Construction Field Labor Productivity Improvement Take Away the Excuses

Over the years, much has been written about craft worker productivity.  The Construction Industry Institute (CII) has done several extensive research projects on productivity.  The issue was raised in a formal manner by the old Business Roundtable (BRT) back in the late sixties.  They developed a series of publications that addressed the problem of rapidly rising construction costs facing owner companies.  These articles were broadly covered by the now familiar banner of “More Construction for the Money”®.

Working in the construction industry for many years has given some great insights into craft worker productivity.  I always ask myself the question, “What would I need to have in order to be more productive and have a better perspective about my work, if I were in this same situation?”  Every situation is different, though there are many similarities.  The truth is, there is not one single solution to every productivity issue that one might encounter in the field.  But let’s start with one very straight-forward approach that has proven to yield consistently good results.

Generally speaking, most people don’t show up for work with the idea of “How can I take my employer to the cleaners today and not do one single positive piece of work all day long?”  Most workers don’t have the same outlook on their work or on life that Wally from the comic strip Dilbert® has.  The craft workers I have had the privilege of working with mostly want to and expect to do a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.  They genuinely have a desire to be productive and do good work.  It gives them a feeling of accomplishment and pride.  Rightfully so.

Since contractors and owners both have the same need, for quality work and good production, it would seem there is a three-way win-win-win situation developing in this scenario.  So, what is the key to making everyone a winner?  Making everyone a winner is really pretty easy.  Just take away the excuses for not doing a reasonable amount of high-quality work.  “Oh great!” most would say – “How do we do that?”  Again, put yourself in the situation and ask the question “What would I need in order to be more productive, if I were in this situation myself?”

Let’s look at a crew of pipefitters, for example, in a chemical plant erecting process piping.  If the crew says they need a cherry picker, then, provide one for them.  As the manager, you might look at everything and conclude that in your opinion there is no need for a cherry picker.  But if the crew says they need one, then, by all means, give them a picker.  What a cheap price for improved productivity.  If that does not improve the productivity, then ask what the issue is.  There may be other items that are brought out as “must-haves” for better work.  Provide those items, to the extent possible.  If it is not possible, find a suitable alternative and provide that instead.  Take away the excuses for not being as productive as possible.

The thought is that if I think I need something in order to do better work, then I most likely will not do my best work until I have that item.  I use it as an excuse.  So, as managers, we need to identify those items that are hindrances in the minds of the workers and remove those impediments from their field of view.  Give them a clear view of the work that needs to be done.  Take away the excuses.  It is important for workers to realize they are important to the progress and quality of the work.  When managers listen to the complaints, needs, observations of the workers, the importance of the worker and the worker’s opinion is elevated and they realize they are having a say in the job and an influence in the overall project direction.  The workers will then be willing to point out actual problems and true hindrances to project progress and quality when they realize management actually listens to their input.  This is building trust and a team spirit, where everyone’s input is valued and important.

As strange as it may seem to some, over the years, I have found that the workers actually know their job better than I do.  They know what they need and don’t need better than I.  So, while I think they may need “X”, they may really need “Y”.  I won’t know that unless I listen on purpose to what is being said b by the workers.  As the manager, I must be open to worker suggestions and listen to what they are saying.  Not just the actual words, but sometimes, read between the lines and see what they are saying but not using direct words to say it.

The first step in productivity improvement is to talk with the workers and listen to what they are saying.  Regardless of whether or not you agree with their observations and opinions, be a good listener and “fix” every problem to the greatest extent possible.  When workers understand and are shown that they have a voice and are being heard, they will respond with better work and more work, making everyone’s life much more satisfying and fulfilling.

Submitted by:

Richard S. Troell, P.E., President

TEI Management