How to Identify the Effective Supervisor

10 skills your next job foreman should have or develop.

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The difference between the success or failure of a construction project in great part lies in the role of the construction supervisor. The supervisor may be a project superintendent, a foreman, or a project manager.

Some individuals place too much of the blame for low construction productivity on labor unions or factors such as weather. I've heard remarks like "I can't do anything about productivity on my job; labor and labor work rules dictate productivity on my project." Such a statement is simply untrue and unfounded. The supervisor runs the project! How he or she manages it is the difference between a productive and nonproductive project.

If you were to assign three different supervisors to the same project, the time and cost of the project would be different for all three supervisors. The difference between the project time and cost can be defined as the impact of the supervisor; the right to manage.

Studies I've performed indicate that frequently the supervisor makes more than 100 decisions a day at the project that affect the time and cost of the project. Some of these decisions, such as decisions regarding the selection of a construction method, are apparent. But decisions such as what time to pour concrete, while appearing less important, also affect productivity, time, and cost.

Given the importance of the supervisor, the question can be asked, what are the characteristics or skills of an effective construction supervisor? So here are the 10 most-important characteristics of the effective construction supervisor in today's complex construction process.

  1. Technically competent; knows how to build

You should not discount the importance of the supervisor knowing how to build; he must be technically competent. Regardless if it is general work such as paving concrete, or specialized work such as electrical work, the supervisor must know the ins and outs of the construction process. In this regard, there is no substitute for experience.

The construction process is a complex process, one that requires considerable technical knowledge, and the supervisor seldom gets the respect he deserves in this regard. Given the numerous constraints or factors such as weather, various governmental regulations, and labor work rules, one might suggest that the construction supervisor needs to be smarter than the supervisor in non-construction industries.

  1. Challenges and critiques as well as monitors work

Studies have frequently cited what I characterize as the "four hour work day" in construction (see Figure 2). Put another way, as much as 50% of the typical construction workday is nonproductive. There are numerous reasons for this nonproductive time. Included are inadequate project planning and scheduling, equipment breakdowns, poor communications, indecision, and ineffective material handling.

A 50% non-productive construction day is not necessarily bad news. One can argue that this nonproductive time offers the supervisor the potential to increase productivity. Instead of looking at nonproductive time as waste, one can view it as opportunity.

It is important that the supervisor of construction closely monitor the many workers and pieces of equipment he has at a project. He must monitor them in order to reduce nonproductive time.

However, in an industry with as much as a 50% opportunity to improve productivity, it is important that the effective supervisor challenge or critique the work process as well as monitor it. The supervisor should not accept a work process. He should be constantly challenging the work process looking for improvements.

Many industrial engineering type of models or approaches can be used by the supervisor to challenge, critique, and evaluate a work method. However, a simple approach such as the supervisor asking himself questions such as why are we doing the work this way, are there other ways, or can the work be done better at a different time or using different resources, can lead to the implementation of an improved work method. Calculations on a note pad of productivity and unit costs can aid the supervisor in determining an improved work method.

  1. Focuses on work production, cost, and risk

The supervisor commonly focuses on production when performing his supervision role. He tries to produce as much work as possible (while also focusing on the obtaining of quality). The supervisor tries to do as much earthwork or paving as he can in a specific time period.

The point is that by focusing only on production, the supervisor might improperly allocate his own supervision and management time. Consider the excavation and concrete work tasks. Excavation work can be performed for $2 to $5 per cubic yard. On the other hand, the labor and material cost combined for concrete placement work exceeds $80 per cubic yard. If excavation and concrete work is being performed today, and given the higher cost of the concrete work, you might argue that the supervisor should be focusing on the management of the concrete work.

The fact that the supervisor might not review the estimate or think "cost" might lead to a poor allocation of his own time. The supervisor must know and think cost when managing specific work tasks.

The supervisor must also think work or productivity "risk." Consider the process of placing a concrete foundation wall. It is a three-step process: forming the wall, placing rebar into the wall, and placing or pouring the concrete into the wall. The question is, "which of these three work processes has the most productivity variation?"

