Improving Your Supervisor's Work Day

How your supervisor can evaluate and prioritize tasks to be more productive — and effective.

There is little doubt that the key profit center for each and every construction firm is the on-site construction supervisor. Weather does not determine project time, cost, schedule, quality, and safety. Labor unions do not determine project results. Designers that may or may not be prompt in responding to questions do not dictate the project results. It is the actions or non-actions of the construction supervisor that determine the project time, cost, quality, and safety. Weather, labor constraints, inspectors, material shortages, and equipment availability should be viewed as "bumps in the road" that provide the project supervisor opportunities to make a difference.

Tomorrow's Work Task
High Cost
Critical on Time Schedule
Productivity Risk
Uncertain or New Work Task
Priority for supervision
1= highest
5 = lowest
Work task 1
Work task 2
Work task 3
Work task 4
Work task 5


My studies indicate that most on-site construction supervisors make between 40 and 80 decisions a day that affect project time, cost, quality, and safety. There is not another manufacturing industry that places as much importance and responsibility on the supervisor as the construction industry. Put two different supervisors in charge of the same construction project and one would observe a completely different project result.

Some of the smartest managers in the world are construction supervisors. I often ask my seminar audience to think about what their automobile would cost, let alone would it run, if they had to build their automobile on their driveway; each automobile they built was different; they had to coordinate materials coming to their driveway from 50 or more directions; they had to manage as many as six or more subcontractors working on their automobile at the same time; they had to work on the automobile each and every day no matter if it was cold or hot, humid, windy, or raining; and multiple inspectors stood over them each and every day as they tried to assemble the automobile.

Obviously, it would be a daunting task; one that takes many supervisory skills and an ability to plan, organize, and prioritize. Even with these skills, it would be questionable if the resulting automobile would work; let alone be assembled on time and on budget. The reader will observe that I just described the daunting task of the individual that manages the construction process; i.e. the construction supervisor.

The Need to Prioritize

Few would disagree that most construction supervisors are asked to do more than they have time to do. Visit most construction projects and one will observe many construction work activities taking place at the same time. How can the supervisor be everywhere and do everything? The simple answer is he cannot. So he must prioritize and focus his attention on what I refer to as the "vital few" versus the "useful many." He must prioritize his available supervisory hours.

To aid the supervisor in managing his or her valuable available supervisory work hours, I have developed a worksheet that the supervisor can use as an aid in helping determine where he needs to be (vital activities) and where he doesn't need to be (useful activities) each and every day. The form (on page 28) focuses the supervisor's attention and efforts on work activities that have the following four characteristics set out in bold print: High cost, critical on time schedule, productivity risk, uncertain or new work task.

Near the end of each workday, the supervisor is to use the form noted above to prioritize where he is to expend the most supervision hours on the next day. The form and process will help the supervisor focus on what work is important ("vital") such that the supervisor can provide support and assistance to the workers performing the work.

High cost

The construction process is commonly viewed as a process of using labor and equipment to turn material into completed parking lots, roads, bridges, buildings etc. However, one could argue that the supervisor is really in charge of managing the construction firm's money.

I'm reminded of the first time I met my neighbor, a small plumbing contractor. I asked him what he did for a living. "I'm in the business of collecting and processing information such that I can optimally manage my money. And oh, by the way, once in awhile, I put in plumbing pipe to keep track of it."

His point was well made; some contractors manage projects without an eye to the cost of things; they might spend too much of their time managing small or insignificant work tasks or things. One remembers the line from the movie; "show me the money".

The supervisor would do well to prioritize his or her daily supervision time by focusing on the money. For example, if one work crew is doing work on one end of the project that costs $3.00 per unit, say excavation work, and another crew is doing work on the other end of the project such as concrete placement that costs $150 per unit, if the supervisor cannot be in both places, the supervisor should spent most of his time with the crew doing the higher cost work.

This appears obvious. However, I find the problem is that the supervisor may not know what things cost. While giving a seminar recently, I asked a group of concrete supervisors how much a steel-ply form costs; the supervisors did not know. Similarly, I asked a group of sheet metal supervisors how much a lift costs, and they did not know. They should know. Cost books and cost data are not only relevant to the construction estimator; they are relevant to the supervisor. I recommend that the supervisor should be given a sheet of paper listing the cost of everything at his or her job to include the various work tasks. Only then can the supervisor prioritize his focus when allocating supervision hours.

The importance of viewing things as cost rather than "things" was also demonstrated to me during a recent site visit I made to a job site with a group of students. Given that they were in my productivity improvement class, while they were at the job site, they were very attentive to focusing on a group of workers that were taking a break having a cigarette during the work process.

They knew the workers were making more than $40 per hour with labor burdens. As such, when they saw the workers taking an unnecessary fifteen minute break, they were critical of the workers. On the other hand, while we were at the site, a piece of equipment that rents for more than $120 an hour did not move or perform any work during a four hour time period. However the students, future supervisors, said nothing about the idle equipment. I'd suggest the reason the students focused on the idle workers rather than on the $120 per hour idle equipment is that they knew what the workers made per hour. On the other hand, they viewed the equipment as a machine, i.e. metal. If the equipment had a sign on it that indicated that it cost $120 per hour, the focus would have been on the idle equipment. The more the supervisor views "things," to include labor, material, tools, and equipment as money, the better the supervisor will be in allocating his supervisory time.

