Currently Australia is being devastated by bush-fires which have burned through five million hectares, killed many people, destroyed thousands of homes, slaughtered livestock and wildlife, damaged infrastructure and ruined farms. The fires could continue a swathe of destruction for several more months with no end in sight. Indeed, some of the worst hit areas this last week has been caused by fires which have been burning out of control for more than a month. The tragedy will take years to repair.
For more read: The scale of Australia’s bushfires and You need to leave and
We can’t stop these fires
Although the fires have been driven by unprecedented weather, it’s hard to believe that fire experts warned of a catastrophic fire season back in August, with even some warnings months before this. Devastating fires were already ravaging large parts of the country in September, yet authorities appear to have done little to help, with the bulk of the firefighting left to thousands of unpaid volunteer firefighters who have been left to fend for themselves, and have been expected to forgo wages from their normal jobs to tackle fires in dangerous conditions which have cost some their lives. The government committed an extra $11 million dollars to fighting the fires – an almost trivial amount that barely covers the cost of an extra firefighting aircraft.
For months politicians from both sides of the divide, at both state and national level, have continued business as usual. Business as usual meant bickering and minor point scoring over often pointless and inconsequential legislation, while the big problem of the fires got larger and more out of hand. Nobody stood up to say let’s deal with this problem now. Now the fires are unstoppable. Finally some politicians are doing something – but it’s far too little and too late.
After months of ravaging fires there appears to be no plan of how to deal with the unfolding disaster, there’s no plan to deal with the aftermath of the disaster, and there’s no plan to deal with fires in the future. Indeed the only plan seems to be to dole out platitudes and expressions of sympathy, and say that Australia has always faced the threat of bush-fires and we’ll get through these fires. Surely this is little help when the impact of the fires will run into the billions of dollars, little help to those who’ve lost everything including sometimes their loved ones, and of course little help to those who will suffer the consequences of the fires for years to come, indeed some who will be scarred for life and suffer permanent damage to their health.
We can blame politicians for a lack of will power to solve the big issues. Yet in construction and many big businesses we see the same things occur and the same inaction that we blame our politicians for. Now it might seem trite to compare the devastation from bush-fires with project managers and construction projects. Yet many construction projects fail with some devastating consequences, which sometimes leads to company bankruptcies, people going unpaid, many losing their jobs, and in the worst case project failure has led to suicides.
Why do problems on construction projects get out of control?
A few years back an apparently successful medium size construction company suddenly collapsed owing nearly $600 million. The losses were attributed to 2 construction projects. How was it possible for the company to not know about the loss making projects until 6 months before the company went bankrupt? After all, the projects had been under construction for almost 3 years and they were nearing completion. The collapse of the company wiped out shareholders, left hundreds of employees unpaid and out of a job, and left dozens of suppliers and subcontractors unpaid, causing a domino effect of more bankruptcies. Yet, this same scenario is repeated across companies almost daily.
Read: Forge Group in liquidation
Now there are multiple reasons why construction projects fail, and usually it comes down to a lack of leadership and poor project management skills. Most project failures can be avoided. Sure there will be weather events, there will be equipment breakdowns, there will be difficult clients, there will be suppliers and subcontractors that let you down. Indeed there will always be an excuse for a project failure. But these events probably occur on every construction projects. Things will go wrong on every construction project. But good construction managers and leaders will deal with these problems. They will avoid many of the problems. They’ll mitigate the worst of the impacts caused by the issue, they’ll put in measures to get the project on track again, and they’ll put in procedures to avoid the problem from occurring again.
So why do construction problems develop?
Of course there are other reasons that construction projects fail, such as; a lack of planning, no teamwork, poor pricing and budgeting, etc. But, failing to recognise problems, and then dealing with the issue and it's consequences quickly and decisively, is often the death of construction projects, even leading to the demise of the contractor or client.
Construction problems require action and they require a plan to fix them
Construction project managers are given the responsibility to guide projects to success. Sometimes this responsibility is tough and it demands sacrifices. But construction project managers are expected to show leadership and resolution in the face of adversity. Every construction project will have problems and project managers will be judged on how they plan to avoid problems, how they solve problems, how they mitigate the impacts of problems, and how they avoid future problems.
Successful construction project managers will fight fires as they occur. They’ll lead the fight throwing the right support where it’s needed. They’ll listen to the advice of experts. They’ll have adequate warning systems in place and take early action when smoke is detected and before problems get out of control. They won’t be frightened by the magnitude of the problem and they won’t be afraid to ask the hard questions of themselves and of others.
Remember, doing nothing and avoiding problems on your construction project will not make a problem go away.
Times of crises and disaster have defined leadership. Think of Winston Churchill in the 2nd World War where his previous mistakes were forgotten by his leadership when it was needed. Then there’s George W Bush’s poor handling of Hurricane Katrina and its devastation of 3 states in the USA. How will your leadership define your legacy?
To those facing adversity, may your leaders have the strength, humility, humanity and courage to help you through these dark times. To the firefighters who are risking their lives every day to help others, you have our eternal gratitude. May you have the strength, courage, resources and support to continue your gallant fight.
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Paul Netscher has written several easy to read books for owners, contractors, construction managers, construction supervisors and foremen. They cover all aspects of construction management and are filled with tips and insights.
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