The answer is, forming. Owing to difficulties with the corner form, or with ties, or with aligning the forms, the amount of square feet of contact area of forming placed in any one hour can vary significantly. However, if you were to observe the three work processes, the day that everyone appears to be supervising the work closely is the day the concrete is being placed. You could argue that the day the workers are placing the forms is the day that the contractor makes or loses money. It's critical the supervisor monitor the riskier forming work process.

In summary, in allocating his management and supervision time, it is important that the supervisor consider production, unit cost, and productivity variation or risk. Review of the project estimate should aid the supervisor in paying more attention to unit cost and productivity risk.

  1. Monitors equipment productivity and usage

Many studies have focuses on nonproductive labor time at the job site. Given the fact that most individuals, to include the supervisor, know that a craftsman is making on the order of $20 per hour (even without benefits), attention focuses on keeping the craftsmen working. If a craftsman were standing idle for an hour or two, clearly the supervisor would reprimand him or maybe even attempt to fire him.

While it is important to keep craftsmen in a productive state, it is equally important to keep available equipment productive. Equipment and labor can be viewed as the resources a supervisor uses to perform productivity, to place material. Perhaps the only difference between a piece of equipment and craftsmen is their hourly rate or cost. Whereas a craftsman's hourly rate is $20, most construction equipment rents or has an hourly ownership rate of $40 to $200.

If you were to analyze a project, you usually would find that equipment is in a nonproductive state more than a craftsman. There are days or even weeks when a piece of equipment might stand idle at the job site.

One of the main reasons why the supervisor is not as critical regarding idle equipment versus idle labor relates to the supervisor not focusing on the equipment as a cost center. Instead, he might view a piece of equipment as a big piece of metal, a machine. Perhaps if every piece of equipment had an hourly rental or ownership cost painted on it, the supervisor would be more attentive to keeping it working. In addition, if the supervisor was accountable for productive versus standby hours of equipment time, he would be attentive to nonproductive equipment time.

  1. Is attentive to timely and accurate record keeping

Timely and accurate jobsite record keeping serves three major purposes:

  • Provides the means of monitoring and controlling labor and equipment costs for an in-process project,
  • Provides data and information for preparing future project estimates and plans,
  • Provides the necessary documentation and support to "prove facts or events" should a dispute, claim or lawsuit evolve.

The first two purposes should be enough incentive to pay increased attention to timely and accurate record keeping. The increased use of computers in the industry has enabled the contractor to better estimate and monitor construction time and cost. However, the computer and accompanying software is still only as good as the information gathered at the jobsite. The availability and use of the computer is making job site record keeping even more important.

Unfortunately, sometimes the constructor and supervisor only get attentive to the importance of jobsite record keeping when they get involved in a dispute, claim, or lawsuit. Accurate and timely jobsite information is often the difference between winning and losing a dispute, claim, or lawsuit.

The supervisor should be evaluated on many factors to include his safety record and ability to build projects on time. However, the supervisor's attentiveness to collecting timely and accurate job site records should also be considered. Thought might be given to giving recognition or an award to the supervisor that has kept the best set of jobsite records.

  1. Treats individuals with respect and as equals

The effective supervisor must show leadership and exhibit an authoritative type of management style. However, while he must be authoritative, he must also treat his subordinates with respect and dignity. Labor cost represents as much as 40% of the total cost of a project. Given this high dependence on labor, the supervisor must be attentive to the needs of his subordinates to include the on-site craftsmen.

Every person at the jobsite needs the following if to be a productive worker:

  • Pride-in-work
  • Measuring system
  • Communication channel
  • Incentives

The only difference between the supervisor and a craftsman is the approach to these four worker needs. While the supervisor might measure his success by how much the project can be constructed under budget, the craftsman might measure his success by his ability to meet a work budget. Similarly, while the supervisor might obtain pride-in-work via being highlighted at the company's annual meeting, the craftsman might take pride-in-work by being called out in front of his peers for having made a good "work smarter not harder" work method suggestion.

