If you manage construction projects or oversee portions of projects, you wear many hats. One minute you’re an accountant, the next—you’re dealing with quality or scheduling. When it’s time to address errors on the job site, though, you’ve got to put on your detective hat.
While a prime reason to address job site errors is to fix an immediate problem, there are also long-term reasons: preventing the error from happening again and improving scheduling, processes, and systems.
When excavation of the footers for a foundation comes to a standstill because the excavator isn’t fitted with the right bucket type, you’ve got an error that’s going to affect the schedule. When you address the cause, you not only save the schedule, but you also arm yourself with knowledge on preventing the same thing from happening in the future.
If you find out the reason electricians installed the wrong light fixture is the vendor shipped the wrong ones, there are two places the process broke down. One was when the vendor’s quality control didn’t spot a packing error, and the other—when the electricians didn’t confirm they had received the right fixture before installation. By addressing these causes, you remove variables from the processes and make them more predictable.
When a change happens and goes undocumented, you have a system failure. The failure affects the project management system, and it has far-reaching implications from budget to schedule to claims and beyond. When addressing the individual error (in this case the failure to report a change), it may be too late to prevent any immediate repercussions. Nevertheless, it is an opportunity for you to review and tighten up your team’s process for documenting changes, so the error is less likely to happen again.
Getting the Team Involved
Sometimes, all it takes to fix an error is to have one person take one action. If you’re supervising painters and one of them ‘misses a spot,’ you simply ask them to correct it, and the error goes away. You don’t have to pay much attention to it, unless the error keeps happening.
If you don’t define the error and go directly to finding causes, you short-circuit your investigation.
Many errors in construction, though, have multiple causes and effects. That’s because construction is a linear process that proceeds from simple to complex with many people participating along the way. These team errors need team involvement, and here are some pointers.
Start With Transparency
You have to clearly identify the error. If a truss is out of alignment with the others, that’s the error. It’s not ‘the truss is too long,’ or ‘the crew was drunk.’ Either of those could be a cause, but they’re not the error. If you don’t define the error and go directly to finding causes, you short-circuit your investigation. You might even set out to correct something that’s not incorrect. In the example above, if you identify the error as the truss being too long, you won’t consider other causes. You might go so far as to order a new truss or refine the one you have, only to find out the truss wasn’t the root problem after all.
Avoid the Blame Game
You need to assign accountability in construction because so many activities depend on so many different entities. It is important to find out who is responsible for the error so the cost accounting can be accurate. What’s more, sometimes other participants need to recover their losses in time or dollars because of the actions or inactions of someone else.
That said, people in construction often have an unhealthy fixation with the blame game. When blaming becomes aggressive and demeaning, the error-addressing process becomes unproductive and emotionally draining for all parties. If possible, it’s best to set accountability aside until the investigation is over.
Ask for Objectivity
Objectivity is difficult for humans because egos are so often involved. If you’ve avoided the blame game early on, you’ve got a good chance of getting the process off to an objective start. Calmly explain signs of subjectivity to the team: people repeating second-hand information or conveying their third-hand observations are two. People resorting to opinions, stretching the truth, or omitting information are a few others.
Keep track of collected information along with its sources. Ask whether people remembered anything surprising leading up to the error. Did they remember thinking it was strange to start a task that wasn’t on the schedule yet? Do they recall an unusually long lead time for equipment repair? Like storms, errors often have telltale signs that they’re developing.
Collect and share hard data like documents, emails, and time frames. Don’t forget to record what went right. That’s part of the picture and can help prevent similar errors. Finally, report and recommend, sharing results with the team and others who need to know.