There’s an old joke about plumbers that goes like this; all you need to know to be a plumber is that hot water is on the left, cold water is on the right, sewage flows downhill, don’t bite your fingernails, the boss is a jerk, payday is Friday at 4 o’clock, followed by beer Friday at 4:15. Managing blue collar workers has been and always will be challenging.

There are a lot of great, conservative working class folks who manage their life and money well.  However, there are also a lot of working class folks who have a lot of drama, are frequently short of money and life-plan poorly. Payday equals beer and cigarettes is a more common approach than payday and a 401k contribution. Many grew up in households where living from paycheck to paycheck was the norm. Or as comedian Jeff Foxworthy says, “You might be a redneck if you think the stock market has a fence around it.”

So why I am talking about this? Because contractors tend to take short-term thinking craftspeople who rarely plan their lives and then ask them to organize and plan jobs. The contractors then become upset when field foremen and lead people don’t do the job right. Lack of planning and organization is the number one factor that impacts productivity and job success, yet we tend to promote people who are not good with these skills. So, how do you change this?

First, understand that it’s all about perception and habit. In order for foremen to be better planners, we have to help them understand that the habits and skills they used as craftspeople are not necessarily the same habits and skills they need to succeed as a supervisor. You can yell at them and complain, but that rarely works. It takes training, discipline and a change in their self-perception.

Start with training. Most contractors fail to understand the real value of training. They tend to see training as a one day event where we teach someone a skill and then the training is over. You learned it now, we can quit. It doesn’t really work that way. The real value in training foremen is to change their perception of what a foreman’s job is and what it takes to succeed. Having personally trained over 10,000 foremen, I cannot even begin to estimate how many hundreds of times a foreman told me that the class changed his perception of his job. 

Appeal to their pride. Most foremen were good craftsmen, they took pride in what they built and experienced gratification in the process. They knew if they built something square, made neat clean cuts, left a good looking finished product, had few callbacks, etc., that they were doing a good job. Clearly identify the skills they need to work on as foremen and help them develop that same sense of pride in accomplishing these skills.

Focus on specific skills. The most important skills that impact jobsite results are planning and organization related. Good foremen need to be good communicators and teaching communication is much harder to accomplish. Communication is an unconscious skill, we don’t actively think about how we talk and listen; we just do it based on habit and personality. Retraining unconscious skills is not easy and takes time. However, with planning, it’s less of a matter of retraining than a matter of developing a new habit or skill. It’s much easier to develop a new habit than to try to break an old one.

Focus on basic planning habits that impact jobs such as:

  • Job start up at the beginning of each job
  • Daily production goals
  • Ordering material
  • Making sure the next work area is ready for you
  • Job close out

Work on one of these at a time, clearly define the skills a prideful foreman should focus on and create a discipline that forces that behavior change. Without discipline, you will fail because people’s motivation to learn a new habit fades before the new habit actually develops. Emphasize the behavior and discipline over and over. If your dog can be taught to sit or fetch a bone, you can change foremen’s behavior. The procedure is fairly similar; repeat the behavior over and over until a new habit is formed. We do this with our dogs, but with foremen we explain it intellectually because if they are aware of what’s expected, they’ll do it. Remember, craftspeople are disciplined hands-on workers, foremen should be disciplined planners. For many craftspeople, working with their hands comes naturally. For few foremen, does planning come naturally. 

For example, suppose you have a problem with foremen ordering material in a timely manner. Start a procedure where the foreman is to walk the job immediately following lunch each day and determine the next day’s material needs. Call the foremen after lunch each day and ask for the material list. If project managers emphasize this every day over and over, in a month or two, a new habit will be created. Then repeat the process, working on one skill at time.

New foremen orientation. This same list of planning skills and procedures should be part of the orientation with a new foremen. Review it at the time of promotion, then the foremen is held accountable and coached in each skill until the habits form.

How to train. Let’s be honest, foremen aren’t used to sitting in class all day, so half-day sessions tend to work better than all day. You can let them start their crews in the morning, followed by a buffet lunch in the afternoon. If you hire someone like me, the cost for a half day is the same as a full day. Most folks want the most bang for their buck, but honestly the half day works better. When training yourself, try to spread the training out over a period of time. My suggestion is to train one hour a week for six weeks, focusing on one skill a week. If need be, have the foremen come in an hour early or stay an hour later. This allows for the least impact on production during training. By spreading out the training, you’re gradually changing your company culture and keeping the foremen’s perception of their duties alive longer.

In closing, you can’t change “field mentality” quickly, but you can have an immediate impact by working on planning and organizational training.