Updated: Jun 13
by Jake Harrell
I am a glutton for punishment. I live to expand my horizons by stepping out of my expertise and experiencing new hurdles in business. After coming to know the famous Felipe Engineer-Manriquez, and falling deeply in love with his content, I decided construction would be a fine place to dip my toes. To preface the bias of my assessments, I must tell the reader that I have NEVER been to a construction site until February of 2022. My career has been in supply chain, distribution, transportation and most notably in the third-party logistics space. I love this environment because it is mostly comprised of people “making it happen”. All of the best achievements in continuous improvement have come through real breakthroughs in how people behave, and how their actions are associated. I truly felt as if construction would feel exactly like this world, just outside on a field of dirt rather than inside a warehouse. (Trust me, inside of there is still a field of dirt).
I was pleasantly surprised to really feel as if this was EXACTLY the case. During the 40 hours I spent at work, across 6 separate companies, I learned that the absence of the fundamentals of communication were glaringly obvious. How leaders create value for the organization was largely unknown, and people consistently doing very little work while pontificating about how busy they were. I am not utilizing this platform as an attack, but rather to share a rampant commonality that purveys both industries. Sufficient effort isn’t put into communicating, and because of this, leaders become no more than “information brokers” with very little time to lead anything. Given the Superintendent is the substitute for an actual communication plan, their only meaningful source of value add is to jump in and make decisions that should/could have been automated.
This exact situation ACTUALLY happened to me
I have seen elements of this in every single warehouse I have ever worked with. Leaders reacting so much that they live “within the business” rather than living to work “on the business”. 1000 text messages a day. Hundreds of emails. Dozens of phone calls, and a myriad of meetings with varying purpose. This is a comfort zone for a few reasons that are hard wired into who we are as human beings.
• This business strategy makes us FEEL important
• This business strategy makes us FEEL valuable
• This business strategy makes us FEEL psychologically safe
Now these are all great things to feel. I should know, I am a human after all.
However, this NOT an efficient, effective mode on how to run a business. A Superintendent behind a closed door helps nobody. A superintendent in meetings all day helps nobody. A superintendent on his/her phone helps nobody. A superintendent in a trailer all day helps nobody. A superintendent anywhere other than the job site is nonvalue added waste. Enforcing a communication plan resolves all of these problems, how abouts we share an example that ALL of the 6 companies I spent time with could use and leverage for continuous success.
Step one: Design some rules that all trades and trade partners will follow. Rules beginning with behaviors you won’t accept. Behaviors such as:
1. I will NOT call if the discussion point could wait more than the same business day.
2. I will NOT send an email if the discussion point could wait until the next business
3. I will NOT text if the discussion point affects whether or not today’s goals are met.
4. I will NOT use communication to deviate from the daily alignment.
Step two: Now that we have the behaviors we will NOT allow, we need to provide the communication rules we will PROMOTE. Behaviors such as
1. We WILL meet daily to discuss our intended goals.
2. We WILL communicate any constraints to achieving our goals in a daily alignment.
3. We WILL hold ourselves and our partners accountable for sticking to the
4. We WILL evaluate the success of the communication plan regularly.
Step three: Now that we have the behaviors we will and will not accept, we need to iron out the details of a daily alignment meeting. Now in the companies I observed, I have to say something that really surprised me. WOW, there are A LOT of stakeholders. There are dozens and dozens of people that need to be in the loop across many channels, companies, and layers of management to make even the smallest of adjustments successful. Thankfully, the use of the tried-and-true tier system can facilitate this happening effectively.
The tier communication methodology is a simple concept. Each functional group has a meeting each day to review goals, set alignment and discuss constraints. For construction this may look like the following. (Multiple small meetings conducted at the same time.)
0800 with foundation folks
0800 with electricians
0800 with crane operators
0800 with engineers
0800 with plumbers
0800 with accounting
0800 with project management
The idea here is that each functional group is small enough, so the meeting is fruitful. Real discussion, real details, and issues are put to rest. Target a tier group no larger than 12 people, and if you need to have 2 electrical meetings so the 24 electricians can be effective then so be it. As soon as you pass that 12 mark, the group becomes large enough to disengage and “get away with it.” Once you have these meetings, the trade foreman from each group listed will meet at the top of the hour with the Superintendent. During this meeting, individual contributor roles should attend to ensure information is shared both upwards and downwards. Information makes it to the superintendent, while information makes its way back from the trade foreman down to the individual trades. This may look like the following.
0900 with foremen, Superintendent, sales, project management, safety, and billing
Now that we have a strategy in place, the Superintendent’s job needs to shift away from working “in the business” (sending emails, endless phone calls, meetings, texts, etc.) and shift to working “on the business”! More time is spent following up with site tours, validating the goals for each trade are being met, and being proactive where gaps are observed. The communication plan itself becomes another trade in the field from the eyes of the Superintendent. Enforce it, set goals, spend time following up on it. Now moving to this as a strategy will be one of the hardest things an information broker has ever done in his/her career. You will have to be willing to give up that sense of control. That dopamine rush you get when you react and “save the day”. Everything that got you into the position of a Superintendent will NOT get you further. Now is the time to use systems and structure to engineer the outcomes you want, rather than working harder and harder to keep the whole world together.
Now I get it, 40 hours doesn’t make me an expert. In fact, it doesn’t even make me an employee. It is entirely possible that all 6 companies I spent time with are the only 6 in the world that have busy Superintendents. The only 6 that spend 80% or more of their time communicating without a structure. The only 6 that could save time and gain back a real leader in their workplace. I am writing this blog as an open letter to all construction experts. Do you disagree? Do you think this is far too rudimentary? Keep the conversation going and connect with me. Worst case, I get to learn more!
Jake Harrell is a sucker for a good process. After growing a career in various leadership roles, it became extensively clear that business results have a direct relationship to human behavior. One of my core strengths is creating an environment that makes it really clear how to win, then convicting you, seducing you, into wanting the win.
My career started in hospitality, shifted to manufacturing, then third party logistics. In that time, I have climbed both the social and corporate ladders by being a relatable human being. Full of flaws, shortcomings, and all that comes with being a part of humanity. I openly share the secret sauce to business success.
I have written a book about how to solve problems, titled “Chasing Excellence” (https://www.amazon.com/Chasing-Excellence-Jake-Harrell/dp/0578727773), by reframing and standardizing your problem-solving strategy. I also co-host “A Quality Podcast” – (https://youtube.com/channel/UC4iOzsobf99YG1wCxn9r60w).