How to Overcome Tough Times

Norb Slowikowski / March 2016

“I’ve never seen it this bad in the industry.” This observation has become an unfortunate refrain from many of the contractors I’ve dealt with over the last several years. There’s no getting around it for some; this can be a tough time to be in the construction industry. Poor market conditions can exploit companies by causing negative mindsets that lead to a sense of inaction. Employees feel there is little they can do to offset the negative spiral, and complacency becomes the norm—if we let it.
In short, tough times require tough leaders. Since we do not control the market, we must look at the aspects of the job we can control. We must look within and find out if we are functioning at maximum effectiveness. There is a better way to manage in tumultuous times while sustaining the growth of your company. Leadership comes down to being proactive instead of reactive.
In my more than three decades of working with this industry, I have discovered that sustainable companies can still survive and thrive even if marketplaces forces are against them. When examining these companies, it turned out there were “Five Key Pillars” never compromised or allowed to falter.

Pillar 1: Process Implementation
A process is a systematic, organized way of doing things that leads to consistency and uniformity in the way things are done. Solid companies had processes for estimating, project managing, field operations, warehouse distribution, accounting, etc. They had process manuals for each function, and all employees were trained to follow those processes. They were “must do’s,” not options. The result was a higher level of effectiveness.

Pillar 2: Ongoing Training
These companies focus on retaining good employees. Part and parcel with that, they provide ongoing technical training and development of apprentices and journeymen, management and leadership training for foremen, superintendents and project managers. They follow up with a coaching process that assigns each individual’s supervisor/manager to be the employee’s coach after the training session. This ensures the application of learned skills in the job situation.

Pillar 3: Information Flow
When people don’t receive the information they need to be effective in their job, they are at risk, which can lead to costly mistakes. It’s extremely important that the foremen receive the information they need to effectively manage the project. Such information includes the following:

  • Scope of work.
  • The quality specs for the job.
  • Contractual responsibilities.
  • A job information packet that includes the above information along with a procedure for managing the labor budget and tracking production by codes.
  • How to process authorizations for extra work, change orders.
  • How to handle Requests for Information.
  • How to perform two-week look-aheads.
  • How to provide specific documentation when barriers to productivity occur on the job site.

This information must flow from the field to the office in a timely manner.

Pillar 4: Teamwork
It takes a team to effectively manage projects. By strengthening the “Team Triangle” between the foreman, superintendent and project manager, there will be a positive impact on productivity improvement. Reality is found on the job site, since that’s where profit is generated. The office support team must be available to help the foreman be effective in executing his day-to-day responsibilities. Without support, people flounder.

Pillar 5: Accountability
This means people must be responsible for executing their key job responsibilities, meeting expectations and standards, and following processes. These are not options, they are essentials. The manager/supervisor must hold people accountable if the company is to grow and prosper. When people are not held accountable, they do what they want, which is unacceptable.
When all is said and done, we have some choice in the matter of how the industry affects our business. We can choose to see obstacles as an invitation to organizational change. No matter what’s going on in the marketplace, companies are stronger when they accept tough times as a catalyst instead of a barrier.

Norb Slowikowski is president of Slowikowski & Associates, Inc., Darien, Ill. To contact him, email