Disconnect, Part 2: How Do We Get This Far Afield?
By: Vince Bailey
Having previously established that there is an egregious communication disconnect within our industry ("What we have here is a failure to communicate.”), reiterating that these gaps occur at every level of our business is just another overstatement of the obvious. Still, an issue this prevalent and this critical demands a deeper understanding of the whys and wherefores, and a thoughtful consideration of potential remedies. Therefore …
At the risk of committing an act of felonious redundancy, I have to say at the outset that a good deal of the ambiguity inherent in the chain of construction information is generated at its origin. Whether it is willful omission or common neglect, there is little disagreement that the drawings provided to us these days have all the clarity of the Atlanta skyline during rush hour. And regardless of how loath we are to pick up someone else’s slack, it consistently falls incumbent upon us guesstimators to interpret, or intuit or channel the mysterious implications of design intent.
Now, the best possible way to lend some small measure of clarity to the murk that lies before you is to apply accepted precedent and industry standards (even though you’re sorely tempted to employ a Ouija board or tarot cards) while making these interpretations. Then declare that standard or precedent in no uncertain terms by way of a thoughtful scope letter. This not only establishes your assumptions (consistent with your price) to the recipient of your proposal, but it is invaluable in documenting what you had in mind later at a post-award meeting with your field supervisors. Standards tend to engender agreement.
And while it may be fairly straightforward to cite and convey a standard or a frequently used assembly that is mutually familiar to the communicating parties, clairvoyance is quite another matter. Of course I am referring to those occasions on which we bidmeisters expect our production department counterparts to read our minds regarding undocumented information. No kidding: I’ve been to handoff meetings where I thought we were having a séance of sorts. I know some of our field supervisors dress and behave like gypsies, but that doesn’t mean they all carry crystal balls.
The obvious remedy for this mysticism is to adopt a formal handoff of information from the sales department to the production department—a pre-job process that includes a written checklist of information items to be covered. A good pre-job meeting list includes such items as site location and contact info, scope review, spec and drawing review, revisions or pending changes, contract terms, labor budgets, purchasing policy and process, schedule, manpower needs and equipment needs, just to name a few (see the May 2009 "Estimator’s Edge” for an expanded treatment). A thorough process such as this, in lieu of just passing along a file folder full of program-generated reports, will go a long way toward providing the field with the knowledge that they need to launch a successful project.
It is unfortunate to have to say that even the most thorough handoff of information sometimes seems to go for naught. Mistakes are made, and when they are due to honest error it may be frustrating, but they are forgivable. But as I have said, all too often departures from the intended path are the result of a field supervisor’s over-zealous effort to be a "team player,” when he seems to forget which team he is playing for. Oh, I know there is a fuzzy line between cooperation and capitulation, but many a sub’s super finds it way too easy to give away the farm.
Some of the more common deviations will, I’m sure, sound quite familiar. At the GC’s prompting ("I’m too busy right now—you can do it. You do know how, don’t you?”), your man will provide the control lines for layout when the contract terms clearly call for the GC to take that responsibility. Or worse yet, he will make layout changes in the field to compensate for mistakes made by other trades ("Let’s move your partition over just a tad to keep Sparky’s stub-up inside the wall.”) without documenting the GC’s direction. Or maybe he will accept costly revisions to the original plans in the form of "shop drawings” that are introduced in the field and not run through the proper channels as potential change orders ("Just build it this way; your office knows about it!”).
The reason for this near-traitorous behavior is strictly geographical. Your man’s physical location is on the job site—also known as the GC’s home field, his territory. Each day, sometimes for months on end, your man goes to work at a place that probably boasts the GC’s name with banners, and he rubs shoulders, attends meetings and solves problems with the general contractor’s personnel. Of course his sympathies are going to tend toward agreement with those persons with whom he has developed working relationships. But again, teamwork can often degenerate into complete defection, and many sub’s foremen and supers do not have the intestinal fortitude to say no when asked to perform in a manner that clearly does not benefit the people that sign his paycheck.
The obvious answer to this turncoat phenomenon is more time spent with his own managers—a thinly veiled reminder of the team he does play for. More jobsite visits by management, more supervisors meetings back at the sub’s office would do a world of wonder for bringing strays back into the fold.
Sadly, some but not all subs’ supervisors respond well to more exposure to the home office. It is questionable that these men who remain uncertain of their loyalties are really supervisory material. To purloin another line from "Cool Hand Luke:” "Some men just can’t be reached.”
Vince Bailey is an estimator at Valleywide Plastering in Phoenix.