Anyone who has spent any time in construction has stories. You know the one about the old superintendent that always had half his lunch stuck in his beard. Or the new laborer that dropped his hardhat in the porta-john. Or the project engineer that backed his truck into a pallet of newly delivered light fixtures. And it seems, for whatever reason, the older the storyteller, the better the stories.
Generally, not too many stories are told about how the job cost changed 3% overall in March, or how the flooring subcontractor overran his quantity of tile installation. Those are the topics of drudgery reserved for the project managers with headaches late on a Friday night. They don’t make for very good stories.
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When I am meeting with clients, I often point out a distinction between project monitors and project managers. Allow me to explain. While both may have the title of PM, project monitors are the ones reading the stories, whatever they may be. They are reading their job cost reports and labor productivity reports like Grandpa reads yesterday’s news in the Denver Post. They skim the week’s daily reports from the field and check delivery tickets against purchase orders. They are monitoring the project.
Oh, but what a difference it makes when you write the story and not just read it! True project managers are the authors of their stories, not simply audiences. They are composers of the symphony, not simply conductors. They are crystal gazers, fortune-tellers, futurists, oracles, prophets, and soothsayers.
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At this point, if you have ever managed a project, you are throwing up your hands with a mix of laughter and disgust. You know for sure that I, the author, have lost touch with reality. Construction is unpredictable! The only unchanging certainty is change! Schedules are out of date before they hit the printer!
And while I agree wholeheartedly, allow me for a moment to give you three examples of Project Managers writing the story and not just reading it.
Very few tasks in construction are new. There are, of course, exceptions as we embark on unique and creative designs. But for the most part, there’s nothing new under the sun. If I am, for example, installing cabinets in a kitchen, I can look back at the last hundred kitchens and have a pretty good idea of how long this one will take and how much it should cost. If I’m installing a 10,000-foot pipeline and the first 1,000 feet cost me $50,000, I can say with a fair measure of certainty that the next 9,000 feet are going to cost me about $450,000. All is well and good… unless my total budget for this phase of the project is only $400,000. If that’s the case, I have 90% of the project remaining to rewrite the ending. If, as a project manager, I can foresee what is most likely going to happen and identify that something needs to change, being in front of the problem allows me to take corrective action early and hopefully avert profit fade on the project.
One of the common mistakes PMs make is to give the field workers choices. Think of it in terms of a maze, like one you might find on the back of a children’s menu at a restaurant. Project monitors give the maze to a child, point to the start and end points, and hand them the crayon. Project managers do the maze first, going down each possible path, and cross out the dead ends. Then they take what they have learned and highlight the most direct path to the exit. They have just written the story. While not very challenging for the child, the project manager has all but assured success. The process of highlighting the maze can vary drastically based on your type of work. It may be pre-ordering materials, deciding to pre-fab certain assemblies to ensure uniformity and speed up installation, or perhaps it is setting expectations with subcontractors early in the process. Whatever it looks like for your business, the goal should be to streamline the process for your field team, eliminating as many “dead-end” opportunities as possible.
Even great jobs have a tendency to fade at the end. Project closeout is often tedious, expensive, and low on the priority list. No one likes closing out a job. Project monitors wait until the work is about done to start their closeout. Project managers begin to close out their projects when they start the project. Let me explain this from my own experience. I was managing a project in an urban neighborhood. The project had three distinct phases and was very visible to the public… getting done was vital. I decided to build the entire closeout process into my construction schedule. There were two rounds of punchlist completions in every phase. Testing reports were compiled every month. “Final” site cleanup and partial demobilization were completed every other Friday as we moved through the project. When we were done constructing, the project was just about closed out already. We wrote the ending before we got to the end of the book.
Ultimately, the story we are reading as project monitors, or writing as project managers, is profitability. Our estimating team has given us a bucket of money and a promised price for the work. How we spend that money in relation to the check we will receive from our client makes all the difference. We can either sit back and see how it gets spent or we can plan for every penny. True project management is not easy. But it’s the keystone to more profitable construction projects.
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Kevin Juliano entered the construction industry as a laborer. Capitalizing on a degree in Communications, he was asked to move to project management and estimating after eighteen months in the field. Since then, he has served as a senior PM, senior estimator, manager of preconstruction, regional operations manager, and executive, all primarily in heavy civil and electrical construction. Kevin has also worked for Procore Technologies as a Senior Strategic Product Consultant. Kevin has earned a BA from Wheaton College, an MA from Northwest Nazarene University, an MBA from Colorado State University, and is currently working on his Doctorate in Business from St. Leo University.