Defining the "black list" trade contractors and why black means gray

For general contractors all over North America, there exists a proverbial black list of trade partners that do nothing but disappoint and wreak havoc on their world. Just as there are great subcontractors and many strong general contractors and construction managers, on the other end of the spectrum there are the weakest general contractors and subcontractors. Then there is in between.

Many contractors live in a world of gray, performing superbly on one project only to crash and burn on the next. More often than not, poor performance simply stems from a strong desire to overpromise and then failing to meet lofty expectations. No one sets out to be the weak one but somewhere along the way a misstep lands them squarely in the crosshairs of a customer.

For every trade contractor that exhibits the traits of the black list contractor, there is more than likely a group of general contractors that are culpable in contributing to the behavior. The number of amazing contractors far outnumbers pitiful performers in the world. However, it is a mistake to think that any contractor can survive without proper planning—tactical or strategic—and effective communication—internal or external.

Consider any trade contractor that is selected based on a low bid and subsequently thrust into an uncoordinated project with little feedback or guidance, building off documents riddled with errors and the mistakes, only to reach an unflattering conclusion with moniker of “bad contractor” branded to them like a scarlet letter.

It is unacceptable to think a trade contractor will be anything but mediocre without the proactive intervention of a project leader guiding the quagmire of complexities that are
inherent in any construction project.

The First Shade of Gray

Preconstruction planning is one of the primary tenets of effective project management, yet it is often forsaken for a litany of reasons ranging from lack of time to lack of resources. If preconstruction planning is not happening internally with the general contractor, is it safe to assume that it is occurring across the 10 or 15 different trades individually/collectively as a construction team?

“We’re not responsible for planning for our subcontractors,” is the wrong answer. An effective project leader owns the project plan and realizes that he is often the custodian of the only planning that a trade contractor might receive. Consistent preconstruction planning should be extended beyond the internal project team. See Figure 1 for elements of planning that help guide the individual trade partners.

Trade contractor preconstruction planningFigure 1. Trade Contractor Preconstruction Planning

Too often, the general contractor will whine about his inability to get the trade contractor to attend a planning meeting. Whether it is strongly worded in the subcontractor agreement,
or the general contractor uses some financial instrument to convince the trade team members of the importance of the strategic planning event, a project manager must insist that this occurs.

Graying Over Time

For a site contractor, concrete contractor or any early schedule contractor, global planning sessions are often fresh and inspiring. Everyone is cordial and civil and with only a few trade partners to coordinate, the complexity is kept to a minimum. For an office building or industrial facility that is nearing the midpoint of the schedule, dealing with “border skirmishes” within the cavalcade of contractors is no small task. Weekly progress meetings have become standard operating procedures for most contractors.

However, the effectiveness of such meetings often comes into question. Ninety percent of the time, they involve a general superintendent barking commands to a roomful of half-interested bystanders focused on telling the 500-pound gorilla what he or she wants to hear. There is little planning in looking like a bobblehead doll, nodding to every command.

Demand a higher level of planning across the project. A weekly look-ahead tool is an essential component of a general contractor’s planning. Involve the trade contractor—many firms demand this level of proactive thinking from their trade partners.

When everyone realizes that this isn’t punishment, and that it will help their own labor productivity, projects will finish on time, disputes can be resolved and everyone wins.

As the general superintendent gathers each of these during the weekly meeting, he can track weekly performance to ensure those trade partners are meeting their goals.

It is important to note that educating the trade partners on how the productivity tool is used, particularly at the preconstruction meeting, will be far more effective than blindly commanding a trade foreman to fill out this mandatory piece of paper.

Black or White

As the dust settles and the ribbons are cut, many trade contractors go back to the realm of obscurity only to be tapped again for the next bid. The complaints only roll in when a project manager has “that contractor” on a project. Where was this feedback months ago? One element of a post-job review that is sorely absent in most firms is an objective measurement system to truly grade performance.

Realizing that many trade partners perform adequately, there may be little benefit in evaluating every contractor engaged. Construction teams often lack the time to sufficiently conduct this critical step, so limiting the list to the top three and bottom three performers will focus the discussion.

Consider their abilities in scheduling, customer service, workmanship and paperwork. Additionally, there are personality conflicts that arise on projects. By keeping the grading criteria to true project drivers, an objective analysis can be done.

It is important to ensure that high performers (great contractors) are recognized for their efforts. Construction can often be a thankless business and it is about time construction managers acknowledge the dedicated team members that make a project a winner.

General contractors that broker 80-100 percent of their work to trade contractors should have the utmost respect for the skilled craftsmen who are essential assets to any project.

No trade contractor is a commodity and each one can make or break a construction project.

However, the sophistication of every contractor is varied and expecting trade contractors to manage themselves in this dynamic and increasingly complex construction world is foolish.

A general contractor who relies on trade contractors receives a fee to manage. Managing requires proactive planning and thorough communication.

Banishing someone to the blacklist is a cop out when so many firms live in world of gray.