Expert Commentary

Improve the Frontline Construction Supervisor's Impact

Construction companies vary in size, as do the size and complexity of their projects. These projects may be a few thousand dollars or hundreds of million dollars in size. There probably would only be one frontline supervisor (foreman) on a small job and potentially multiple foremen on large ones.


Construction Safety
March 2018

The question is, in that organization, who is considered as being the frontline supervisor. It could be at the project level (superintendent) or at the task level (foreman). This article will consider the foreman's role as it is the lowest level of performance management, prosecuting work, and generating revenue for the organization.

It is generally the foreman who manages the crew. And it is at the crew level that work is done. How well the foreman manages the work will affect the crew's productivity. This is the economic unit that creates the work in place that generates the flow of revenue into the coffers of the construction company. The way that the work is executed may also impact other measurable aspects of the overall outcome of the task (e.g., production, quality, safety, goal attainment, or meeting obligations). By virtue of that fact, the frontline supervisor (foreman) generally plays a key role in the degree of success of the project.

Issues in Supervision

Obviously, one foreman not managing the crew effectively will not bankrupt the construction company he is working for, nor will it result in any crew member getting maimed or mangled. But it will impact the effectiveness of the crew and the efficiency of the prosecution of the work. It could also increase the risk of some crew member potentially getting injured. This, in some ways, may also impact the quality of the work.

The broader question is why is this state of affairs allowed to exist? Organizations have a chain of command. A foreman usually reports to a superintendent who in turn report to a higher-level manager, on up to the chief executive of the organization. Each level of management oversees the performance of their direct reports. When there is subpar performance within the chain of command, the questions are why has this state of affairs evolved, how long has it been going on, and, more importantly, what is the immediate supervisor doing to effectively remedy the situation?

The foreman directly or indirectly impacts the organization's ability to garner the greatest return on its investment of resources, which are material, labor, equipment, technology, and time. The crew's ability to produce the maximum output given the invested resources is dependent on the ability of the foreman to effectively and efficiently manage the operation. This is also impacted by the produced work having the required level of quality and the workers performing the work in such a way that they do not suffer an injury. 

The foreman, therefore, must be knowledgeable as well as capable of planning, organizing, directing, staffing, and controlling the operation. The foreman must not only be an effective manager but also an influential leader with a vast array of skills that includes such skills as being an effective communicator, being an empathic listener, being a creative problem solver, being a decisive decision-maker, dealing with conflict, resolving problems, creating an open and trusting work climate, fostering open dialogue, having good people skills, being a mentor, being firm but fair, motivating, encouraging involvement, being self-confident, and inspiring engagement. These skills usually are not acquired from routine on-the-job learning.

The organization must have a process in place that selects the "right people" with the proper temperament, motivation, and capacity to become effective supervisors (foremen). The organization also needs to have a supervisory development program that determines the supervisor candidate's capabilities as well as deficiencies so that a personalized program may be devised to provide the necessary education and mentoring as well as appropriate work experience to bring this person up to their highest potential in the new assignment. The organization must also have some overall concept of this person's potential so that assignments are made that will provide the proper challenges, learning opportunities, and growth potential so that they may advance to higher positions in the organizational structure.

To address the problem holistically, the organization must be able to determine if the problem is associated with an individual or system-driven. An individual problem will have a localized impact and can be resolved by dealing with the issues associated with that specific case. A system-driven problem cannot be resolved at the individual level, and the "fix" may be more difficult to identify and to change. This system-driven scenario will impact the greater organization in a more profound way and require structural changes and will have potentially significant consequence operationally as well as financially.

Typically, most construction firms manage unique projects on diverse sites that are overseen from a centralized location. These can be the home office or a business unit. Many of the projects may be well over an hour or more distant and so are visited by management at different levels of frequency. The frequency may depend on the distance, how overloaded the manager may be, and the complexity or importance of the project. This oversight may also be more than one level of management. But, in all cases, the field staff will have day-to-day responsibility and control. Since production occurs at the task level, the foreman is in a unique position to impact the crew's level of productivity.