The effective supervisor recognizes his subordinates as equals. He continually searches for means of providing a working environment that provides each worker the four worker needs.

  1. Is willing to try new ideas

Experience is often cited as an important characteristic in the construction process. However, if experience means unwillingness to change, it is not a favorable attribute.

The supervisor should remember that a typical construction work method might contain as much as 50% productivity improvement potential. In an industry that offers this much potential, willingness to try new ideas, to include new work methods, new approaches to assigning crewmembers, and new assignment of responsibilities can be the difference between increased productivity and the status quo.

In an industry characterized by low productivity and the potential to improve, we need individuals that are willing to try new ideas, not just accept the inefficiencies of the past.

  1. Is willing to work as a team member

The construction process is a process that requires individuals and firms to be dependent on one another. Any one contractor's ability to perform is dependent on another contractor at the jobsite. The designer's ability to meet his project goals is dependent on the cooperation and "give-and-take" attitude of the contractor and vice versa, and the ability of the construction supervisor to meet his goals is dependent on the cooperation of his subordinates to include the craftsmen.

Instead of creating an adversarial role, every individual in the construction process must respect and cooperate with the needs of other project entities. Unless everyone at the jobsite, to include the craftsmen, the supervisor, subcontractors and the general contractor, the designer, and the project owner are willing to give and take a little and work as a team with a common objective of constructing a high-quality project on time and one budget, the only winners will be lawyers that will have to unravel the conflicts and disputes.

  1. Places as much emphasis on planning as on putting out fires

Productivity studies I've performed indicate that as much as 24% of an eight-hour work day is nonproductive owing to a lack of planning and scheduling. The supervisor may expend most of his day "putting out fires" that result because of inadequate planning.

Much of the "putting out fires" characteristic of the construction workday can be reduced by more attention to planning. This may entail procedures aimed at preparing a detailed overall project plan such as a critical path diagram or something as simple as setting out a work plan for tomorrow's work. Readying tools, equipment, and labor at the end of one day for work to be performed the next day can result in a reduction of wasted idle time.

Is it possible to build a construction project without planning? The answer is "yes." Is it possible to build a construction project for the least amount of time and cost without adequate planning? The answer is a resounding "no!" Consider what would happen if you headed to a new location in your automobile without taking a road map. You might eventually get there, but you would not get there in the least amount of time or for the least of cost.

  1. Puts a high priority on quality and safety

Last but certainly not least in importance is the concentration on obtaining a high quality of workmanship and attention to safety. A productive project is a safe and high quality project. These are compatible objectives.

Poor quality or work accidents result in people having a negative attitude about their work and company objectives. Given a work environment that stresses quality and safety, everyone attains pride-in-work and a winning spirit. It is this type of spirit and work ethic that the supervisor must promote and achieve.

Can the Supervisor Make a Difference?

Assume the supervisor does exhibit the skills or attributes set out above. How can he or she impact the project? Consider an example cost estimate for a project as illustrated in Figure 3. This is an example breakdown of the cost components for a building construction project.

As illustrated, a mere 5% increase in productivity can have the effect of decreasing the labor cost by 5%. On a $1 million project this represents a $20,000 savings in labor cost. This cost savings would result in a 100% increase in profits.

Looked at another way, studies I've performed indicate that one-third of nonproductive time is directly controllable by the supervisor. If you assume that 50% of labor costs expended in Figure 3 is nonproductive, it follows that the supervisor, by his own actions, can increase productivity by 16.7%. This represents a potential labor savings of approximately $66,667. In other words, in this analysis the supervisor decisions and actions can generate $66,667 of cost savings. This savings would generate additional profits three times greater than planned profits in the Figure 3 bid. Clearly, the supervisor can make a difference. He or she is the key to a successful project.

James J. Adrian, president of Adrian International LLC, is a regular speaker at National Pavement Expo and will present "8 Ways to Prosper as a Contractor" at National Pavement Expo West, Nov. 30- Dec. 2 in Las Vegas. For more information visit