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The Smartest Tool in the Shed
By Duane Craig
September 3, 2018
If you are new to supervising construction, and you really want to get an idea of what’s required to excel at construction management, you should talk to a superintendent. They occupy a unique place in the construction hierarchy because they are the ones who blend project management with project execution. If there is one person who has their fingers on the pulse of the jobsite, it's the superintendent. If you were to pick a superintendent’s brain for some valuable advice, it might look something like this:
At both the beginning and end of your busy day, having a passion for building will provide a wellspring of energy and enthusiasm. Sure, the money might motivate you for a while. And, there's always a certain amount of ego boost you can get from being in charge. But, those things won't sustain you in the long-term. Construction is not comfortably predictable, and the uncertainty alone can make for challenging days and sleepless nights. But when you have a passion for building, the obstacles simply become problems to solve on your way to building something you are proud of.
The plans you start out with will have flaws. The sequencing someone used for estimating won’t always match the sequencing necessary for the resources available at the time you start building. Designs are always going to need changes, and people are always going to be somewhat unpredictable. So if you're just in it for the money, or the glory, it's going to get harder and harder for you to sustain enthusiasm.
To nurture your passion for building, feed your curiosity about how things are put together, how processes and methods are changing, how new materials are getting incorporated into new designs, and how new technology is affecting the built environment. Take the time to help others learn about building, and don't be afraid to let others teach you a thing or two about building.
When your passion for building is keenly stoked, getting into the very fine details of the project is a natural outgrowth of your curiosity. Construction projects have many moving parts, and you need a crystal clear vision of how all those parts go together. Start out by making the project drawings your new favorite reading material. As you pour over them, ask yourself questions about not only how all the pieces are going to fit, but also about who is going to fit them together, and how they are going to do it. As you find the inevitable mistakes and oversights, consider the solutions, and make plans to propose those solutions well in advance of when they are needed.
Allow your deep dive into the details to power your design of an excellent schedule. Armed with your knowledge of where all the potential roadblocks and dead ends exist, you are in the position of putting together a highly realistic, yet flexible schedule. But, most importantly, you can infuse your schedule with your deep understanding of how all the parts fit together. Then, as you go over the schedule with your employees and subcontractors, you will already know where the opportunities and pitfalls lie. Very few people on the project will take the time to really understand the details; so those who do are naturally in a better position to lead.
Even on a small construction project there are thousands of interactions between people along with events associated with materials, equipment, and the environment. It's rare for a superintendent to minimize the importance of keeping accurate documentation. Only fools tread there, and they do so at their own peril. Some superintendents put it like this, “A log for everything, and everything in a log.” No matter how you choose to account for what happens on a construction project, just make sure you are consistent and thorough.
Fortunately, there’s an amazing array of tools to help you with your documentation chores. Your smartphone, tablet, the Internet arm you with software, digital logs, voice recording, video recording, photography, and a quick and easy way to share all of your information with whomever you need to share it with.
If you are not an excellent communicator, in all forms, then do what it takes to get better. There is no substitute for clear, concise, and accurate communication between all parties involved in a project. When communication breaks down, projects break down. But, clear, concise, and accurate are just the beginning of effective communication. There is also the need for empathy. When you understand not just the message you are receiving, but also how that message is affected by the sender’s situation at the time, you become better at communicating with that person. Sometimes, using empathy might mean waiting to respond, while at other times it might mean dropping what you're doing and responding immediately. Sometimes, using empathy could mean being more sensitive to emotional cues, or it could mean adopting a more matter-of-fact posture. The net result of communicating effectively is that all parties understand each other with little opportunity for anyone to misunderstand. When you are sincere in all of your communications, you enhance effective communication by improving trust.
Superintendents spend their days on the front lines as go-betweens. Their job is to blend design intent, and management, with construction. It's from this unique vantage point that experienced and professional superintendents can provide advice that goes to the heart of constructing. Their best advice can help anyone who supervises any level of construction.
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