The Reality of the Frontline

In virtually all of the companies that I have come in contact with, the frontline supervisor's role is to oversee a limited number of direct reports (the crew). In many cases, the foreman is expected to actually do production work (working foreman) or is expected to oversee a large crew, which may be taxing "the span of control" capacity of the foreman's management capabilities. In those cases, the foreman's ability to effectively manage the crews is limited. The foreman is expected to get the crew to meet the production goal for that day. In most cases, the foreman ensures that company policies and procedures are followed. They may have limited authority or discretion to deviate from planned goals and objectives.

Some of these limiting factors in the functioning of the foremen are a direct outcome of the organization's structure. This is endemic of companies that are vertically organized and centrally controlled. But, more importantly, it is driven by how organizations select their foremen and train them for the line management positions. Virtually all foremen are selected from among the crafts. Managers identify craftspersons who are effective and productive in their work and promote them to the foreman positions.

Unfortunately, most organizations do not have any formal system of preparing these folks for the foreman role. Effective craftspersons generally have good technical skills. But, once they are put in the line manager's position, they require a broader skillset. They certainly need administrative skills, people skills, planning skills, organizational skills, communication skills, and problem-solving skills, as well as they will have to be able to effectively deal with conflict, make sound decisions, and use good judgment. Most promoted craftspersons will struggle if they are not provided some education in these areas. Struggling foremen are going to adversely impact the crew's productivity and ultimately the organization's profitability!

Every organization must create a list of capabilities for each position they have in their chain of command. People identified with potential for promotion must be tested to identify their strengths and weakness in these areas. The next step is to either assign them to tasks that will provide exposure to these areas or devise an educational plan that will enhance and strengthen their weak areas. This will not only benefit the individual and ensure their success, but more importantly, the organization will improve productivity and morale as well as the bottom line.

There are virtually hundreds of organizations in various industries who have reduced hours worked from 15 to 25 percent while simultaneously increasing productivity from 10 to 20 percent. This was achieved at the frontline supervisory level. First and foremost is selecting the "right" person for the supervisory position. This means that the organization must set down the selection criteria for their supervisors going forward. The next step is to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the selected candidates and devise a process whereby they receive the necessary education/training as well as coaching, counseling, or mentoring as appropriate. The additional organizational support to ensure their supervisory success is to empower them, improving their planning abilities, providing them with the appropriate information and resources in a timely manner, streamlining their administrative load, and ensuring that they receive the necessary coaching, mentoring, and/or counselling.

The Crew

In construction, many crews tend to work as a work group. Work groups are not teams in the teaming sense of the word. The typical crew in construction functions as an independent-level work group. The individual workers are assigned to the crew (group) by the foreman. Each individual is responsible for his or her part of the work. They are independent because they are experienced as well as knowledgeable in the work being performed and do not require close oversight other than general directions from the foreman. They do not have any joint responsibility other than their own. As a result, there is limited-to-no synergy involved. The crew's production is limited to the ability, skill, and motivation that each individual brings to the work group. When workers work in a crew (group) there are a couple of factors involved. The primary one is to get the work done by doing their piece of the work.

The second factor is the process by which the work is accomplished. This is the mechanism by which the group as a whole addresses the production process. This represents how each individual works in such a way as to enhance the efforts of the others in the team. In simple terms, the teaming process leads to cooperation and coordination of the members of the team. They have common practices and procedures as well as shared goals. They combine their talents, share information, support each other, and enhance the process with individual skills or expertise. This synergistic approach engenders a fuller utilization of the workforce with superior results (see Figure 1).

Work Groups Teams
Individual accountability Individual and mutual accountability
Come together to share information and perspectives Frequently come together for discussion, decision-making, problem solving, and planning
Focus on individual goals Focus on team goals
Produce individual work products Produce collective work products
Define individual roles, responsibilities, and tasks Define individual roles, responsibilities, and tasks to help team do its work; often share and rotate them
Concern with one's own outcome and challenges Concern with outcomes of everyone and challenges the team faces
Purpose, goals, and approach to work shaped by manager Purpose, goals, and approach to work shaped by team leader with team members

Figure 1—Workgroup and Team Comparison

The foreman is more successful if the crew is experienced and motivated to work at their best level. So, if the organization wants operational excellence at the crew level, it must help the crew to migrate from a traditional work group to a cooperative team. Teaming is one of the most effective ways to improve productivity and quality, as well as safety, at the frontline. So, selecting the "right" workers for the crew is an important factor, as well as providing them with some team-building information. The foreman must receive team-building training as well as support from his or her manager as he or she develops into an effective team leader.

