Avoid the unexpected in construction

Avoid the unexpected in constructionProject Managers and contractors in general must be some of the most optimistic people on earth. It won’t rain during the project, materials will arrive on time, equipment won’t break down, our teams will produce the production expected of them for the full duration of their shift, drawings will arrive timeously, subcontractors will produce their part of the project on time, and so it goes on. Indeed I think only farmers could be a more optimistic bunch, depending almost entirely on the vagaries of the weather and believing it will rain at the right time, never too little or too much.

Certainly whenever a project goes wrong the blame is often put to bad luck. If only we hadn’t had that storm just then, if only the subcontractor had delivered what they promised, if only the client had been more accommodating, why did the workers have to walk off the project, with just a little luck we could have finished on time and made the millions we thought we would.

Yet some of these problems could have been foreseen, and either avoided or mitigated. So how can we take control of our projects, leaving less to luck and chance, and engineer our project’s successful destiny?

The more we plan the luckier we get

A good golfer said the more he practiced the luckier he got. Well in construction the more we plan the luckier we get. Thinking through our method of construction, allowing for access, selecting the best subcontractors, preparing a suitable construction schedule, arranging the appropriate resources and timeously ordering the correct construction materials will all help prevent crises later in the project.

How many projects are disrupted by the weather, yet, some of the problems could have been foreseen and avoided by completing weather dependent tasks ahead of the rainy, windy or cold seasons? Good planning can, and will help you avoid many problems, making you lucky.

Are you a firefighter or a fire prevention officer?

I have worked with Project Managers who could literally solve any problem. In fact, to be with them was exhausting, as they were continually solving problems – phone glued to their ears as they frantically made calls; cajoling, begging and persuading suppliers, contractors and Supervisors to urgently deliver missing material, complete a task or get more resources onto the project. Why were they faced with these multiple emergencies – well someone hadn’t ordered materials, the schedule was slipping, there were insufficient resources, etc, etc. Why had this happened, well because the Project Manager was so busy solving problems that they had forgotten, or simply run out of time!

Yet, I’ve been on other well managed sites where it seemed that the Project Manager was hardly doing anything – no shouting, no frantic phone calls. Everything seemed to be running like clockwork.

Preventing a problem from arising often takes much less time than solving the problem should it arise. Preventing a fire is often much easier than extinguishing a blazing inferno.

Employ the right team

Most projects are built by a team. Selecting the right team for your project is essential. It doesn’t have to be the best team – because even good people often have failings, and may not be right for a particular project, client or team.

You need people you can depend on to deliver a quality project on time and safely.

Direct your team

But even with the right people you still need to give them direction. They need to know what their responsibilities are, and what their limits of authority are. They need to understand the project requirements, schedule and specifications are. You need to delegate, but also monitor what they are doing. One small task missed or left undone can lead to untold problems. Think of that long lead item not ordered or reinforcing that wasn’t checked before concreting which could spell disaster.

Understand your team

The few projects I had go wrong were when I was working with a new team. I didn’t understand their weaknesses and depended on them to complete a task or manage the project only to later find they weren’t capable, or didn’t have the knowledge. By using the strengths of your team and supporting their weaknesses, teaching and mentoring them where necessary, it will be possible to prevent mistakes happening.

Forewarned is forearmed

It’s important to keep your ear to the ground, talk to those who have local knowledge, read the newspapers, and talk to your crew. Locals may have a better understanding of the local weather patterns, flood lines, traffic, existing services and local conditions. They may provide valuable contacts, inside to the local politics, what to do and what you shouldn’t do. Keeping up with the news could give forewarnings of clients, contractors or suppliers facing financial problems. It’s amazing what your crew sees and knows and they often have the lowdown on potential trouble long before you.

Of course don’t believe everything you read and hear, and do your own investigation before accepting it’s true.

