The success or failure of a construction project lies with the construction supervisor -- either as project superintendent, foremen or project manager.

You'll hear 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. Supervisors run the project! How they manage it is the difference between a productive and nonproductive project.

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

Studies I've performed indicate supervisors frequently make in excess of 100 project decisions a day that affect its time and cost. Some of these decisions are apparent, like those regarding the selection of a construction method. However, decisions such as what time to pour concrete, while appearing less important, also affect time, cost and project productivity.

So what are the characteristics or skills of an effective construction supervisor? Follow the Ten Commandments of construction supervision, and instill these qualities in your project leaders.

1. Thou shall be technically competent.

You should not discount the importance of the supervisor knowing how to build. Regardless of whether it's general work or specialized, the supervisor must know the ins and outs of the construction process. In this regard, there is no substitute for experience.

The supervisor seldom gets the respect he deserves in regard to his technical knowledge. The construction process is a complex process, one that requires considerable technical knowledge. Given numerous constraints and factors -- weather, governmental regulations, labor work rules, etc. -- you might suggest construction supervisors need to be smarter than supervisors in other industries.

2. Thou shall challenge, critique and monitor work.

Further studies cite what's known in the construction industry as the "four-hour work day." Put another way, as much as 50 percent of the typical construction work day is nonproductive. There are numerous reasons for this nonproductive time, including inadequate project planning and scheduling, equipment breakdowns, poor communications, indecision, and ineffective material handling.

A 50 percent nonproductive construction day is not necessarily bad news. This nonproductive time offers the supervisor the potential to increase productivity. Instead of looking at nonproductive time as waste, view it as opportunity.

In an industry with as much as 50 percent opportunity to improve productivity, it is important that the effective supervisor challenges and critiques the work process, as well as monitors it. Supervisors should not accept a work process; they should be constantly challenging the work process and looking for improvement.

The supervisor can use many models and approaches to challenge, critique and evaluate work methods. However, a simple approach is the supervisor asking himself questions. Why are we doing the work this way? Are there other ways? Can the work be done better at a different time or using different resources?

This process can lead to the implementation of an improved work method. Calculating productivity and unit costs can aid the supervisor in determining improved work methods as well.

3. Thou shall focus on the costs and risks of production.

Supervisors commonly focus on pure production when performing their supervision roles. They try to produce as much work as possible (while certainly also obtaining quality).

But by focusing only on production, supervisors may improperly allocate their supervision and management time. The fact that a supervisor may not review the estimate or think "costs" may lead to this misallocation.

Supervisors must think about work or productivity "risk." It's not a mechanical example, but 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. (Stripping the wall is considered part of the forming.) Which work process has the largest variation in the production performed from one hour to the next?

Most readers would agree that the concrete forming process is subject to the most productivity variation or risk, owing to difficulties with corner form, ties or form alignment. The amount of square feet of contact area of forming places in any one hour can vary significantly.

However, if you observe the three work processes, the day that everyone appears to supervise the work most closely is the day the concrete is being placed. You could argue that the day the workers place the forms is the day the contractor makes or loses money, but it is critical that the supervisor monitors the riskier forming work process.

The supervisor must consider production, unit cost, and productivity risk and variation when allocating his time. Review of the project estimate should aid the supervisor in paying more attention to unit costs and productivity risks.

4. Thou shall monitor equipment productivity and use.

While it is important to keep craftsmen in a productive state, it is equally important to keep available equipment productive. Perhaps the only difference between equipment and craftsmen is their hourly rate or cost.

Usually you'll find that equipment is in a nonproductive state more than a craftsman. There are days or even weeks when a piece of equipment may stand idle at the jobsite.

One of the main reasons supervisors are not as critical regarding idle equipment vs. idle labor relates to their not focusing on equipment as a cost center. Instead, they view equipment as a big piece of metal -- a machine. Perhaps if every piece of equipment had an hourly cost painted on it, supervisors would be more attentive to keeping it working.

