Skills For Superintendent Success

 When I landed my first Superintendent role, a position I actively sought, my project manager (a former Superintendent) summed up the role in two sentences: “You control everything that happens on this job. You need to know everything that happens on this job.” You might think my PM’s use of “everything” was just a general term, however, he really meant EVERYTHING. Everything means every detail that affects the schedule, quality, cost and safety of a job-site. These are all the responsibility of the Superintendent.   

When a design professional specifies a material for use on a project, they do so on the quantitative properties of the material and how it will perform and integrate with other materials to deliver on the intent of the structure. Similarly, many projects specify the required properties needed to fill the role of Superintendent.    

For example, job requirements on a particular build might deem that the Superintendent have ten years experience in similar work, be 30-hour safety trained and be LEED certified. However, simply checking boxes that a Superintendent meets such quantitative properties doesn’t ensure their success or the success of the project. Personally, I believe there’s a greater list of actionable skills and experience that should be in the job description:

  • Hands-on knowledge of the trades to decipher truth from hearsay on the site, especially when the work may not meet specifications  
  • Ability to understand critical path scheduling and drive work accordingly

  • Intimate knowledge of the contract and scope of work to avoid going outside the scope of work without a change order

  • Project accounting skills especially for understanding indirect costs

  • Leadership skills with the ability to earn the trust and respect of those working on the project

  • Conflict diffusion & resolution skills

  • Humility and patience 

To confirm I was on the right track, I asked some well-respected friends in the business who are veteran Superintendents for their opinion on what skills a Superintendent must possess. 

My friend Anthony Johnsen, a Superintendent for Gilbane, Inc. on a massive infrastructure project in Washington DC, was the first to respond.   

JS. What skills make for a great Superintendent?

AJ. I am a firm believer that the most successful Superintendents are the best problem solvers who originated from the trades because they have physically done the work and have a better understanding of the tasks at hand. They also need skills in risk assessment to make the right decisions.

JS. Superintendents are leaders on their projects; can you teach someone to be a good a leader or does leadership come from within?

AJ. You can teach any person to be a Superintendent. You cannot teach someone to be a leader. Leadership comes from within. Leaders must gain the loyalty and commitment from the entire project [team].

JS. What are the most common mistakes Superintendents make?

AJ. The most common mistakes are not maintaining proper job site documentation and not [confirming or verifying] the words of our Project Managers. The trades say one thing about the work but you heard another [in terms of the direction the trades are to follow on the job].

JS. What is the hardest part of the job?

AJ. The hardest part of the job is dealing with multiple personalities at one time. The Superintendent must take their own feelings out of every equation regardless of outcomes.

JS.  How does (or should) a company support its Superintendents to be successful?

AJ.  A company should support its superintendents by better managing its contracts. A well written contract that clearly spells out the scope of work, is just as valuable as the drawings and specifications. The Superintendents are usually the first field interaction with subcontractors. We know the trades’ ethics and quality of work. When conducting the final review of subcontractor bids, ask your company’s Superintendents for their thoughts about which subcontractor is best for the job.  This will mitigate the risk [of delays or cost over-runs) once they’re on the project.   

So, as you can see, the Superintendent job description is more complex than what it appears in the specifications.  

Want to hear more from experienced Superintendents at the top of their field? Check back in for my next post, where I’ll feature more interviews.

Please share your ideas as well. Once we collect a library of skills and tips for Superintendent success, we will develop and post a document on the website that you and your company may reference at any time.

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.  

Superintendents – An Introduction to the Most Important Person on the Project 

In the last few posts, I talked about getting the scope of work clear upfront to ensure all parties on a project know what to expect from each other.  Knowing what to expect builds trust among the project team.  With the scope of work clear and contracts signed, you're ready to go to work.  Who do you hand the ball to?  The Superintendent.

On the ground, there is no one more important person than the Superintendent in executing a successful project.  From pre-construction planning until the final inspection and turn-over, the Superintendent is the linchpin of the project.  They see, hear, and even feel all that occurs on the job site and use this knowledge to ensure the workers and nearby public stay safe, the job is built in accordance with the drawings and specs and is built either on or faster than scheduled.  All the while, the Superintendent is all too aware that the project is supposed to earn a profit for the company.   

The Superintendent must be visionary – to see what is shown on paper and figure out how to get it built in the face of dozens of forces working against them, such as: material delays, weather problems, labor shortages, contractual disputes, environmental procedures, and budgetary limitations.  

The role of the Superintendent is not an easy one and few truly understand what it entails. Even fewer want the job when they realize the heavy responsibility Superintendents carry. If you are an aspiring foreman or tradesperson thinking about career advancement, you've watched the Superintendent walk the project with a phone stuck to their ear most of the day. At first glance it seems like an easy gig, until you realize the person on the other end of that phone isn’t happy about something and expects the Superintendent to fix it - now – which only adds to a long list of others problems that day.  You'll quickly learn that everyone on the jobsite who has a problem looks to the superintendent for a decision.

