What you don’t know really can still hurt you: the growing need for data in construction
As construction managers, we have certain resources we like to hold on to, like skilled workers, good-quality suppliers—and information about our project. Sometimes things get off course, or some part is delayed. We figure that’s no one’s problem but ours. We can still get the job done on schedule, at good quality. Telling others will just mean micromanagement, interference, and second guessing.
And we’re experienced and have a lot of tricks up our sleeve, so we usually get by. But sometimes we end up with a real problem, one with performance penalties and maybe even danger to others.
But I’ve often seen people—smart, successful managers, mind you—who affirmatively don’t want to know too much, just so they don’t have to decide whether or not to communicate it.
This isn’t just head in the sand thinking—it’s unsophisticated thinking that has real consequences. And it’s going to stop. Not because I say so. Because the industry is changing, and if you want to compete, you’re going to have to understand the increasing role of information in our industry.
Information is an essential tool on the job site
One thing I looked forward to when I stopped being a construction manager and started a technology company was seeing all the different ways companies in our industry operate.
Somewhat to my surprise, I found that, no matter where they were or how big their projects, there were a lot of ways they were the same. And one of those ways was their resistance to using information. A common attitude is "If no one’s specifically asking for that information, and it could potentially cause trouble, please don’t tell it to me.”
Put that way, it sounds kind of dumb. Because it is dumb. Why would you deliberately refuse to know something about your project – it could be crucial information?
Sure, the information might be unpleasant. It’s that new pain in a tooth, the unusual spot on the driveway under your car, the teenager who’s not where they said they’d be. Maybe there’s one or another of these that you do take care of promptly. But you know the attitude, and you know it never leads anywhere good.
I’ve seen this with everyone from Project Engineers to VPs, and from small local contractors to global behemoths.
So what do you get when you excavate a pit for your head?
Mistakes that are impossible to hide
The concrete doesn’t care whether you didn’t learn it got too hot. But the structural compromises that happen because it got too hot are there and will have real world consequences. Wouldn’t rather have learned about that at the time when you could have done something about it?
We lag every other industry in productivity. In my corner of the industry, we think about it a lot. Take a look at this graph from a McKinsey article on productivity.
You can’t improve processes you’re not tracking. You can’t prevent mistakes you pretend you’re not making. You can’t efficiently time when you strip forms and lay down flooring if you don’t know when the concrete is strong enough, and have to wait around an extra day to be sure. Wouldn’t you rather do your job more quickly, realizing efficiencies in labor and raw materials?
Quality and safety compromises
These are often separated, but I think these two things go together. Poor quality work tends to be unsafe work. More data about what works and what doesn’t helps both.
I recently heard of a bunch of projects that ended up with concrete that included bad aggregate from a ready-mix supplier with no visibility into its supply chain. Don’t you want to know exactly what you’re pouring, how strong it’s going to be, and that your people aren’t at risk?
If you don’t do it, someone else will
I’m not trying to scare you...well, actually, I am. Someone’s going to be doing this. They’ll start getting information about every part of their workflow, about what can be made more efficient, safer, and easier. They’ll get done more quickly with their jobs, at higher quality. Their employees will be happier, and excited about developing new skills.
So turn that them into you.
Set the stage at the beginning of project. Construction managers: tell the owner and design team what you are doing and what data to expect, and that sometimes it will tell an unhappy story. Owners and design teams, let construction managers manage. Learn from each project. You’ll find that you detect problems earlier, solve them more efficiently, and have a better handle on every part of your operation.
Make clear at the kick-off that this isn’t just rhetoric. It’s the way things are getting done.