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Managing Specialty Contractor Crews for Optimal Performance

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Specialty contractors absorb a lot of risk on construction projects. Rapidly-changing schedules, incomplete specifications, and change orders regularly leave subs scrambling to realign crews and mitigate workspace limitations. While you can minimize the effects of these and other crew issues with fall-back strategies, sometimes the only viable solution is to dream up new solutions on the fly. 

Consider these tactics to boost specialty contractor crew performance when everything seems beyond your control. 

Minimize Irritants

Work crews face environmental obstacles just by the nature of the work. There is plenty of factors that extract a toll on attitudes and morale: dampness, dust, cold, heat, heights, congestion and hazards.

Add in emotional aspects, and you’ve got a recipe for low productivity. The more you can reduce the irritants on the job, the better. 

Look around and consider how you can improve worker comfort. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of using engineering or administrative tools. Use fans or coolers in hot spaces and heaters in cold ones. Use water, mist or air circulation to control dust, and follow the rule book on controlling hazards. For example, barriers around stairwells and lockouts on high energy sources reduce those risks, allowing to minimize the chance of disruptions and accidents.

Consider adding ergonomic improvements to the crew workflow. Not only can you speed up production, but you can also reduce physical fatigue as well as musculoskeletal injuries. To achieve this, you can position materials at waist level, rotate crews who perform repetitive motion tasks and adopt tools that reduce stooping, bending and kneeling. 

Champion a Crew Friendly Schedule

Specialty contractors are often the last people consulted about the project schedule, but their voice still matters. If the GC wants to stack the trades, and yours is one of them, suggest alternative scenarios to improve outcomes. Maybe your crew would prefer to avoid congestion by working alternative hours. 

Alternatively, your crew could jump ahead to another area and return when there’s less crowding. You might also choose to adjust your crew size by using different methods, materials or tools. One secret to managing the schedule is to look ahead and identify mobilization and demobilization tasks. This way you can assign to crews when scheduling issues make them idle. 

Another way to make the schedule friendlier for your crews is to eliminate overtime—that is any work over 8 hours a day and 40 hours a week. Efficiency, attitudes, and morale suffer when people are expected to work too much.

Get Expert at Mobilizing  

You take big productivity hit each time crews change from one task to another or from one location to another. Time and resources go into mobilization/demobilization instead of directly into activities that move the schedule forward. Crews end up spending more time waiting for materials, instructions and equipment during these stages.

One approach to reducing the costs of mobilization is to plan thoroughly and always have a backup plan. Consider how to position materials or equipment ahead of crew movements by using temporary structures or shipping containers. Use technology and mobile devices to push drawings and specifications to crew leaders. You might even consider assigning someone to act as a mobility coordinator.

The person would plan each activity transition and include one level of backup plans to account for possible schedule changes.

The biggest productivity robbers during mobilizations are the surprises that arise from changes or delays. Do a ‘look-ahead’ on the schedule to identify the places likely to spawn changes or delays and prepare backup plans for when they happen. Don’t consider this wasted time, either. You’ll find these specialty-trade-friendly backup plans will work on other projects when changes and delays come up.

Address the Attendance Problem

Absent workers and those who quit during the project cause productivity losses. Apart from the loss of the workers themselves, the cost of finding replacements and training them needs to be accounted for as well. A fully-trained worker represents a significant investment. 

Aside from providing health benefits and encouraging healthy lifestyles, specialty contractors can reduce worker absences and turn over by getting to know workers and their career aspirations. A big reason for both absenteeism and turnover is job dissatisfaction. Promotion policies, recognition practices, and the process for employee evaluation directly affect job satisfaction, even more than pay.

Consider whether your promotion policy is clear, consistent and realistic. If not, make some changes. Then look at the review process and attempt to simplify it, making it easily understandable, consistent, and accountable.

Weed out nepotism, favoritism, and the ‘halo effect’ where everyone gets the same rating. People are different, as are their abilities and skill levels.

Finally, recognize people personally. Having an ‘employee of the month’ that everybody wins is as effective as no recognition at all. When you know your employees, you can reward them in ways that are meaningful to them, instead of giving everybody the same treatment. Encourage peer-to-peer recognition, but don’t overdo it. Verbally recognizing a job well done is fitting for those times when people go a little beyond what is expected. Save the formal recognition for when someone goes way above and beyond.

If you liked this article, here are a few eBookswebinars, and case studies you may enjoy:

How to Reduce Costs and Improve Profitability as a Specialty Contractor

Lean Construction—What Specialty Contractors Need to Know

AMP Electric Study

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