Superintendents are charged with making decisions all day, some are seemingly routine like scheduling material deliveries or work crews for their various tasks.  Some decisions aren’t so routine and require both a calm demeanor, and an ability to problems solve quickly. Every day Superintendents face seemingly impossible situations such as:

  • The last concrete truck in a 50-yard slab pour is already on the road, but is stuck in traffic.  The forecast was for clouds, but the sun is out.  The crew is on overtime.  The specs don’t allow the truck to discharge after ninety minutes nor having any cold joints in the slab.

  • An unmarked but potentially live gas line is discovered at the same location as the tap for a new water service.  The gas company can’t get there for an hour, traffic is building and the permitted time for the street closure is almost up.

  • When setting a new electrical transformer, a critical path activity that just had to get done today, the foreman doesn’t show up for work.

Despite the burdens, I believe serving in the role of Superintendent is an absolute must for anyone looking to advance in the industry.  I am blessed to have served in this role on many projects and still fill-in for my clients when I see the need.  It is where I truly learned job site operations and where all my skills were tested to actually build something instead of just sending emails about what will get built.      

In the next few posts, I will explore this role further including guest contributions from top-notch Superintendents who are working out there today.  Upcoming topics will include:

  • What skills do Superintendents most need

  • What are Superintendents’ most common mistakes and how to avoid them

  • How best should we support our Superintendents to enable their success  

  • Where will we find and recruit our future 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.  

Create A Clear Scope of Work to Avoid Problems Later

The Scope of Work in any contract is the foundation on which the contract is built. The Scope of Work (SOW) describes what one party is to do for another. When understood with clarity, the parties to a contract can, at least conceivably, work together to complete the project.

But too often our perceived expectations of what we are to do for another party or they will do for us go under-fulfilled or prove to be simply false. Like land surveying errors, I will call these “busts” in expectations. Here are a few examples from my recent projects where two or more parties are at odds over busts and subsequently, who is responsible to resolve (and pay for) the solution:

  1. On a design/build project, the Limit of Disturbance for a site was drawn based on a site-walk with the end-user/tenant, contractor and design engineer but the owner believed the limit included the entire site and wants the contractor to work the enlarged area at no additional cost.

  2. A line striping subcontractor parked its truck in the general contractor’s yard and let the water storage tank drain overnight on to the ground (clean, potable water). The property owner’s environmental inspector cited the general contractor for violation of the discharge permit for dumping chlorinated water.

  3. A water tank contractor excludes all piping from its contract and specifies that other trades are not permitted to fasten anything to the tank for fear of causing a leak. The mechanical contractor needs pipe brackets attached to the tank to hang pipe. The general contractor doesn’t know who is responsible for labor, materials and risk of a leak.

  4. The property owner directed the general contractor to have workers park their personal vehicles on an unpaved lot next to the site. When it rains, the vehicle traffic from the lot tracks mud on to the paved roads. The owner expects the general contractor to pay for street sweeping services.

It’s easy to point the finger and say busts in the SOW are created by either poor contract administration, poor site management or failure to enforce standard contract terms. However, when I encountered each example, I checked back and read thru the contract to determine who might be responsible. In each case, I couldn’t find clear direction in the text. The disputes started with busts in the SOW, not the performance of those running the project.  

How do we flush out these busts and establish a very clear SOW before the work starts? The formal answer is we “de-scope” each other. What this means in practice is we literally question everything possibly related to the work and document the answers in terms of inclusions (what we will do) and exclusions (what we won’t do) for the other parties in the contract. For example, let’s say you’re an excavation contractor working for a GC on a tight access, city building project. Here are SOW questions the parties should be asking to seek out the busts:

  1. Is the excavation measurable from the drawings and how will it be measured to verify complete? Same question for fill imported to the site.

  2. Who will verify if soils, destined to be fill elsewhere, are unsuitable during the excavation and again at the bottom / foundation elevation?

  3. If soils are unsuitable and over-excavation is required, how will it be measured and paid (unit price, T&M, lump sum)? Who will measure and verify quantities?

  4. Who will perform material testing and what are the required tests?

  5. Who is responsible if ground water is encountered? Who will install the pumps?  Who will maintain the pumps?  Where will the water be discharged?  

  6. What about environmental issues such as polluted soil or ground water? Who is responsible to identify, test and resolve?

  7. What if rock is encountered? What is rock – solid bedrock or over-size boulders?

  8. What are the site working hours? Are there noise or light restrictions?

  9. Where will workers park their vehicles?

  10. Who is responsible to clean the streets from truck traffic, whether this contractor’s traffic or others’?

  11. Is there site-specific safety training or security checks that workers must complete?

  12. Who will maintain site access roads and to what frequency and specifications?

  13. Who will provide flagging service for traffic in/out of the site?

questions

As you can imagine, there are dozens more questions to be answered. Feel free to reply with your ideas and I’ll post the lists as templates for others to use. If it isn’t already, seeking out the busts and noting them as inclusions or exclusions ought to be a best practice before any of us sign a contract.

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.  

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.