Why Do Your Workers Stand Around?

Working with an organization in Germany recently, I noticed a worker phenomena I have seen for years in the United States: three workers standing around watching one worker finishing concrete. “Just like government workers,” I said before my brain could slow me. The company rep I was with laughed a little and said, “Ya, we have same saying in Germany. Unfortunately, these are private contractor workers.” This led to an interesting conversation about employee utilization.

Taking some time to dissect this perhaps global employee issue, I proceeded to use the old Japanese problem-solving technique the 5 Whys. Here we go…

Observation: Three workers stand around watching one worker…work.

Why? #1: Why are the workers standing around watching? Answer: Because the three workers have completed their work.

Why? #2: Why are the three workers not assisting the working employee? Answer: There aren’t enough tools to finish the concrete or not enough room.

Why? #3: Why are there not enough tools for the three workers to assist in the finish? Answer: The contractor did not plan for there to be that much work to be finished OR did not anticipate the other three workers to finish their work early.

Why? #4: Why did the contractor not consider the amount of work to be completed? Answer: Because he does not fully understand his team’s productivity rate.

Why? #5: Why does he not understand his crew’s productivity rate? Answer: Because he does not measure productivity rate or is too busy bidding more work.

Well, you can see that it is the contractor who is primarily responsible for his three workers standing around while their fourth crew mate is working. Why do we sometimes see workers standing around, watching another worker work? I think there are at least six reasons.

1. No Pre-Planning

Review some of my past articles and you’ll find several references to the need for pre-planning through a tool called the “next week look ahead.” The NWLA specifically addresses the number of workers you will take, what they will be working on, and what amount of work is to be completed. There is really very little excuse today for not pre-planning each project, no matter the size.

2. Too Many Laborers

The crew foreman who says, “I always have six guys” is the same crew foreman who will shoot your job profit. Knowingly taking too many workers to a job is slow financial suicide; not knowing productivity rates to determine the number of employees to take to complete a job is construction ignorance. The first cause should result in someone getting fired! The second cause should be proof enough that “Business 101” is needed.

3. Over-Estimation on Bids

Estimating is difficult if it’s done correctly. Even the best contractors realize the detail orientation that must be practiced to arrive at the exact cost projection needed for each job. While some estimates will be way out of line, most contractors are pretty darn close. If anything, they may be too tight due to wanting to win more jobs in this tough economy. However, if there is a pattern of “Over or Under” estimating work, you should address the reasons for such estimating inconsistencies and correct accordingly.

4. Not Enough Tools

Equipment and tool maintenance is a huge problem that busy contractors often do not prepare to execute. If you do not have such a preventive maintenance program in place you need to develop one ASAP or you will be out of luck before you know it.

One other quick point of reference here: take the time to budget. Your company budget should address how much will be spent on purchase of new equipment and tools and how much will be spent on their maintenance.

5. Work Culture Too Lax

Discipline is sorely missing from many construction businesses today. The entire work ethic in general is not what it once was. Therefore, it is critical that contractors be more assertive in clearly setting expectations for how to work. Without creating a new list of rules and regulations, contractors need to conduct regularly scheduled meetings with all of their employees to remind them of what is needed, when things are needed, what is the expected work habits on the job sites. Teamwork needs to be defined and should include what it means to assist coworkers, that no job is completed until every thing is done right, no matter who completes the actual task. Goals should be used to keep the crew’s focus.

6. Surprises Happen

Perhaps a customer has changed directions on your project or an area you planned to work in is in use by another contractor. Any change can disrupt your labor plan, but if we are more often seeing extra workers on a job than is required, trust me, this is either due to poor planning or inaccurate estimating.

While we need to be prepared for the unexpected, this often means having an Option A or B ready to go when such surprises do take place.

Be swift and clear about addressing the “too many employees” problem, and create a lean work team. Having just one less worker is often more productive than having one too many.

Brad Humphrey is President of Pinnacle Development Group, a consulting organization to the construction industry. Brad is a regular contributor to this magazine and speaker at the National Pavement Exposition where he will be presenting five sessions including “Critical Issues for Small Contractors” Jan. 23-26, 2013 in Nashville. For more information about Brad’s firm, go to www.pinnacledg.com.