At the World of Concrete conference in Las Vegas earlier this year, I took a course called No Bad Jobs: Pre-Con That Every Contractor Must Embrace, by Brad Humphrey. He spoke at the conference for the past 16 years and has written several books including The 21st Century Supervisor.
I took key points from Humphrey’s seminar and combined them with my project management experience with major capital projects in IT and construction in the oil and gas industry, where we used a project development and execution process with heavy lifting in the pre-construction phase. Proper pre-construction preparation greatly affects your bottom line.
Sharpening the Axe: The Importance of Pre-planning
Rail splitting: the job that helped Abraham Lincoln earn his way through law school also played a huge part in shaping his political reputation as a tough man with a strong work ethic.
A reporter once asked Lincoln, “What would you do if you had just five minutes to chop down a tree?” He answered, “I would spend the first two and a half minutes sharpening my axe.” Variations of Lincoln’s quote have been used to describe the importance of preparation ever since.
In construction, pre-start meetings are the equivalent of sharpening the axe. It gets the project team together to understand the needs, expectations, roles and responsibilities of team members and owners. In my project management experience, we held project kickoff meetings with the same goals.
Start with an internal partnering session. Invite any company employee who has experience with a similar job, or will have anything to do with current job. This includes the estimator, salesperson (sometimes they are the same person), crew leader, operations manager, owner and even the admin who supports paperwork and document control.
Have all the project documents at the meeting and pictures of the job site. Present any discussions you had with the owner, architect and general contractor so your team knows what their expectations are.
Surely, if you have been in the business for any amount of time, you have heard a project manager say, “I did everything right but the (fill in the blank) screwed it up with constant change orders.” Change orders are normal, it’s the surprises, delays by other contractors, clashes and the wrong interpretation of plans that kill your profits. Here are some suggestions to help you stay on schedule and in budget.
The Pre-Start Strategy
First, plan the pre-start meeting. Seek out every contractor, sub-contractor, consultant and owner representative. Collect their contact information. In the pre-start meeting, review contractor responsibilities. Who does what? What is expected of you and your team? Identify potential problems up front before they become expensive rework. Make sure the project is clearly defined, and a timeline is mapped out. Look at the whole project and understand all the steps for completion. Find out who owns what.
Take on the role of initiating communication and clarification with the general contractor. Hand out your phone number and email address and invite key members of the teams to communicate any issues that come up. Be the go-to person for help.
Another important step at this stage is attending the general contractor or superintendent walk-through. You can gain valuable insight about job-site conditions, access, working hours, parking or materials storage. In addition, a walk-through allows you to see what may not be shown clearly on the drawings. Specifications may include information on systems that are not shown or referenced on the drawings. Carefully review the written narrative describing the systems, materials and components. Ask questions. General contractors and owners will appreciate your efforts.
W. Edwards Deming, author of management textbooks used in MBA programs for 50 years, determined that for every 10 minutes of pre-planning you do, you get four to five hours of productivity improvement.
Project Mid-Point Tips
Once the project begins, after you have tackled the pre-planning phase, you should set a daily routine for your crew leaders to share updates. Set up quick morning and afternoon huddles.
Create two project whiteboards:
- A daily list of five tasks to finish (The tasks are usually crossed off
by 3:00 p.m.)
- Questions and issues that need answers
Schedule VIP tours of the project every two weeks. This keeps the crew on their toes and ready to impress. Ask for weekly reports on project updates on budget, safety, timeline and quality results. During the weekly meeting, have the team write three to five high points of the project and three to five low points that can be improved upon.
Be sure you are meeting the deadlines, because failure to do so may result in damages, which could translate into thousands of additional dollars per day in costs. However, not being able to meet the schedule is often through no fault of your own — it’s common to lose time from delays due to other contractors, or weather. If this is the case, document the situation and inform the owner and general contractor. Avoid being hit with charges for liquidated damages. A project tracking software makes this easy.
Train your team to represent your company. Have them shake hands with the owner’s representative and the superintendent. Have them ask questions throughout the project so the client and your team stay aligned. Reach out to the teams on a daily basis.
Track the pre-start goals you set. Start the punch list before the completion deadline so you prevent a lot of loose ends at the end of the project.
Call in your finishers before the project deadline. Make sure you have the materials and contractors scheduled to complete the final touches on time.
A successful project is much more than just finishing on time, it’s also about finishing the job in a professional manner and making clients happy. Consider following up with a client and general contractor final walkthrough. Capture before and after photos to illustrate successes. Sponsor a project barbecue celebration for a friendly lookback. Because you started the punch list earlier, provide the completed document with actions and completion dates.
Take photos and notes of your project’s top 10 strengths and create a file for future bids and marketing materials.
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The Contractor Suite is made up of three powerful software products, On-Screen Takeoff®,, Quick Bid®,,and Digital Production Control®,. The integrated applications speed up the process and improve accuracy for material takeoff, estimating and project tracking. Lastly, keep a digital historical record of jobs for a jump start on the next bid.
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