Don't Just Stand There

Working with an organization in Germany recently, I noticed the same worker phenomena I have seen for years in the United States. There were three workers standing around watching one worker finishing concrete.

Taking a bit of time to dissect this, perhaps “global” employee issue, I proceeded to use the old Japanese problem solving technique called the 5 Whys.

Observation: There are three workers standing around watching one worker working.

Why? #1: Why are the three 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 are not enough tools to finish the concrete or there is 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 understand the productivity rate practiced by his employees.

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

Well, you can see by this transition that the contractor is primarily responsible for his three workers standing around while their fourth crew mate is working. While we could certainly take the 5 Whys in a different direction, let me address this standing around issue.

Why do we sometimes see workers standing around watching another worker complete work? I think there are many reasons but let’s address these six.

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.

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.

Over-estimated labor/quantities. Estimating is difficult if done correctly. 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 and correct accordingly.

Not enough tools. Assuming the contractor has enough of the right tools, this is simply a planning problem. Now, having the right amount of tools, with many damaged, is a different problem. Equipment and tool maintenance is a huge problem that busy contractors often do not prepare to execute. If you do not have a preventive maintenance (PM) program in place you need to develop one.

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. Contractors need to conduct regular meetings with all employees to remind them of what is needed, when things are needed and the expected work habits on jobsites. Teamwork needs to be defined to include the following: 1) assist co-workers, and 2) no job is complete until everything is done correctly, no matter who completes the task.

Something out of the ordinary happens. There are surprises. Perhaps a customer has changed directions or an area you thought you had to work in is now going to be used by another contractor. Any of these can cause momentary change to your labor count. Be prepared for the unexpected with a Plan B.

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

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