Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Empowerment and Accountability of Front Line Supervisors Improves Construction Performance

Historical Perspective

Construction projects are, by their very nature, dynamic environments, full of many variables. One day it's necessary to spray water to keep down the dust; the next day it's necessary to pump water to control the mud. Determining performance amidst such constant change is challenging at best. But the situation is more tenuous because our industry doesn't measure its front-line supervisors nearly as much as it tracks schedules, costs or safety. Yet these are the very people who have direct contact with hands-on personnel. Because they can influence performance and efficiency daily, their role should be encouraged, tracked, measured and rewarded. But how? Begin by retooling attitudes of the past. Gone are the days when a project boss can run his(her) site by simply invoking "It's my way or the highway" or "We've always done it that way" or even "If it's not broke, don't fix it." Gone also are the days when the solution to improving productivity and efficiency is simply pushing people to work harder. Managers have learned that putting the muscle to individuals can cause a backlash. Rather than raising productivity, it leads to quality problems and safety issues, not to mention absenteeism and low morale.

Today, savvy upper managers build on traditional productivity measures by motivating their front line supervisors to take responsibility for project outcomes. To do so, they create an environment in which supervisors are both informed and armed with:

Written descriptions of their responsibilities

  • Access to planned-versus-actual data specific to their team's tasks
  • Clear and measurable goals for success
  • Frequent feedback on performance
  • Continued training and rewards for their efforts —and those of the team

Communication is key.

Regardless of their titles, most supervisors want to do a good job. Yet they often ask questions for which they should know the answers. During my 18-year stint as a construction project manager, I was constantly amazed at the time I spent responding to my supervisors' queries: "When is 'X' scheduled to be finished?" "What is the equipment budget for 'Y'?" But I came to realise that as managers, we were often not effective in closing the information loop. Our front line supervisors sometimes didn't know or understand what was expected of them, even though we thought we had the items covered in the weekly schedule or budget report.

We have every fiscal reason to make things clear since supervisors routinely have direct weekly responsibility over thousands of pounds in labour, equipment and project material costs. So motivating subordinates to work smarter, not just harder, can be a positive step in improving the bottom-line.

Finding the holes; targeting changes

Moving forward starts with an honest evaluation of the organisation for ways to improve it. Your corporate soul-searching will no doubt lead to changes for both upper managers and front line supervisors. But you want to begin by asking people at every managerial level some trigger questions to identify what might be missing.

  1. Do we have an effective communication tool to share information with our front line supervisors? Is that sharing done in a timely fashion?
  2. Are we getting the right information concerning cost, scheduling, materials and effort hours to supervisors to help them with day-to-day decision-making?
  3. Do we clearly define the expectations of our front line supervisors? Do they understand those expectations?
  4. Do we have a program in place to measure accountability of our front line supervisors?
  5. Do our front line supervisors understand the fundamentals of cost management?
  6. Does our organisation have an effective change management system in place? Have our front line supervisors been instructed in the "do's" and "don'ts" of that system?
  7. Do we have a process in place to identify where front line supervisors need training?
  8. Do we allow, even encourage, our front line supervisors to implement innovative ideas?
  9. Do we have a mechanism or forum in place to implement those ideas in other projects or areas? Does your organisation have a best practice data source?
  10. Do we have a program for recognising and rewarding success?

Answering "no" to any of the above questions should raise red flags since they cover the components necessary for breakthrough success.

Information Empowers

To create any win, you want to ensure that each supervisor has accurate and timely information along with clearly defined goals to effectively manage subordinates.

Every supervisor should understand his(her) specific activities and the labour and cost implications of them. As managers, we tend to keep detailed cost information close to the vest. But such data can be useful in making day-to-day work decisions, not to mention, improving efficiency and performance. The important thing is to package goals in relation to the factors most important to the organisation:

Cost , schedule, safety, quality and attitude.

For example, your schedule should spell out each task clearly so that front line supervisors know their assigned responsibilities and can't fall back on that old canard, "that's not mine to do." The budget for each task needs to include both effort-hours and labour cost, details which can be very valuable to supervisors in making daily decisions.

Once you've established each supervisor's responsibilities, the next step is to identify targets that will define this individual's success. That can be done in various ways. You may define success, for instance, as:

  • Completing an activity before the actual due date
  • Working activities in their planned sequence
  • Achieving an actual progress percentage that's greater than the plan

In looking at "budget vs. actual effort-hours and costs," you also may define success as:

  • Keeping construction equipment rental at 10 percent under budget
  • Keeping actual effort-hours at five percent below budget
  • Managing change so that cost of it is recovered with no impact to schedule.

But merely outlining budgetary and labour goals for supervisors is only part of the success equation. Every definition has to be backed-up by a management team that's both supportive and continuously involved. If we're to see positive results, we need to encourage supervisors to discuss schedules and budgets with subordinates and, as a team, look for innovative ways to save time and money.

Pearce Innovations •