The Crew as a Team

Safety practitioners try to encourage workers to pay attention, to use safe work practices, and to watch out for each other while they are working. This is rarely effective in work-group settings but certainly will seamlessly function in team settings. The other more important benefit of crews functioning as teams is that the team will be more productive as well as perform the work at a higher quality than is possible in any typical work-group setting. There are many other underlying benefits to a crew that functions as teams, such as that they need less oversight and guidance, which frees up supervisor's time to do planning, anticipate and solve problems, and direct resources to more productive uses. The safety practitioner can spend more time working with management to generate more realistic estimates, structure work more effectively, manage risk holistically, and enhance productivity, as well as contribute to profitability.

So, any astute organization may want to focus on developing teaming practices in their field operations to garner the benefits of crews that function as teams. This results in a win-win for the job and the organization as a whole, to say nothing of all benefits resulting from a cooperative work climate as well as the bonding among team members.

Teams evolve over time. They go through different stages of development (see Figure 2). Basically, there are five stages in the lifecycle of a team, with four covering its development aspect.

Team Development - Furst - Mar 2018

Figure 2—Team Development

Forming—In the forming stage, most team members will likely exhibit some cautious behaviors. Each will try to see what others are doing to get a sense of what might be acceptable and what may not. Many will look to the supervisor for strong guidance and direction during this stage of development. The crew members more than likely do not know the others well and, therefore, are going to want to get to know them in order to develop some form of relationship, working toward building acceptance as well as trust. While many of the concerns at this stage are related to developing a relationship, the foreman can often help them by giving clarity about what needs to get done. The supervisor can engage in directing activities, providing guidance, setting goals, and solving problems to name a few. For the crew to function efficiently as well as effectively, they need clarity and direction in what is acceptable to help your team grow from a group of individuals to a high-performing team.

Storming—In the storming stage, your team may experience conflicts and struggles. This is a very dangerous phase of team development because relationships can be irreparably harmed by conflicts, relationship struggles, and wrestling with organizational issues. To navigate these rough waters, use cautious behaviors—asking thoughtful questions, carefully evaluating information, and developing processes—to guide your team onto the next stage of development.

Norming—As the team enters the norming stage, it will focus more on task accomplishment and less on interpersonal issues. There may still be a few leftover relationship issues to resolve and some gentle guidance to offer to keep them growing. You can use supportive behaviors—offering reassurance and encouragement and listening—to solidify the team growth gains made in the previous two stages.

Performing—Finally, the team moves into the performing stage. The members are pretty self-sufficient by this stage. They know what needs to be done and how to do it. They are almost totally focused on goal achievement. Now, inspiring behaviors—enthusiasm, cheerleading, and celebrating—can be used to keep the team's energy up for the long haul.

Adjourning—As with most teams, members reach a point where they have accomplished their goal or objective, and they are faced with the need to adjourn. Every one of the team members takes away a wealth of knowledge and information they will be able to use in other assignments, especially if they get involved with another team in the future.

Conclusion

Since money is made at the crew level, the foreman plays a key role in getting the most out of the crew's performance. In this regard, they play an important role in construction companies. For this reason, construction firms should pay greater attention to who is promoted to the foreman level to ensure that these are the very best candidates under consideration. They should also have a more robust system for identifying the candidates' strengthens and weaknesses. This will then determine the types of training and education needed to maximize their effectiveness in their role as frontline supervisors.

To ensure these frontline supervisor's success, management should make every effort to streamline their administrative responsibilities to allow them more time in managing the performance of the crews. This involves a basic knowledge of some fundamental management skills, such as planning, organizing, directing, staffing, and controlling, along with people skills of leadership, motivating, influencing, dealing with conflict, and decision-making, as well as problem-solving, communications skills, and active listening, to name a few. They also need a robust understanding of culture, climate, and values. They must be able to articulate an engrossing vision; they must be able to instill trust, aligning the crew's goal with that of the project and enthusiastic involvement of the workforce in accomplishing the goals and objectives of the organization.

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