the sake of data doesn't drive improvement.

Expanding the lens just beyond Suffolk. What trends are you seeing in the industry when it comes to leveraging data?

I think the industry as a whole started with what I call the digitization wave. This is taking paper out of the process and allowing people to collaborate on digital collaboration platforms. Now we are moving towards post-digitization. For example, AI generally is emerging. We talked previously about predictive analytics, image recognition and computer vision – this is reflective of a broader trend. Part of this is because the project site is so complex. If you can actually supplement human monitoring and observation with image recognition and computer vision, be that for quality purposes, safety purposes, or some other, you may be able to take better decisions. Other types of AI are also starting to feed off new information streams like sensor information and whatnot.

Another trend is to move towards a common data environment and data interoperability. There is a recognition now that we need to move beyond point solutions towards more of an ecosystem where applications can “talk” to each other because no one thing can solve all the problems. Whether it's Autodesk Forge environment or Procore's construction OS, there’s a lot of focus right now on this idea of how we exchange data across systems and across companies.

Then there's obviously continued evolution of BIM and VDC. We've moved on from just "let's model it digitally" to “how do we use it throughout the life cycle to capture more information early in the design process.” Put standard coding in and have a library of parts there so that you don't have to redraw every time. And how do you hang things like schedule cost estimates off of it? Perhaps even tying it across the construction value chain to asset management. I know BIM/VDC evolution has been going on for a long time, but I believe there’s an acceleration.

Finally, the digitization wave is not over. Procore, Rhumbix, and many other companies are still working with GCs to streamline processes and increase efficiencies.

The digitization wave is not over. Procore, Rhumbix, and many other companies are still working with GCs to streamline processes and increase efficiencies.

What strides has Suffolk made using data? How do projects from five or six years ago compare to those completed today?

This is an interesting question because I wasn't here five years ago, but I can talk about some of the exciting initiatives we’ve launched since I started. I'll preface that by saying that penetrating the site remains one of the toughest challenges for any construction company. You set the budget up at the beginning, projects go for two, three years (at the scale we're building now) and there is a flow to a project. I think the pace of projects doesn't match the pace of technology development right now because technology is changing at a month-by-month rate. Whereas the project takes two or three years. Having said that, I think we've made significant strides.

First is our Smart Labs, which we just finished a building out across all our regional offices. They embody this concept of “building smart” and really using data to drive operational excellence. Each Smart Lab has a data wall where all the dashboards that underpin our project management system present are presented on it. It is basically our central "nerve center." From a management perspective, you can see, touch, and feel what that job looks like - how well it's going, or how not well it's going. We rolled that out over last year and are now building on the it by increasing the amount of information presented As the sites themselves get increasingly penetrated by new kinds of technology which spits out data, this can also be monitored from the Smart Labs. Where we can, we then compare this against historical information and other information types to drive insight and action.

Secondly, mobile has really penetrated the jobsites. For example, we developed our own custom mobile safety application – RiskX- that's cloud-based, real-time, and accommodates different data types – both human input (text, images), as well as metadata, e.g., GPS tags. Safety observations are created and the application creates a risk rating. Over time, we begin to know under which conditions safety incidents are more likely to happen. That's one example.

Real-time dashboards on the site is also an advancement - either on someone's computer or visibly on a leadership board. The concept of a leadership board is interesting – it gamifies performance. measuring how well you did, how well you could do, and how others are doing. That's something we're in the process of rolling out right now.

And finally, the penetration of innovative technology pilots more generally. We had drones on some of our sites capturing image data. We have different sensors on our sites, e.g., concrete sensors.

Not a visible, but one of the most important change is that we have become more rigorous about measuring the impact of this innovation and technology. That’s data too, because where we want to move to is that we want to know what the end result is after a period of experimentation. Here is how much better, faster, and cheaper you can build.

The AEC industry is, historically, a male-dominated environment. It's something a lot of people have been noticing for the past few years. With that in mind, I'd love to hear about your experience working in the built world.

Working in male-dominated environments is always challenging as a woman. It isn't a new experience for me personally - previously I was a physicist, and the ratio is 10 to one in some teams.

Working in male-dominated environments is always challenging as a woman. It isn't a new experience for me personally - previously I was a physicist, and the ratio is 10 to one in some teams.

As you rise up the ranks, like in many other industries, the gender ratio also worsens. What I’ve found, is that in general, if I demonstrate value, I gain acceptance. In my current role, I’ve found that people in the built world are quite receptive to data because there’s an intrinsic engineering and value-focused mindset in the industry. If you are able to show them facts and show them how this actually drives value, the response tends to be good. The bigger challenge I've met is countering the "every project is different therefore how can I learn something from another project" mentality.