Critical on time schedule

At the university level we pay much attention to teaching students about the "critical path" and the importance of managing the critical path work activities. If two work crews are at different locations on a project tomorrow, and one of the work activities is on the critical path that dictates the project completion date, and the other work activity is not on the critical path, it is obvious that the supervisor needs to pay more attention to assisting and controlling the critical path work activity and crew.

As simple as this might seem, the fact remains that the supervisor may not know the critical path activities. For one, the firm may not prepare a formalized critical path schedule. Secondly, even if the firm does prepare a project schedule, the firm may not communicate the schedule to the supervisor. Third, the schedule may not be updated on a timely basis to reflect the changing criticality of the various work activities. Construction, unlike other manufacturing industries, is subject to many "bumps in the road" that result in changes in work task productivity, durations, and even sequencing. For a schedule to be effective, it needs to be updated on an ongoing basis. It must reflect not only events that have occurred to date; but also revise productivity, durations, and sequencing of yet to be completed work task based on knowledge gained from work performed to date. If the schedule is not updated, and is made available to the supervisor, he might focus attention on an activity that was critical but is no longer critical; the critical path can change.

I suspect that given the proliferation of scheduling software and scheduling training both in the university and outside of the university, most supervisors are focused on "critical path" work tasks. In fact, in light of the fact that I argue that there are four, not one, criteria that dictate what I refer to as the "vital activities," it may be that on occasion the supervisor may even over-focus on the critical path.

Productivity risk

One of my favorite stories I give at my frequent construction productivity improvement seminars relates to the construction of a concrete foundation wall. The construction entails the forming of the walls, the placement of rebar, and the chuting of the concrete from a ready mix truck into the wall. Most attendees at the seminar agree with me that most supervisors are present when the crew is placing the concrete; in fact it often looks like a convention is taking place on this day.

On the other hand, when the workers are erecting forms for walls, little supervision seems to be present. It may be on this day that the supervisors are doing their paperwork or are busy supervising another task. However the fact remains that when I review job cost accounting data for completed concrete jobs, more often than not, the contractor has the biggest craft man-hour overruns or under runs in the forming work task. It is my observation that more often than not, the same contractor brings in the placement craft hours very close to budgeted man-hours. It is my contention that the concrete firm makes or loses big money on the forming operation, not the placement task. The firm busts or makes the planned project schedule because of the forming work task, not the placement work task. Forming productivity is risky; it has more productivity variation! Each forming work task is somewhat unique and is skill dependent. This is not to say that the supervisor should not be present or be attentive the day the concrete is being placed. However, he must be equally attentive to the forming work task; this is where the productivity risk lies.

I recently was engaged by a mechanical contractor to spend a few days critiquing work crews installing conveyor systems in a warehouse distributing plant. The supervisor was with the workers when they were installing the mechanical parts on the straight line. However, when the workers got to the corner and had to make a turn, they could not figure out the drawings as to the dimensions and the work process. Sure enough, at this very moment, the supervisor had gone to the trailer to tend to some other duties. The result was the crew stood idle for 20 minutes as they sought out the supervisor to assist them.

The morale of the story is that the supervisor did not need to be with the crew when they were going down the straight wall; it was a low risk production process. However when the high-risk productivity task occurred, the supervisor was not present. The straight wall work fit my definition of the "useful many"; the corner work was "vital."

Uncertain or new work

The construction process is such that on most projects, the construction firm performs much work that they do on each and every project they construct. In addition there are typically a few work tasks that are required that the firm has not done previously or has little experience in doing the task.

For example, on a recent consulting project, I was engaged to assist a general contractor to set up a control system for constructing a prison. This contractor had previously always subcontracted the brick and block work while self-performing concrete work, structural work, etc. However, given the fact that the mason subcontractor bids they received were high on the prison project, they felt that they had to do the masonry work in order to successfully bid and perform the project.

Given the lack of experience doing the masonry work, we decided to add extra supervision to the masonry work and to implement a monitoring system that enabled us to measure and report on the number of brick and block we were placing each and every four hours for each and every crew. On the other hand, for the work we normally did, we used the firm's in-place weekly labor reporting system. We recognized that we were either going to make a lot of money or lose a lot of money owing to the masonry work. The firm's unfamiliarity with this type of work made it "vital." We needed more supervisory hours on this work task.

Why formalize the process?

It is true that many supervisors, especially the most effective supervisors, do consider the four criteria that I have set out. As I indicated, one should never underestimate the knowledge and skills of most construction supervisors.

My argument for having the supervisor fill out the form I have shown on a daily basis is that the process should be regimented. Each and every supervisor should make a habit of doing this daily. In addition, by using a form do to it the process can be monitored for supervisor compliance with the assignment.

Decision-making should be left to the supervisor. However, procedures should be regimented. If a procedure is good for one supervisor it should be good for all supervisors. Supervisors should be empowered to make the 40 to 80 decisions that are required every day. However, they should not be empowered to decide which company procedures they will follow. This is the argument for using a form such as the one shown for focusing on the "vital" work tasks. Working smarter, not harder can yield significant benefits to all.

James J. Adrian, professor of civil engineering and construction at Bradley University, Peoria, IL, is also president of Adrian International LLC and Construction Systems Company, companies providing consulting services to the construction industry. He will present "Doubling Jobsite Productivity: A "How-To" Guide" and "Eight Ways to Prosper as a Contractor" at National Pavement Expo, Feb. 15-18 in Charlotte, NC. For information visit