I worked as a designer for many years and I used to deliver quality for my construction projects the hard way- using bullying tactics. When I took a job as the Owner’s rep I figured a smart way- using leadership tools. I did not realize the power of leadership tools before. I also discovered that along with the Consultant and the Contractor, the Owner can play a powerful role in construction quality when leadership tools are employed.
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After I was hired as a capital project manager for an Owner of 50 facilities, I found my office located in the Operations and Maintenance building. The location provided me a great opportunity to mingle with the facility managers and the trade staff. They used to share a lot of stories about their experiences with existing buildings and new projects and their frustrations about the quality of construction. They told me that my predecessors never valued their concerns and they were surprised that I did. I used to empathize with them because, ultimately my job was to have a new facility in place or retrofit an existing one within a few years or less and their job was to operate and maintain it for next 50 or more years! So my short term work had a long term impact on their work
The big issue:
One question they used to ask me often- why the new facilities don’t long anymore? They had real life example of a brand new facility, completed a year ago, state of the art, LEED Gold certified green building, won numerous prestigious prizes, was on the news, and was published and republished many times. Obviously the Owner, the Architect and the Contractor were all proud of it, but it was the worst nightmare ever for the Operations and Maintenance guys. The brand new building was already generating ten times more work orders than any older building was doing. Literally that fancy building was burning them and their budget out. How green or sustainable was that? So I did a little research by digging into the history of work orders of a 10 years old facility and compared to the new facility. When I printed them out I was shocked! The guys were right- the 10 years old facility printed 3 pages of work orders and the 1 year old facility printed 30 pages of work order- wow!
This is a classic example of ruining quality, get rewarded for it and make the Owner go crazy. No wonder the guys were so frustrated! When I asked them, “why are you complaining now, why didn’t you tell the Architect and the Contractor that you wanted a building that must last long?” The answer was quick- “no one cared about us!”
A solution without leadership tools:
Shortly, I found that there was a mechanism in place to get their input through documents review but the motivation was missing. To make sure they could not complain later, the documents would be distributed to them for a quick review without sufficient briefing or guidance. After a few reminders, the documents would come back without any input or with haphazard input, if any. The Architect would be finalizing the documents by then. As a result, the staff would stay away during construction, but after handover, they would start changing things to suit their needs. In short, the bullying tactics for collecting input wasn’t working.
A different solution using leadership tools:
I realized that I needed a different mechanism to motivate them for providing input. I got lucky- my employer offered training for a bunch of managers titled “21st Century Leadership and Learning.” I was able to discover my leadership tools during the training. later I came across a book titled ‘Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making’ by Sam Kaner. These two things changed my mind-set and showed me the way to engage these people effectively with courage and collaboration.
I offered the facility managers and the trades staff a half a day workshop on how the District can help improve construction quality in capital projects. They came and we had a lot of fun together.
Here is what we did before and during the workshop:
- Vision: I consulted privately with the facility managers and the trades staff back and forth to set the vision that quality was everyone’s job. They agreed on the idea and supported me to move my mission forward.
- Communication: The idea was to let people communicate their views without being challenged by their peers or superiors. About 20 managers and trades staff met in a large meeting room and pushed the desks to create an open space. I divided the group into two, stood them at the two ends of the room and provided a blank piece of paper and a pen to each. I showed them how to make paper planes; most of them knew it anyways. The environment for fearless communication was ready.
- Creativity: Everyone anonymously wrote his or her own creative ideas on the topic, folded into a plane and flew across the room. Each person picked up a plane that came from the other side and continued expanding on the idea already written on it. We did this exercise three times. People aged from 30 years to 60 years enjoyed the game as kids do.
- Critical Thinking: Then we collected the planes and read them out loud. A bunch of great ideas came out supported by their peers! We dissected and analyzed every idea and then sorted and compared them.
- Leading: At this point, I took on the dual role of being a facilitator and a contributor. I started drawing a mind map on the whiteboard and offering my suggestions for actions based on the mind map.
- Following: At the same time of offering suggestions, I kept my ears open for counter suggestions and discarding mine without prejudice. It made people feel that I was following them as well while I was leading them.
What came out of the workshop?
This is what we got as the top action- in the next 60 days we will come up with a guide titled ‘the Capital Projects’ Requirements’ or the CPR. The CPR to include quality needs for civil work, landscape work, building materials, mechanical, plumbing, electrical work, and commissioning. This will be a living document and updated on a needed basis. It will be handed to the design team at the beginning of the project. When the 50% and 90% drawings and specifications come in for review the staff will have the CPR as a reference.
The CPR was drafted, edited, vetted and used for the next project. It was a grand success! I did not hear complaints during document review that they were too busy. During construction, they were very supportive and after construction, they didn’t have to start changing things anymore.
What changed? Two things- they owned the decision that they had to spend time during the design stage and that they had the CPR as a guide to make that time meaningful.
You can see with the right mindset you can pick up your leadership tools and change the world, obviously construction quality is one of those things. Keep in mind that you don’t always need a lot of people around to use your leadership tools. The tools work as good for even when you are dealing with an individual or two privately.
When you need people on your side for a change, always look in your back pocket full of leadership tools. If you are a Capital Project Manager it’s even easier for you!