Through 30 years of consulting, I have witnessed many changes, but the basic premises of running a successful contracting business remain the same. One of those foundations is maintaining effective office-field communications. No matter how sophisticated computer systems and office practices become, the bottom line is contractors make money by building and servicing things. Field work is the product contractors sell and it is where profit battles are won and lost. The bigger your company becomes, the harder it is to avoid office-field communication gaps. A famous management consultant once said that the perfect organization was an employee of one - yourself - and when you move beyond that, things happen. I couldn’t agree more. Hopefully, this article outlines methods and systems that will help you improve your office-field communication issues.
Our thoughts, ideas, notions and concepts are developed through our daily work and life experiences. Owners must remember that employees do not think or act like owners. If they did, they would be called competitors, not employees. As owners and managers, we complain that employees don’t think like us. The question is what training do you provide that will help your field employees think more like management and see the big picture? Probably very little. To make matters worse, today’s hectic schedules, technology and other practices can make our communication worse, not better. Let’s start with a basic need all contractors face: discussing field production.
Walk a Mile in Their Shoes
Start with the understanding of how employees and foremen think and then convert your job needs to that format. You might bid jobs so much per square or linear foot, but most employees are paid by the hour and day. For commercial contracts, this is an even greater challenge as computers perform takeoffs with unit prices but, again, jobs are performed in hours, days and weeks. Failure to convert jobs to some type of production schedule with milestones can ensure disappointment. Workers cannot be behind schedule or fail to perform unless they know the standard for what a winning performance looks like. I cannot be late unless I know what on time is. I can’t be slow unless I know what fast is. I know what you are thinking - “This is all silly and people know what a good job is.” Really? I bet your 14-year-old son’s definition of doing a good job of cleaning up his room is quite a bit different than yours.
Use pre-job meetings as a way to institute expectations and train. Establish a plan with production milestones and monitor your progress. Pre-job meetings are an opportunity to see how an employee or foreman thinks prior to starting work. Since the job has not started, input cannot be construed as criticism. Too many construction managers act more like seagulls than leaders. Don’t show up on the job, dump on people and leave. Such after-the-fact behavior hurts office-field communication. Instead, take a few moments to discuss where the job is going, not where it has been. Remember, if you want to have employees think like you, you have to coach and develop that skill.
Explain company procedures, paperwork and other operational systems. Have an orientation program that shows foremen how paper flows in your organization and why it is important for them to cooperate. Few foremen understand that failure to accurately document a $1,000 change order may hold up a $100,000 payment. Many fail to understand how workers’ compensation insurance is calculated and mistakenly believe it is some type of government health insurance they are entitled to. Show them how an Experience Modifier Rate works but convert it to an hourly format. Explain that if your workers’ comp is $1 an hour and your EMR goes to 150 percent, it now costs the company an additional 50 cents per hour.
If some of your employees have poor language and English skills, most are not readers. Consider taking digital pictures and making notes on them. Rarely will writing 30-page employee training manuals translate into good communication or behavior changes. Most employees rarely read the manual and certainly won’t study it. The primary purpose of such booklets is to establish policy and meet legal requirements. Employees learn by watching, doing and coaching.
Quarterly foreman training meetings can also help. Such meetings need not be long or elaborate. The purpose is to make the field feel part of the management process. What you teach may not be as important as the spirit of the function. Consider having a customer speak about what they are looking for from a contactor or having an industry professional offer some words of wisdom. Take a job you have already bid and completed and have the foremen calculate production rates. You might be surprised at their lack of understanding of how the process works. Unless you show the employees in the field what happens in the office and why it is important, why wouldn’t they think that everyone in the office merely eats donuts and talks on the phone? Rarely do we understand each other’s perspective unless we have a chance to review and hear it.
Fifteen years of good times have created sloppy organizational practices. Estimators were busy getting the next job and field people were busy producing it. Prices and demand were good, but the rules are changing. High volume can hide problems and make mistakes less fatal. Less margin mean less room for error. Increasing field productivity requires more than the owner showing up in his or her Mercedes complaining about how tough things are. If you take jobs for less money, you have to put them in for less money, and this requires improved communication.