While our Project Managers (PMs) spend countless hours handling contract documents, pay applications, and reviewing cost reports, none of this time matters unless the project is successful on the ground. Contractors don’t get hired to manage projects, they get hired to build projects.
As discussed in previous blog posts, the most important player on the team who ensures that work on the ground is successful (done on time or early, at or less than budget and done safely) is the Superintendent. Much of the Superintendent’s success depends on his or her skills, drive, and foresight to plan and execute the project day after day on the ground – but they need support from above.
It is up to the PM to give their Superintendent all the tools they need, literally and figuratively, to do their job effectively and efficiently. However, what I’ve learned in my observation over the years is that one common thread has become apparent: Superintendents are often set-up, albeit unknowingly, to fail. Instead of the senior staff asking what the Superintendents need or how they can help the project achieve success, what Superintendents usually get asked, reactively, are numerous questions about why a project is taking longer or costing more than estimated. The answer isn’t because the Superintendent isn’t putting forth their best effort.
Superintendents tell me that when their projects fall behind on schedule or go over budget, it’s because of common conditions that are beyond their control and often set in motion without their awareness. For example:
The scope of work wasn’t clear and agreed to in advance by the Contractor and Customer.
Sub-contractors hired for the project weren’t qualified to perform the work.
Schedule commitments to the Customer were unattainable.
Equipment provided to the job was based on cost and not necessarily what is best for the task.
Material submittals weren’t done and approved in time to place orders in advance of lead times.
Materials were ordered and delivered long before they are needed which creates storage and security problems on the site.
The Superintendent was asked to cover multiple projects when one project needed their full-time attention.
Superintendents have ever-increasing mandatory inspections and reporting responsibilities (safety, E&S, QC, equipment) but don’t have any assistance in the field.
What’s the solution to avoid these conditions on the next project? I think there are several approaches Project Managers can take to ensure their Superintendents are successful:
Be aware: Building the project is the only reason contractors get hired and the Superintendent is the “tip of the spear” to get it built. Everything else a contractor does is secondary and in support of building. Be aware of getting trapped in the silo of administrative work that may be required, but not necessarily to get the project built.
Prioritize: Is your list of tasks prioritized to support construction of the project or is it purely administrative? Has the Superintendent asked for help or raised red flags for upcoming work? Unless a task is forwarding construction of the project, maybe that task isn’t important right now.
Ask and Collaborate: Before taking action about a key element of the project, such as the ordering materials, contracting with subs and submitting schedules to the customer, ask the Superintendent for their perspective. Few decisions are black and white. Collaborate among the project team members, starting with the Superintendent, to affirm the right path. How will the outcome of this activity impact building of the project? It may be easier and faster to take unilateral action upfront, but if there is a better way forward that is only discovered thru collaboration, isn’t it better to find out now?
Continuously Assess and Learn: Ask the Superintendent how did the work go today–as planned, better or worse? What could the PM have done to better assist the Superintendent in executing the work? Don’t wait till the next schedule update or run of the cost report as by then it’s too late to change course.
What does your company do, or could do better, to support your Superintendents?
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.