Understand the risks

Unfortunately many contractors start a construction project without fully understanding the risks. By understanding the risks you can take preventative actions which can either prevent the risk from eventuating, or if it does ensure that the extent is mitigated so the project isn’t overwhelmed.

It’s good practice to prepare a risk schedule when you price the project, update this before you start and then monitor and update the schedule as the project progresses. Of course ensure your team is also aware of the risks and understand what actions need to be taken to mitigate the potential risks. Risks must be managed.

Collect the correct data and use it wisely

Data is king – but only if it is correct and is used wisely. I have worked for contractors that have produced monthly reports of a hundred pages, yet some of the data was suspect, some was fudged to present the best result to management and much of it was ignored or misinterpreted.

There is much valuable data that can be collected on construction projects, starting with a correctly updated construction schedule. But often the schedule isn’t correct in the first place, if it is it’s not updated correctly, and if it is, sometimes the update is ignored or the wrong actions are taken to correct slippage.

Collect the right data, ensure it is accurate and current, and then interpret it correctly using it to catch problems timeously and take remedial action.

Keep an eye on the big picture but don’t forget the details

Some Project Managers slip on the details, only focussing on the big picture. Details are important and it’s often the tiniest details overlooked which result in mega problems.

Then there are some Project Managers who are so focussed on the details that they fail to see the train that’s about to run them down.

Ask questions

When in doubt ask a question. If the information isn’t clear seek clarity. Too many mistakes are made because we assumed something or misunderstood the information.

Questions also act as reminders to others ensuring that tasks don’t get forgotten or slip through the cracks. I probably irritated my teams by always asking if they had completed a task, ordered an item or taken note of a potential problem. Better a little irritation than a delay caused by a missed task.

Sometimes small actions can save you future problems

We all take shortcuts at some stage, some can save valuable time and costs, but many are just laziness on our part and haven’t been well thought through.

Small actions can often save us a great deal of pain – think of creating a berm around excavations to keep stormwater out, keeping stormwater drains clean, providing sufficient lighting, ensuring the worksite has safe access or stopping an unsafe act can all appear an inconvenience or cost, but often the minor extra cost and inconvenience will be far less than the costs of a flooded worksite or an accident.

Check, check and check again

The saying goes measure twice and cut once. How often have we all been tripped up by errors; where buildings have been set out incorrectly, materials have been under ordered or over ordered and items have been fabricated to the wrong size or specification. Spend a little extra time to ensure what you have ordered or measured is correct.


Unfortunately problems will and do occur in construction and I will discuss pre-empting and dealing with these in a future article. However, with good planning, the right team and sound project management skills many of these problems can be avoided.

Thank you for reading this article. If you found it useful please like or share it.

Please add your comments so we can all learn from your experiences.

Avoid the unexpected in constructionPaul Netscher is the author of the popular books 'Successful Construction Project Management: The Practical Guide'and 'Building a Successful Construction Company: The Practical Guide'. Paul's new book 'Construction Claims: A Short Guide for Contractors' has just been published. These books are available on Amazon and other online book stores. Paul publishes articles regularly on LinkedIn and his website. Visit www.pn-projectmanagement.com to read other similar helpful articles.

Paul writes regular articles for other websites, gives lectures, mentors, and is available for podcasts and interviews.

Title  Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Paul Netscher 19/12/2016 · #2

#1 Thanks Lada for your comment. It's impossible to anticipate every problem, and we certainly couldn't allow for every problem. However it is important to research where ever possible. Certainly working across borders brings many problems and traps that has tripped up many a contractor - these could include different taxes, legislation, codes and specifications, visa requirements, importing materials and equipment and even exporting profits.

Lada 🏡 Prkic 2/12/2016 · #1

I found this article very useful, like all previous based on your experience in project management. All these noted things need to be taken into consideration while managing a project.
Yet some problems could not be foreseen, especially when it comes to disorderly market conditions of some countries. I was faced with some unexpected situations while I coordinated my last construction project because of disadvantages of existing regulations related to bankruptcy proceedings.