The Magic of Momentum

The Value of Worker Morale on the Job Site

S.S. Saucerman / November 2018

I recently retired after 40-plus years in the construction industry, where I worked primarily as a commercial general construction estimator and project manager. It was a great run. I gained valuable skills, met loads of people and earned enough to raise a family and enjoy a comfortable existence. It also allowed me the singular opportunity to witness over four decades of the construction industry itself—and boy, was there a lot to witness.

Pass the Popcorn
In my own world, I was privileged to take part in many successful building projects and—even toward the end—it never failed to instill genuine personal satisfaction when we left a client pleased with our product and service. But with good comes bad, and I’d be lying if I didn’t confess a handful of projects that didn’t go quite as planned. You know the ones, jobs seemingly spawned from the dark depths of pure evil, jobs where nothing goes right.
    
From the first, foreboding moment the permit is issued until the aneurism-thwarting instant the architect sheepishly signs off on item #86 of punch-list #4, your life is a poorly directed, B horror film where all the teens split up and everyone goes down the basement—a hopeless nightmare. It’s only when the occupancy permit finally and mercifully rests in the frazzled client’s shaky hand that you dare exhale for the first time in months. It is this kind of project I want to discuss today.
    
You see, as I stood watch, seemingly helpless to prevent these calamities from unfolding, I couldn’t help but observe an oddly recurring theme that linked each and every one of these doomed construction exercises: Momentum. Or to be more precise, the absence of momentum.

The Power of Momentum
Momentum is everywhere. We see it every day in the stock markets, sporting events and weather patterns. We witness its awesome power every time a video goes viral on YouTube. It propels and influences virtually every aspect of our daily existence and is often key in the success and failure of many daily endeavors.
    
But though all around us, momentum as a concept is tricky to pin down. Far from quantifiable, momentum is akin to the understanding of more nebulous topics like love or religion than the nuts-and-bolts topics we builders are more familiar with. However ethereal, when it comes to momentum and construction, I’m here to argue that (get ready): Momentum is the single greatest factor in determining success or failure on the job site.
    
Strong words? Yes, but I’ve seen it play out far too many times to dismiss it as an anomaly.

Momentum: A Primer
But where and what is momentum? In science, momentum equals mass times velocity and is commonly associated with Sir Isaac Newton’s First Law of Motion, which states that an object in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force (and) an object at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force.
    
“Great,” you’re thinking. “So how does this apply to me?” Well, from here until the end of this piece, let’s suppose that the “object in motion” in our equation is jobsite continuity and worker morale. The outside force? You. Now, here’s what I’ve observed over my many years: There is an instilled, inherent positivity and enthusiasm that accompanies the beginning of a new project on site. It’s a positive time and, generally speaking, everyone’s happy and enthusiastic to be there, pleased in the knowledge they’ll be employed for the next 8 to 10 months. This positively charged atmosphere is the crucial motive force behind the creation of the first stage of momentum on the job site. Continuity and flow begins, and it will continue to “stay in motion” until one of two things occur: First, it comes to a natural, successful conclusion (a good project). Second, it is interrupted, diverted and/or halted by outside forces (a bad project).
    
And wouldn’t you know it? Every good job gone bad witnessed along my journey indeed had that critical moment number two! Without exception, each of these fiascos had that crucial and pivotal moment where momentum became stalled and jobsite continuity ground to an unceremonious halt. And as we’ve already learned, momentum is great when it’s moving (because it wants to keep going), but it can be extremely difficult to start again once stymied.

Interruptions Versus Interruptions!
Keep in mind that when we refer to interruptions, we’re not talking about small stuff. Forgetting a shovel or waiting on a late lumber truck is just part of the game. That’s construction, and you deal with it. I’m talking about big interruptions:

  • Hitting an underground utility line (gas, fiber optic—any kind) not shown on the drawings.
     
  • Finding groundwater at 2 feet deep instead of the 22 feet recorded in the soils report.
     
  • Striking rock or churning up unsuitable (perhaps even hazardous) soils or waste, possibly sparking new and unanticipated inspections, approvals and remediation.

And of course there are many, many more. You probably thought of three others as you read that passage. The point is, these aren’t regular disruptions that pause progress for just a few hours with the cost coming out of contingencies, allowances or general requirements (maybe even profit). Instead, this level of event may quell progress for days, even weeks. Even worse, it spawns a sordid chain of administrative events including change orders, re-submittals/approvals, schedule extensions and, worst of all, additional cost. Oh, and did I mention there will now be an almost unavoidable string of tense and stressful “special” project meetings and late night “interactions” to get the ship righted? Any way you look at it, it’s bad.

