“Half the battle is just showing up.” -Stephen Hawking
If half the battle is just showing up, then what is the other half?
I was recently asked to assist a contractor who was behind schedule on a large project. They couldn’t seem to get production “flowing.” Although they were expending much effort, the delays were mounting to the point where the owner considered terminating the contract. Before taking on the project, I made a site visit to see for myself. During my visit, I was surprised to see the contractor was behind schedule because it seemed to be a great job that most contractors and crews would envy:
The physical work is straightforward and repetitive but still challenging enough to spark creativity.
The job site is quiet with open space (ie. not in traffic, not a downtown high-rise).
The owner is forgiving and wants to help the contractor succeed.
The contractor’s supervision team was engaged and wanting to deliver a good project.
So, what’s holding this project back? Digging into the technical details, I did find room for improvement:
Errors in following the layout measurements in the early phases were creating time-consuming rework in the latter phases.
Members of the crew were assigned to fairly technical tasks where they had no prior training.
There were few “tricks of the trade” being utilized to speed up the work.
The foremen were overwhelmed chasing re-work and had little time to plan for upcoming work.
The crew seemed to run into problems head-on instead of planning to avoid problems.
While challenging, these issues were not insurmountable. Surely, I could be a fresh set of eyes and help clear the path and get this job moving. I got hired to help.
My initial approach was to be respectful of the foremen, let them run the job but get out in front of them, clear hurdles, avoid errors, and help them plan. After a few weeks on the job, things were better, but the project still needed to make-up for lost days. My approach was helping but it wasn’t enough.
It finally occurred to me that my early assessment of the project missed one critical issue: The crew just wasn’t coming to work. Sometimes, literally not showing up, other times showing up but barely paying attention. Each day, the foremen told me “We’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got.” Each day’s production was almost unpredictable and mostly dependent on how many people came to work that day and what particular skills they brought with them. Call-outs will occur, but this was ridiculous. No matter what I said or did to help move production along, it didn’t matter if no one was there to listen.
My quick reaction, mostly out of frustration, was simply to fire everyone and hire a new crew. But who are we going to hire? Qualified, motivated employees aren’t waiting around for us to call with a job offer. I needed to change my tactics, dig deeper and figure out how to get the crew to want to show up. Based on the number of un-paid call-out days the crew had accumulated, earning a day’s pay wasn’t enough incentive.
I turned to a good friend, Shawn Hawkins, who was an officer in the Army for over 20 years, leading soldiers in their work and who now runs his own trucking and construction business, Hamma Down Enterprises. His advice was to give the crew more responsibility. Huh? How could I give people who didn’t seem interested in the work, let alone show up for work at times, more responsibility? My friend went on to explain that a few key people need to be designated as squad leaders (borrowed from the Army’s methodology). Those leaders need a small group of personnel around them around who can learn the specialized skills of that squad, be directed in the work, and who feel accountable to their leader to perform it. More broadly, everyone needs a purpose, to know their place on the job and know that their work matters.
I assured my friend that I would give this approach a try. When I hung up the phone I was kicking myself for not seeing this opportunity sooner. I guess I figured knowing what is expected of you should be obvious after a day or two on the job. After all, I know my plan, my reason for being there each day, but why did I assume everyone else has this same confidence? A deeper question I need to ask myself, and one that I should consider each day, is am I leading the work and the people who perform it? What my friend was challenging me to do and in-turn challenge others to do was lead, not just manage and certainly not just show up. By leading, I would teach others to lead. After you show up, the other half of the battle, especially for those of us trusted to be in charge, is to lead.
In my next blog post, I’ll share how we are doing.
Mission Critical Operations (MC-Ops) is a team of veteran construction managers who help small contractors stop losing money on their projects. Our customers do great work but they need help running their projects. We assist with field operations and help prepare, organize and disperse critical project documentation. Our work enables our contractors to build the job right the first time and get paid for both contract work as well as changes, delays and unforeseen conditions that are forced upon them by the owner or other contractors.
MC-Ops is often retained when their customers are short staffed in headcount and/or skill sets and when their projects are falling behind in schedule, quality and cost performance. MC-Ops provides its customers full-time support at the cost of a part-time employee.