While construction management is a very technical industry that takes an almost scientific approach to building, the core of what makes a construction project work is people. And the key to making the people on a construction project work together effectively is good communication. While it’s easy to say, good communication is a much more challenging thing to implement consistently on a construction site, especially when you’re working with a diverse workforce and a lot of different personality types.
I’m going to focus on situations where communication often gets muddied on a construction project and what can happen as a result. We’ll take a look at different scenarios that I saw happen in different forms over and over again, on different projects with different people. While these mistakes are easy to make, the ramifications can be huge. Schedule delays, project cost impacts, lowered morale, and even higher employee turnover are all effects I’ve seen result from communication errors on projects.
The goal here is to recognize when you are in a situation where one of these blunders is likely to occur, understand the pitfalls if you commit the communication blunder, and most importantly, be able to implement the right communication strategies to prevent the miscommunication from happening.
In this Article
Common Communication Blunders in Construction
Communicating Changing Task Prioritization in a Dynamic Environment
Few industries in the world can match construction for the general level of chaos, constantly changing conditions, variables in the work environment, and potential for change. Especially on a big, complex construction project, it can seem like conditions are changing by the hour or even by the minute. While a project manager or a superintendent might be more accustomed to this level of stress and can operate with a clear mind amidst the chaos, the liability lies with those members of the project team who don’t have years of experience in dealing with dynamic construction environments. These folks have not yet developed the ability to mentally shift gears and switch tasks at the rate that’s required to get the right things done on time. Often, the less experienced member of a project management team might not even understand what tasks they should be doing as things change.
This is where you’ll see the effect of an exceptional leadership team, with the project manager and superintendent taking point, who can provide clear guidance to the other members of the team. They will direct them to apply their efforts to the right things as things change and will make sure that the team, as a cohesive unit, accomplishes what they need to in order to be successful on the project.
Imagine this: one of the most stressful times on a construction project — the end of the month when invoices come in. The person responsible for handling invoices has several other tasks on their plate, and now they have to email subcontractors that haven’t sent over their monthly invoices to get them to send them in so that they can process and pay them. While this is happening, the crew in the field discover a differing site condition that stops work and puts the crew on standby, waiting for direction on how to proceed with the work. At the same time, a large material order that was supposed to arrive the next week shows up early at the jobsite — not only is there not enough room to store the material at the present time, there isn’t a forklift operator available to unload the material and the delivery truck is stopped on the street in front of the jobsite blocking traffic.
A seasoned superintendent or project manager will likely be able to shift priorities and resolve the situation efficiently, but less experienced members of the project management team are likely top have a ‘deer in the headlights’ look on their face as they try to process all of the things happening simultaneously and figure out what their next move should be. This is where clear communication from project leadership can help to resolve this situation. A PM or superintendent can communicate that the DSC needs to be communicated to the owner; while the response may have a lag associated with it, that’s fine, because now the crew can help to reorganize the jobsite and start unloading the delivery truck while they are waiting from direction about the DSC. Meanwhile, once the crew has started working to get the delivery situation squared away, the project team member can monitor the situation and get back to work on bugging the subcontractors for their invoices.
Changing the Plan on the Fly in the Field
This is where, in my opinion, the most common communication blunders happen in construction. Prior to starting an activity, a good field leader will make a plan for the day that includes which team members are assigned to specific tasks, the steps needed to accomplish the task for the day, and the outcome, whether that is a specific quantity that needs to be completed or a certain place on the job that the work needs to be completed. However, as good as the plan may be, it’s often the first casualty of war. Changing the plan after the crew has been briefed on what they are supposed to do requires communicating the change to the entire team. Often, after the initial huddle, the crew disperses to their respective tasks and are spread out throughout the jobsite, making it difficult to track them down and inform them of the changes. They’ve already started to gather the tools and supplies that they need for their original task, and now that may change, creating extra work to take certain tools back or move them around. The biggest impact changing the plan on the fly has, though, is creating conflict in how crew members perform their tasks, as the new plan is usually less thought-out.
Real Life Example
When I worked as an assistant superintendent on a rail construction project, the general superintendent called in two crews to work on a Sunday and I was there helping manage the work. Originally we’d planned to just install underdrain along a retaining wall that we’d been building. The retaining wall was along a very narrow, one-way access road with the property line on one side and train tracks on the other side. The tight site conditions restricted equipment access and only one piece of equipment could be on the road at a time. We had been experiencing a lot of rain during that period on the project, which limited our ability to continue excavating for the retaining wall. However, on this bright, cold, crisp fall Sunday morning, the weather was great and the general superintendent decided he wanted to take advantage of it and changed the plan to installing the underdrain and continuing to excavate for the retaining wall.
It quickly turned into a disaster. The excavator had to block the one-way access road in order to excavate for the retaining wall, which in turn blocked access to deliver drain rock to the other crew that was installing the underdrain further down the access road. When the underdrain crew needed rock, the excavator would stop excavating, slowly track out to the entrance of the access road and wait for the rock truck to drive down and deliver rock to the underdrain. Then, once the rock truck had exited the access road, the excavator could then slowly track back down the access road and begin excavating again.