Stuck in Reverse
I’m afraid we’re not out of the woods even now. Though we may rally enough to correct the physical ramifications of the interruption, there’s still a crucial aspect of the event that cannot be ignored. Remember that “goodwill and enthusiasm” we noted earlier? Well, it’s taken a major hit. Ever since the unanticipated disruption reared its ugly head, blame and finger-pointing has become the order of the day. Animosity among the team members builds.
    
And momentum? Well, forget about it. In fact, there’s a funny thing about momentum, especially relating to construction: It never really stops. In our world, an “object at rest” isn’t a neutral thing; it means the company isn’t producing revenue (note: that’s a bad thing). In fact, it’s costing money to just sit there! So, for all practical purposes, when momentum isn’t moving forward, it’s moving in reverse. It’s now working against you each and every minute you allow it to exist.

A Call to Arms
So, our mission is clear: it’s imperative we recognize, address and work to minimize major disruptions on the job site. Of course, the exact measures you choose will correspond to your industry genre, but here are some general rules you can employ to get started:

  • Accept and prepare for disruptions to happen. Interruptions should never be a surprise where key managers treat the event like Columbus discovering the East Indies. Have a protocol in place ahead of time to address and remedy inevitable hitches.
     
  • Like safety, instill into your workers and management team the true importance of keeping the job moving forward. Teach them to “think like an owner” and help them understand the critical relationship between continuity and profit. The must know that interrupting project schedule is a big deal and will have major ramifications. (I know this sounds elementary, but you’d be surprised how many companies don’t specifically address this with their workers.)
     
  • Give elevated office priority to field interruptions. Nothing is more important than the job already under contract. No estimate, inventory or the software update should take precedence over getting the job back on track. This job is your time to shine. How you conduct this construction exercise is the most important piece of advertising you can offer to future clients.

OK, so all we do is minimize/eliminate major jobsite delay (a Herculean task in itself) and we’re good to go. Right? No. We have another issue. You see, our interruption did more than just slow a construction project; it also had significant effect on your workers in the field. It is here in the field where we’re compelled as managers to accept that—this time—we aren’t just dealing with a familiar “bricks and mortar” problem. Momentum is a human phenomenon and involves that element of management (which I strongly believe is) recklessly overlooked and under-valued in today’s no-excuses-yahoo-bottom-line world: worker morale.

If It Weren’t for All These Humans
A person’s attitude about work (and life for that matter) melds with every aspect of his ability to function and perform. Unfortunately, morale can be fragile, and our interruption changed things. The constructive and inclusive working atmosphere present since groundbreaking has now given way to finger-pointing and assigning liability. Animosity is building among vital team members, and everyone starts choosing sides. The site turns mercenary, individual worker moral spirals downward.
    
Even worse, it turns out that this decline in morale wasn’t just some ancillary trim or knob on the momentum machine; it was engine itself shutting down. Worker morale was the propellant, the lifeblood fueling the momentum algorithm. So, given the symbiotic relationship between the two, we as construction managers are further compelled to not only minimize and eliminate jobsite delays themselves, but also repair damaged worker morale caused by the occurrences.
    
“But what are we?,” you may be asking right about now. “Psychologists?” Well, yeah, of sorts. You hung your shingle the moment you decided to manage people. Your role doesn’t stop with merely overseeing the technical aspects of running a construction company. You must manage the social responsibilities too. This isn’t easy. I’ve said many times over the years (former co-workers will bear me out on this), the social side of the building construction industry is way tougher than the technical side.

Back on Track: Morale Tips
Anyone can master building applications and techniques. It just takes time and dedication. However, it takes a very special person to empower and motivate people. It is a (at least in my experience) rare and unique skill to lead employees in a truly positive way, but it’s a skill that can be honed if you’re willing to make the effort. If you need a jumpstart, I recommend two excellent books on the subject, “The Dichotomy of Leadership” by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, and “Emotional Intelligence 2.0” by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves. The writing is concise, easy to understand and inspirational.
    
In the meantime, here are a few tips on how to re-establish morale (and with it, momentum) on the job site:

  • I’ve never been one to call a lot of meetings. I don’t like them. Contractors make money contracting, not lining a conference table. But this issue is simply too vital to not address head-on. Call a special meeting of your building team members (yes, this may even include relevant key subs and suppliers) and explain to everyone present that the express purpose of the meeting is to discuss morale and attitude—nothing else. By this very action, you’ve already delivered two critical messages to your members: (1) The issue is important enough to call a special meeting in and of itself and (2) The issue is crucial enough to be the only topic in the meeting.

