From Desktop to Jobsite: A Budget-busting Disconnect
By: Vince Bailey
What we have here is a failure to communicate.
óDonn Pearce, contemporary American author
Strother Martinís immortal line from the 1967 movie "Cool Hand LukeĒ occurs to me all too frequently in my daily dealings as an estimator, but never so often as when I am confronted with a field operativeís unique interpretation of my work. How a thoroughly documented and clearly expressed set of basic guidelines can be so completely misconstrued (or, brutally corrupted) is quite beyond my understanding. Nevertheless, the divide between what is intended and what is executed is often as broad as it is deep, and the consequences of this disconnect can be crippling, particularly in these lean times when the buffer of profit margins are as thin as onion skin.
And though my first reflexive stance on the matter is to champion my fellow bidmeisters (my initial rant above does seem to point a harsh finger at the field, doesnít it?), a little honest objectivity exposes the fault on all sides. From the drafting table, to the takeoff screen, to the job box, distortions in the building industry run rampant through flaws in our sometimes feeble attempts at linking ideas and passing information. The various reasons for and the typical sites at which these communication failures occur are troubling points to ponder.
Estimators Arenít Blameless
Starting at the headwaters in this river of confusion, Iíd be remiss in failing to cite the woeful shortcomings in the design department. But alas, having spent the past two columns taking architects to the woodshed over the ambiguities inherent in their renderings, let it suffice to say that Siamese twins sharing a common brain might easily differ over the intent of some of the vagueness in the drawings Iíve puzzled on lately. Itís easy to see how a chain of exchanges might become muddled if the concept is hazy at its origin.
But letís be fair. We estimators, as a group, are hardly blameless in this regard. We may be great at interpreting, analyzing, evaluating and quantifying (and to no small measure, intuiting) the information residing within the bid documents. But in spite of the fact that all of this analysis has made us the worldís best authority on our scope of work on a particular project, we are notoriously bad at passing that knowledge on to the field. Iíve seen handoff meetings that more closely resemble fumble fests. We routinely allow "detailsĒ such as relevant bid addenda, specification quirks, bizarre keynotes, even plan revisions to slip through the cracks in our poorly prepared, half-hearted attempts to convey critical information from the sales department to the production team.
The most egregious gaps occur when estimators make verbal post-bid agreements with the GC and fail to mention them during the pre-job meeting. íFess up, gents; weíve got room for improvement here.
Clear Communications, Poor Execution
However, even the most objective treatment of this crucial topic would attest that the most flagrant offenders in the corruption of intent are at the end of the chain. The successful transmission of a resonating message requires the effort of a sender to be clear and thorough, as well as the effort of a receiver to be open and attuned to the message. So Iím back to aiming the accusatory digit toward the field, but not without good cause and not without evidence.
Iíve seen instances over the years in which the information that was offered from the office to the field was clear, accurate, complete and in depth. Meetings were formal and well structured, plans and all project documents were reviewed and discussed, and notes were shared. Scope, project directives, submittals and a material purchasing plan were given in writing. The attending field foremen and field superintendents nodded their agreement and went away armed with an arsenal of iron-clad information.
Nevertheless, the typical deviations from the project plan are as predictable as they are outrageous, as error seems to be the ruling reality on site. The goofs Iíve observed run the gamut from ordering and installing the wrong framing members, providing texture when smooth finish is specified (and vice-versa) and building ceilings at the wrong elevations, to laying out window openings in error or transposing ceiling tile types between rooms. Itís as if the correct info given during pre-job prep was written with disappearing ink and the knowledge just sort of vaporized upon reaching the job site.
But some of the departures from the intended path are not due to honest, almost forgivable, error. All too frequently, field supervisors are led down a path of deviation by the GCís superintendent who requires subs to make in-field revisions to their directions due to "coordination issues.Ē In fact, under closer scrutiny, we may find this aspect of the corruption to be more pervasive than many of us suspect.
But as with all problems, the communication gaps that plague our industry have remedies. Next month, we will drill down deeper on the reasons behind these information distortions and suggest some positive ways to mend the faulty connections.
Vince Bailey is an estimator at Valleywide Plastering in Phoenix.