All day long, the general superintendent yelled at everyone, blaming them for not understanding his instructions and accusing them of not knowing how to do their jobs. The day, from a production standpoint, was a complete failure. Very little progress was made on the underdrain or the excavation, a bunch of money had been spent on wasted overtime, and the crews were fuming. Everyone had to work into the night to get to a good stopping point.
Had we stuck to the original plan, we would have completed the underdrain fairly quickly with two crews and would have been able to finish the work reasonably early, allowing the workers to enjoy Sunday afternoon with their families. However, changing the plan on the fly in the field led to disastrous results and wasted time, money, efforts, and increased the stress of everyone involved.
Delegating Technical Instructions
As I mentioned before, construction management is a very technical industry. It requires individuals to think of what-will-be physical objects that don’t currently exist and understand how to create them by conceptualizing them visually (looking at 2D drawings, looking at existing site conditions) and linguistically (verbally communicating technical descriptions, reading technical specifications). It requires multiple different areas of your brain to be working together at the same time, which is a skill that can take years to fully develop. More experienced construction leaders will likely have developed this ability substantially, but newer professionals in the construction management industry will often be ‘lost in the sauce’ trying to figure out a different language spoken by the more experienced members of their project team.
The more experienced members of the project team, however, cannot complete the project by themselves. It takes the entire team to cross the finish line. That’s why it is so important for more experienced members of the team, like project managers, superintendents, and general foreman to take the time to clearly explain, both visually and linguistically, what they are trying to communicate to a less-experienced member of the project management team. If a superintendent expects a new engineer to write an RFI, they need to go into detail about the issue they are referring to, show the engineer where in the drawings the RFI pertains to, what the issue is, what the potential ramifications of the issue are, and what they ideal response from the designer would be in order to facilitate the work moving forward.
Often, the information is not communicated in this fashion, and less experienced team members are stuck trying to figure out vague instructions that deal with highly technical issues and either take a much longer time to complete whatever task it was they are assigned to, because they simply don’t understand what is being asked of them, or they complete the task incorrectly because they didn’t understand what was being asked of them in the first place.
This can lead to delays in schedule and cost impacts to the project. RFIs can be submitted late or incorrectly, submittals can be generated late, affecting long lead items, and work activities can be affected if incorrect instructions are given. Taking the time to explain the details behind a task in multiple ways can help to avoid this common construction communication blunder.
Handoff of Information Between Estimating and Operations
The estimating and operations phases of a construction project are inextricably linked, yet at the same time are polar opposites. Estimating deals with theoreticals, while operations deals with reality, which are often very different spaces to operate within. When an estimator puts together an estimate, there’s a time crunch to get as much of a complete and comprehensive estimate together before its due date. It essentially represents a best guess at the plan for tackling a project and what it will probably cost. In order to bridge the gap between the information the estimator needs and the information available, a good estimator will make assumptions when they are performing their calculations, and they will state those assumptions so that others who are not as familiar with their scope can understand their reasoning and logic.
If an estimate is submitted as a bid and awarded to you as a project, that’s great! But what happens immediately after that moment has a massive impact on the future success of that project. All that information from the estimate must be communicated by the estimator(s) to the project team that will build the project. The project team relies on the estimators to perform a thorough and comprehensive estimate for the entire project to be built. If the estimators miss a piece of scope on the estimate and don’t include it in their costs, will get hte project team off to a bad start, as they won’t have budget for their scope but will still have to complete it.
When a project team receives the estimating documentation, they will often begin sorting and organizing it so each team member can review the piece of the estimate that pertains to their scope. If takeoffs and cost estimates are incomplete, or an assumption is not clearly stated, it can cause big information gaps that demand extra time and effort on the part of the project team.
Real Life Example
I got hired onto this design-build light rail project several months after the design phase had kicked off and received limited takeoffs with very incomplete assumptions about how the cost estimate was derived. When I performed my own takeoffs to verify, the numbers didn’t match, and I had to reach out to the original estimator who was located in another state. I spent three weeks going back and forth over email until I was finally able to resolve the discrepancy, but had the estimator included the right information in the first place, it would have completely negated the issue and saved us both loads of time.
Construction projects are difficult environments to communicate in. The communication methods and styles that may work in a variety of other professions simply do not suffice in a lot of situations, and it takes an advanced level of communication to successfully complete the work. Honing in on situations like the ones we’ve gone through and taking action to mitigate them before there is a schedule delay, a cost impact, rework, or undue stress is the key to improving communication on projects and building a happier and healthier company.
Further Reading: Common Construction Management Issues and How to Navigate Them
The CrewCost Team consists of men and women who have worked in the construction industry as project managers, general contractors, sub contractors and more. They share their decades of experience on our blog as a way to help other contractors grow healthier and more profitable businesses.