Unfortunately construction is one of the more imprecise and changing occupations. We always seem to be depending on the weather, working in different locations, doing projects which are different to others, invariably working with a different team, new subcontractors and untried suppliers. So of course things will go wrong, and sometimes when they do go wrong it can have devastating impacts which could cost millions, delay the project for months and even kill people.
So how do we mitigate some of this and what can we do to avoid the worst. Last week in my article ‘Avoiding the unexpected in Construction’, I discussed how it was possible to avoid many of the problems that often beset construction projects with better planning forethought and project management. In this article I will discuss what we can do when things go wrong on our construction project – because they surely will.
Anticipate potential problems
As discussed in the previous post it’s possible to anticipate problems by collecting and using data correctly. Also, take note of what you hear and read, the first hint of smoke often indicates the start of a problem. Knowing there is a potential problem such as a client having financial issues or labour unhappiness means that you can be better prepared when the issue breaks. If there is a severe storm coming ensure everything is tied down and protected where possible. Move equipment to higher ground. Check drains are open. Maybe even order in extra water pumps you know you will need after the storm has passed - the pumps everyone else will be desperate to get their hands on after the storm. Know how you will deal with the problem if it arises.
Take action as soon as a problem starts – don’t let a spark become a raging fire
Some Project Managers ignore problems, often hoping they will go away or simply solve themselves. Some will even try and hide the problem from their managers or clients. By the time they do take action the problem has often become much worse and more difficult to solve. Think of schedule slippage – in most cases every day the project slips on the schedule is one less day to catch-up, and probably another day that the problem becomes worse.
Find the cause of the problem
Often when there’s a problem we just fix it, without actually attending to the true cause of the problem. On one of my projects our concreting mixing plant suddenly started developing numerous faults which caused delays and frustrations. Each time we fixed a fault another seemed to develop. Eventually we came to the conclusion that maybe the operator was deliberately sabotaging the equipment. After changing the operator miraculously the mixer performed well with very few problems.
In many cases when there is slippage on the schedule Project Managers don’t find the true cause – sometimes blaming the schedule for being too tight, often working longer hours or throwing more resources at the tasks. However, the slippage could be due to a number of other reasons which could be easily fixed, such as material handling bottlenecks, poor supervision, the wrong skills, etc.
Don’t endanger lives – safety first
Many injuries on projects are caused by personnel taking the inappropriate actions to solve the problem. Sometimes these actions are even at the direction of Supervisors or Project Managers. How many times have we had injuries caused when people have tried to free equipment that’s stuck, fix machinery that’s broken, make a quick fix plan.
Common sense and good safety practice should always prevail.
Ensure your team communicates with you
Although we expect our team to attend to and solve many of the day-to-day problems on a project, unfortunately they sometimes try and hide problems (especially if they are at fault), or they make the wrong decisions or wait until it’s too late to inform you. Try to encourage open communication so you are kept informed of the problem and the progress in solving them so that there aren’t unpleasant surprises which you only hear about at the eleventh hour.
How many times have we had a crane or concrete pump break down in the middle of a concrete pour? The supervisor tries in good faith to fix the problem. When the Project Manager eventually gets to hear about it is after 5pm. Businesses are closed. Shifts have ended. At this late stage alternative arrangements have to be made. If the Project Manager was informed earlier contingency plans could have been timeously put in place.
Ask for help
Sometimes we need help. This help might be as simple as asking for advice or bouncing possible solutions off someone more experienced than we are. Don’t be afraid or too proud to do so. You don’t have to take the advice if you don’t like it.
I have seen many Project Managers flounder out of their depth trying to solve problems they don’t have the experience or resources to resolve. Sometimes their solution makes the problem worse.
Know who you can depend on
Some people or managers can’t be depended on to help. I have sometimes asked managers for extra resources or help, and then waited in vain for the help to arrive. Just as important is to understand your team and know who can be depended on in a crisis, who will put in the extra effort and hours, and who will be happy to pack their bags at the end of the shift leaving you to solve the problem alone.
When there is a problem you need a team that will stand up together and solve the problem.
Communicate the solution and give direction
Once you understand the cause of the problem and have worked out how you’re going to rectify it you need to ensure that your team understands what they need to do, what the problem is, why it’s a problem, the cause of the problem and how it’s going to be fixed. Sometimes individuals are left to make their own solutions, which may even be in conflict with what others are trying to achieve. A directionless team is like a row boat with everyone paddling in different directions in different rhythms and going nowhere fast. Solving a problem often requires slick teamwork.
When the chips are down, everyone needs to put in the effort – even you
It’s amazing how on occasion when projects, or companies, get into trouble, managers carry on as normal. They fly in bark orders and then disappear leaving others to fix the problems. Managers need to lead by example. This may mean putting in extra time, cancelling holidays and events and ensuring they are there to support and encourage their team. However, it’s also essential that they don’t cause confusion on the project or disrupt communication and tasks that are working.
How often when there is a problem on a project the manager is missing – nowhere to be found?
Don’t play the blame game
When there is a problem the first thing some managers do is look for someone to blame. The ship is leaking so let’s find the person who caused the leak, didn’t report the leak or didn’t bail the water fast enough. Meanwhile the ship is flooding and sinking. But hey, it’s more important to punish a culprit than solve the problem! Maybe the problem would have been reported earlier if people weren’t too scared of being blamed and punished for it.
Yes, genuine culpability must be dealt with, but don’t let this influence or delay us solving the problem. Sometimes Project Managers have to stand up and accept that their poor project management was actually the true cause of the problem. If systems were in place, personnel had the required skills and understood was acceptable and what was expected maybe they would have prevented the problem in the first place.
We have probably all seen some managers in action threatening and berating personnel because of a problem on the project which they may or may not have been responsible for. Then the manager expects these same people to be motivated and put in extra effort to solve the problem. Well demotivated workers don’t help solve your problems.
I am sure at some stage we have had a problem on a project only for a manager to fly in issuing streams of orders, sometimes conflicting with what you have already put in place. Some almost panic throwing in too many resources on a project that’s slipping, cutting resources on a project that’s losing money. Let’s make rational decisions, let’s not create confusion. Personnel are looking to their managers for calm direction. If it appears like the ship is sinking, they are probably going to jump ship not stay and help solve the problem.
Don’t forget to communicate with all stakeholders
Many clients are understanding and will accept that there is a problem. However, they generally don’t want to be uncovering the problem themselves or hearing it from others. They want to know that the contractor is aware of the problem, understands the cause of the problem, knows how to fix the problem and has put steps in place to solve the problem.
Sometimes clients are even helpful and may propose solutions or are occasionally prepared to accommodate some issues.
Inform neighbours or the public if there is something that impacts them. Rumours can quickly create a bigger problem than there actually is, and, if the media gets hold of a rumour who knows what could make the news headlines tonight, or what your manager will get to hear.
You can prevent many problems from occurring but there will be problems on your construction project. It’s how you react to these problems and solve them which could make or break your project. It’s how you deal with a problem that shows your true worth as a Project Manager. As a client I remember how the contractor resolved the problem, not how the problem was caused. I remember unresolved problems.
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This article is adapted from the author's books. To read more about these books and find out where you can purchase them visit the pages on this website by clicking the links below:
'Successful Construction Project Management: The Practical Guide'
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The opinions expressed in the attached articles are those of the writer. It should be noted that projects are varied and different laws and restrictions apply which depend on the location of the contractor and the project. It's important that the reader uses the supplied information taking cognisance of their particular circumstances. The writer assumes no responsibility or liability for any loss of any kind arising from the reader using the information or advice contained herein.
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