Are You Hurting Your Operations Team?
You may be holding back your project without knowing it
by Amy Cash

Sometimes we hurt the ones we love the most. For many construction organizations, project managers often wear targets the size of a barn door, and they don’t even realize it. A great project manager can have a big impact on an organization, similar to that of a quarterback on a football team. The team rises and falls with each reception or interception thrown, and the same can be said of a project manager and his/her crew.

The project manager is the nexus of all information, decisions, communication and project success and failure. If this person is so important, why do we often hurt him/her the most? Of course, no one is consciously beating the project quarterback. Like many football programs, firms like to think they protect their assets, like a quarterback wearing the red no-contact jersey. But what is said and what is done are two entirely different things.

No Offensive Line

One of the first critiques of many firms is the lack of resources available to project managers. Seriously examine the team you have and look at how much your employees have on their plate. Firms constantly hear about the new constraints, regulations and procedures that their operations teams have to accomplish, yet they staff them with the same personnel and general conditions that were used 10 to 20 years in the past. Obviously, there is a fine line that separates competitiveness from being “fat.” Too often, though, firms err toward being incredibly conservative, breaking their general conditions into fractional components.

While it may work in the estimating war room, managers are suffering through projects that are inappropriately staffed, which leads to project overruns and losses. In the end, the project manager looks like the quarterback who suffered the loss, but in reality, the statistic that was buried on the scorecards was the 10 sacks he/she took during the game.

No Training

In their haste to avoid squandering a resource, executives constantly shove new resources onto the field long before they are ready. Has your organization ever said one of the following phrases?

  • “We tend to throw people to the wolves.”
  • “We throw new associates right into the fire.”
  • “New project managers either sink or swim quickly.”

It is understandable that management wants to see an immediate return on its investment. However, there are plenty of rookies that could use some time on the farm system, or even ride the bench for a little while in order to learn how to execute the workflow appropriately. Even for a more seasoned veteran, there should be nuances that are exclusive to the firm that require training, orientation and education. So many managers are talented but lack an understanding of a firm’s specific playbook or operations manual. This does not mean that a new engineer or manager must sit out for two or three building cycles, but it is a strong recommendation that firms inculcate new associates with the semblance of a real training program.

No Playbook

As the team rushes onto the field and the quarterback starts calling plays, no one has a clue which play is being called. So many project managers are hurt by a firm’s lack of consistency in operations. When every project and every client requires a different set of operational tools, it is impossible to gain traction and drive a project successfully. It is as if the plays are being written as the game is being played, much like a group of kids playing in a sandlot.

Meeting agendas are frantically assembled. Logs of critical data are generated as needed. Closeout happens at a cadence, by someone other than the project manager. Proactive gives way to reactive, which leaves the offense to play defense. Why reinvent the wheel with each new associate? Is your organization hurting itself by leaving operations to chance?

No Structure

There have been a few great players in history that were tagged with the moniker of “Slash.” They were great passers, runners and receivers. Double- or triple-threat players are outstanding, and some organizations thrive on having that level of ambiguity in the play calling. Construction organizations are somewhat contrarian to that. There are always great project managers that can be tasked with managing incredible workloads, governing the field, estimating with accuracy and cultivating superior client relationships.

On the other hand, there are many position players that do parts and pieces of the above list very well. Some organizations create disjointed organizational charts that segregate talent disproportionately, leading to resource problems, misalignment among customers and managers and workloads that may be off kilter. There will always be those who work like superstars and those who do not. However, organizations should be striving to move toward more consistent structures by establishing the right playbook, standardizing performance and holding personnel accountable. It is great if a quarterback is throwing 500 yards per game, but that is all for not if the rest of the team fumbles frequently and cannot keep up with the pace of the game.

Project managers are not more important than estimators, superintendents or any other associate within a firm. The main difference is in how project managers are positioned and their level of direct impact on costs and overall profitability. For some firms, the quarterback is the superintendent; while at others, it is the project manager. There has to be a primary play-caller for any project. However, just like within the parallels of a football team, coaches and executives can set their play caller up for failure. There are few firms that fall within the realms of being sadists, but in their zeal to “run lean,” or “be cost conscious,” they forget some of the critical infrastructure that enables even the most pedestrian quarterback to look like Tom Brady.