5. Thou shall keep timely and accurate recordkeeping.

Timely and accurate jobsite recordkeeping serves three major purposes:
  • It provides the means of monitoring and controlling labor and equipment costs for an in-process project;
  • It provides data and information for preparing future project estimates and plans;
  • It provides 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 recordkeeping. Increased use of computers in the industry has enabled contractors to better estimate and monitor construction time and cost. However, the computer and software is still only as good as the information gathered at the jobsite.

Unfortunately, sometimes constructors and supervisors only become attentive of jobsite recordkeeping when they get involved in a dispute, claim or lawsuit. Accurate and timely job site information is often the difference between winning and losing. Consider giving recognition or awards to supervisors who keep the best set of jobsite records.

6. Thou shall treat individuals with respect and as equals.

Effective supervisors must show leadership and exhibit an authoritative management style. However, while they must be authoritative, they must also treat subordinates with respect and dignity.

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

7. Thou shall try new ideas.

Supervisors should remember that a typical construction work method may contain as much as 50 percent productivity improvement potential. In an industry that offers this much potential, willingness to try new ideas and approaches can be the difference between increased productivity and the status quo.

Perhaps the No. 1 attribute of young men and women entering the construction industry is they are unaccustomed to the inefficiencies of the past. In an industry characterized by low productivity and potential to improve, we need individuals willing to try new ideas, not just accept the inefficiencies of the past.

8. Thou shall work as a team member.

The construction process requires dependency. Any one contractor's ability to perform is dependent on another contractor at the jobsite. 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 works as a team with a common objective of constructing a high quality project on time and on budget, the only winners will be lawyers who will have to unravel the conflicts and disputes.

9. Thou shall place equal emphasis on planning and 'putting out fires.'

I have performed productivity studies that indicate as much as 24 percent of an eight-hour work day is nonproductive, owing to a lack of planning and scheduling. Supervisors may spend most of their day "putting out fires" that result because of inadequate planning.

Supervisors need to pay more attention to planning. This may entail procedures aimed at preparing a detailed overall project plan, such as a critical path diagram (CPM), 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 can result in less time wasted.

10. Thou shall put a high priority on quality and safety.

Effective supervisors concentrate on obtaining a high workmanship quality and pay attention to safety. These are compatible objectives. With 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 supervisors must promote to become effective supervisors.

Can The Supervisor Make A Difference?

Assume supervisors exhibit the skills and attributes set out above. How can they impact the project? Consider an example cost estimate for a $1 million project as illustrated in Figure 1. This is an example breakdown of the cost components for a building construction project.

As illustrated in Figure 2, a mere 5 percent productivity increase can decrease the labor cost by 5 percent. In the example, this represents a $20,000 savings in labor cost. This cost savings would result in 100 percent increase in profits.

Studies show about one-third of nonproductive time is directly controllable by the supervisor. Assume 50 percent of labor costs expended in Figure 1 is nonproductive. The supervisor, by his own actions, can increase productivity by 16.7 percent. This represents a potential labor savings of approximately $66,667. This savings would generate additional profits three times greater than planned profits in the bid illustrated in Figure 1. Clearly, supervisors can make a difference. They are the key to a successful project.

Figure 1
Example $1 Million Dollar Project

Direct Labor Cost -- $400,000
Direct Material Cost -- $350,000
Equipment Cost -- $80,000
General Conditions (Job Overhead) -- $80,000
Company Overhead -- $70,000
Planned Profit -- $20,000

TOTAL -- $1,000,000

Figure 2
1. Assume a 5 percent increase in productivity.
Savings in labor cost : $20,000
Additional profit generated : $20,000*

* Represents a 100 percent increase in profits

2. Assume 1/3 of 50 percent nonproductive time is controllable by supervisor.
Amount of nonproductive time : 50 percent
1/3 controllable by supervisor : 16.67 percent
Labor savings controlled by supervisor : $66,667

NOTE: Above analysis assumes only savings on labor costs. Additional savings would be realized on equipment and job overhead, or general conditions.