The Answer to Why We Fight - Understanding Trust and Expectations on the Jobsite

In my last post, I questioned why construction projects cause so much fighting and suggested that to ease the fighting, we (the project team) must first learn to trust each other.  My idea was that if we could build more trust among the team members, projects might get done a little faster, become more profitable and hopefully less stressful. What does it take for team members to trust each other? Several factors come into play. Team members should at least get along amicably, enjoy (ok, tolerate) each other’s company and feel assured others aren’t purposefully trying to undermine our success.   

I get along with most of my project teams (and I assume here most others would say the same) and by my definition, can therefore trust them.  If this is true, then why is there still so much fighting? Thinking deeper about some of my recent projects, the root cause of the fighting wasn’t that our teams didn’t trust each other and couldn’t get along – in hindsight, these were only outcomes of a greater problem.  

The greater problem was that we routinely created false expectations in our minds of what the other parties were going to do for us on a project. Those expectations are derived in our minds from what seemed to be a very clear Scope of Work on paper. I suggest today that most of us don’t fully vet the scopes of work (SOW) that exist between us and we don’t ensure that each party understands what they should and (almost more importantly) should not expect from another party.

Of all pages in a package of contract documents, the SOW is likely the most important. However, the SOW can’t simply be defined by just what’s shown in the drawings, specifications and boiler plate contract. Yes, we are responsible for our own means and methods, but the SOW needs to spell out what the parties expect from one another to achieve the product depicted in those drawings and specifications.      

How do you state what is included and excluded from your SOW without writing 50 pages of details that ought to be obvious while also clarifying the not so obvious? For example, if you’re an excavation contractor, you obviously don’t have drywall in your SOW, but you might have the responsibility to maintain the access road so drywall deliveries can get to the building.

To get us thinking about learning to write a better SOW, let’s consider a simple example that’s literally close to home:

It’s the first week of spring and you, a homeowner with a busy family, want to hire a company to cut your grass.  You call a small landscaper (Company X) who was referred to you by a trusted coworker who says “Company X is great, they’ll handle everything!”

The Company X Rep meets you at your house, looks at the yard from the driveway, asks how much land you have and how often you want the grass cut. The Rep sends you a proposal with a signature line at the bottom for your approval:                                                                          Cut grass once per week, 0.5 acre, $40 per cut

You hire Company X and schedule the first cut.  Here’s what each party EXPECTS from this transaction:

  1. The Homeowner: The crew won’t show up until after the adults leave for work and kids go to school, the grass will be cut in neat patterns (for that golf course look), all the flowerbed edges will be trimmed clean, old sticks will be picked up and hauled away, the patio will be swept, and the doors and windows can be left open for fresh air after a long winter.

  2. The Company X Foreman: Able to park the truck and trailer in driveway or in the street in front of house, no noise restrictions, no obstructions or debris in the yard, all edges intersect at 90 deg angles to make it easy for mowers to follow their pattern, the crew can finish in 30 minutes or less as prescribed by the boss.

  3. The Company X Owner (the boss): The crew will cut the grass without delay, do a quick clean up because neatness counts and leave on time for the next property. There was no edging included in the price so 30 minutes should be enough time. Full payment will arrive on time.

Here’s what actually HAPPENED:

The Foreman arrives to find cars in the driveway because everyone is still home, there’s not enough space on the street for the truck and trailer, fallen sticks are everywhere leftover from winter, there is a maze of flowerbeds with twists and turns in the back yard and the garden hose is strung out across the front yard. The crew parks the truck and trailer two houses down the street and drives their mowers to the customer’s house.

Despite the company rule stating not to touch customers’ personal property for fear of liabilities, the Foreman drags the hose on to the front porch in a tangled pile and in the process, the hose scalps the newly sprouted spring flowers in the adjacent beds.  

The mower operators start their work and while cutting the grass, chop up all the sticks. Because the grass is still wet from morning dew, the operators drive the mowers repeatedly over the same areas to grind up wet clumps of grass so none are visible. This process creates erratic patterns of ruts in the soft soil.

The homeowner, hearing the noise, comes outside to complain that the youngest children are still sleeping, tells the Foreman to turn off the mowers and wait about fifteen minutes before re-starting.

Once re-started, the operators can’t fit their large deck mowers among all the twists and turns of the flowerbeds so they take some wide turns, missing sections of grass and then must back into the flowerbeds to get the deck over the missed sections. Using large leaf blowers that spew exhaust, the crew cleans the grass clippings off the patio not realizing that although the screen door is shut, the interior glass door is open. The job sheet says nothing about trimming so the crew loads up and departs for the next property, about fifteen minutes late.

After dropping the kids off at the school bus stop, you return home to find the crew gone and your neighbor in the driveway demanding that your contractors “respect the designated quiet times and not park their big trucks in front of my house!” On the way to the front door, you barely avoid tripping over the hose, observe thousands of little sticks laying in ruts in the yard and your new spring flowers are bent over and missing their blooms. You head inside and notice a haze of dust on the furniture and the room smells like gasoline for some reason. Looking out the back window, you notice the flower beds have big tire tracks along the edges and the edges weren’t trimmed. You’ve just decided you’ll be looking for a new landscaper and won’t be paying for this lousy job.

Has this scenario ever played out on your projects? My guess is it has and the stakes were much higher than a $40 cut and a cranky neighbor. On the next post, I’ll discuss how to be more clear about our scopes of work and avoid what is likely the greatest cause of our fighting.

Mission Critical Operations (MC Ops) is a construction management & advisory consultancy focused on improving quality, schedule and financial performance on high-profile and potentially contentious projects throughout the nation.