This alone may be enough to instill a heightened respect for the subject. Now, since the atmosphere may already be a bit adversarial (possibly due to the disruption), open the meeting by explaining that you’re simply trying to understand the situation you all face, and no comment will be held against anyone. Yes, things might be said that hurt other people’s—or your—feelings. That’s OK. Contractors are famous for speaking their minds, and thick skin is one our greatest attributes. The goal is to air the grievances in a controlled and level forum rather than on the job site in front of your client.
    
This next part is important: Listen. Some comments will be good and constructive. Others may be petty and stupid. Don’t panic, and don’t take anything personal. You may even be surprised by what you hear. There really are bright and enlightened people out there, and sometimes all it takes is a fresh perspective to get the exercise going in the right direction. Discuss comments openly and, for those ideas you feel are worth considering (remember, you’re still in charge!), set specific goals to address and/or implement anything worth pursuing. With concerns now thoroughly vented, you will likely see a marked improvement in the working environment. And by letting them know their voices are heard, you may also have taken a marked step toward truly empowering your workers.

  • Keep in mind that as builders we are conditioned to believe that if we learn just one more skill or strategy, or if we purchase that latest, greatest piece of equipment from the builder expo, all our problems will go away. Skills and equipment are important, but no tool imaginable will do any good if we don’t first focus on the core daily practices that keep a company strong and progressive.
     
  • I’m a big math guy. I find beauty in equations, and the law of probabilities states that the more ideas you try, the more apt you’ll be to achieve success. So, don’t be afraid to be creative. Different people like different things. What’s the downside of taking a small risk at this point? The job is already a dog. There’s far more a chance that you help matters than hurt them.
     
  • Be persistent. History is rife with stories of opportunity, luck, big breaks and paradigm-shifting events borne from pure persistence alone. Small victories often lead to larger wins, creating a positive snowball effect that has a way of spreading. Once moving, the flow becomes much easier to maintain.
     
  • Don’t be in this alone. Instill into your workers the importance of not breaking the chain of momentum. Once progress is made and marching along, turn it into a game, a competition, where no one wants to break the chain. It’s amazing how far some workers will go to not disappoint.
     
  • Make a concerted effort to maintain a physical and mental environment that supports positive morale and forward momentum. Now here’s advice that some readers may disagree with me on, but I stand firmly by it: If there is a worker (or workers) on site whose negative attitude poisons the working atmosphere, regardless of his/her skill level, remove that worker from the site. Yes, this includes (and may be especially relevant for) superintendents and foremen too. Don’t hesitate. No amount of skill or experience will overcome a toxic work environment.
     
  • Remain aware that there will be days when you feel like nothing is working. You will feel as though you implement rules and establish safeguards, but disruptions still find their way in. Well, don’t lose heart. There is no quick fix, and winning in this case only comes with consistence, persistence and dedication. The hardest part is putting a protocol in place. Once our “object at rest” is set in motion, it will want to stay that way. After that, it will get easier (science promises).

Closing: A Case in Point
I spoke earlier of the importance of persistence and vigilance in the quest to create and maintain momentum. In case my meaning wasn’t entirely clear, I’d like to offer you as an example—a trick—I use in my own life to foster momentum with my writing. I force myself to write for at least one hour each day. (I do give myself Sundays off; I’m not a monster.) I do it in the morning when my head is clear and energy levels are high. The hour is mandatory—no skimping, shirking or whining. If nothing is coming on a particular morning, I have to sit there and keep at it for at least 60 minutes.
    
Here’s the thing. Even with the poorest of attitudes (Mondays?), I rarely find myself quitting after the first hour. Somewhere along the line, I manage to punch out something (which I’ll immediately hate) that will lead me to replace it with something better or wittier. This tiny, tiny success is enough to fuel the next sentence and—behold!—a writing momentum almost always kicks in. Sometimes I’m not really even aware that it happened until I’m perched high atop one of its waves. The point is, I tricked myself into working (yes, I’m that gullible). All it took was something to start momentum going. I wasn’t important what it was, it was only important that it happened. Good luck!

S.S. Saucerman is a retired commercial construction estimator and project manager in the Midwest. He is also an established freelance writer and author whose work spans 20 years.