In general, I found that it actually hasn't been that noticeable in my role at Suffolk. The company is very committed to diversity and inclusion. That makes a difference. We hire people based on abilities, talents, experiences, not gender, race. The fact that they hired me speaks to that. I look and feel quite different. I also think there are many forms of diversity. When we recently did a diversity exercise during a recent management meeting I was actually quite surprised to learn how diverse the organization already was, whether that's someone who came from a very impoverished background and overcame the odds to rise to a management position or someone with a nonvisible health challenge that also has made it difficult.

A final point on diversity: Suffolk’s also committed diversity because it's actually quite important for innovation. If you don't have different points of view, you really can't innovate. And that actually wraps up into our overall “build smart” mentality.

One thing the industry at large is facing is a labor shortage. We talk about this in our Future Workforce Conference. People in the industry are trying to do is to encourage more women to join the industry. What do you think the future looks like in terms of encouraging more women to work in the built industry?

I’m not an expert, but I do think that we can learn from other industries that have developed proven strategies to address this issue. Real support for maternity and childcare tends to move the dial. Another is encouraging work/life balance, particularly in phases of life where the demands from home are higher. End to end performance management a third - making sure you really unbiased that. How is advancement awarded? How are you doing performance evaluations? Are they based on facts and real performance or are they based on relationships? Finally – encouraging senior sponsorship of female talent This is distinct from mentorship, as sponsorship is all about creating career advancement opportunities. All of these are proven strategies that the industry can consider adopting.

Other than concrete initiatives, there's a big culture change component. You need great visible leadership, giving people different types of female role models, not just one or two, but many to compare themselves against, and actually start building towards. Finally, we shouldn’t neglect capability building. I think the most effective companies that I've seen recognize there are certain skill sets that may be underdeveloped, and then give that kind of support so that people are able to help themselves.

In short, a holistic approach is needed. In construction, one of the biggest issues tends to be work/life balance. Can you really put in 12 to 14 hours out in the field during a time that you're building a family? Perhaps technology could help because some of them allow you to not be on the site quite as frequently and helps you get the job done in fewer hours. That, I think, could be exciting, but I welcome thoughts from experienced female operations leaders on this topic.

Moving to some more personal questions focusing on you, what is your favorite moment from your career?

I've had many seminal moments in my career. Over the last year and a half after entering the built world, one of my favorite moments was being featured in MIT's Tech Review for the predictive safety R&D work that we did. That came out last summer. I graduated from MIT, so it was an affirmation that we are on the right track, from a true tech perspective.

And you said you graduated from MIT?


Well, it's good when the alma mater to throws you a bone. That means you're really on the right track.

Yes! (Laughs) I really liked that.

What leader do you most aspire to emulate?

Different leaders have inspired me at different points in my career. Right now, understandably, I'm very curious about innovators. At Suffolk we name our conference rooms after innovators and disruptors, like Steve Jobs Rosa Parks, Henry Ford, Picasso, etc. The interesting thing about them is that they changed the world by asking questions, challenging the status quo, and always finding a better way. What does that take? How do you overcome organizational or popular opinion to be that unpopular person saying, "No, there is a different way; you should do it this way." How does that journey work? I'm very curious about that. And those are the types of leaders I'm inspired by now.

In today's volatile climate, this question might be a little loaded, but I'm curious as to what is your biggest source of news and information?

Am afraid my answer is very generic. For news, I follow the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and Boston Globe. For monthly reading, I find the Economist quite thoughtful and balanced in today's highly polarized world, which is refreshing. Technology-wise, it’s the MIT Tech Review and Wired. Finally, there's no end of online media that I follow.

I got my master's degree at the University of Georgia and one of the perks of being a student was that I had access to Wired and the Economist. I was just spoiled for two years because I read those every month. And then I graduated and moved to Chicago and I looked at my finances. I'm like, I have to choose one. And I ended up going with Wired, just because I love their articles, but I've found I've sorely missed the Economist in my life over the last few months. Moving onto your phone, what app do you use most on your phone? With the caveat of everyone uses email the most. What app besides email do you use most on your phone?

Facetime and Whatsapp - mainly because I've lived in many places and they allow me to just stay connected with friends and family.

What book are you currently reading?

Million Dollar Whale by Bradley Hope and Tom White. It's a story of the 1MDB scandal the Malaysian a sovereign wealth fund. I was born in Malaysia, so it’s important for me to understand how this came to be, and how its impacts are still felt today. What’s interesting about it is that it focuses on the behind the scenes individuals who masterminded that whole fraud.

Jit Kee, thank you so much for sitting down with me. This has been incredibly insightful. And congratulations on being named a BuiltWorlds Maverick!

Thank you!