Expert Commentary

Ineffective Construction Management Practices and Their Impact on Project Safety

Construction is a process in which an organization takes on a project, assigns a team to build it, and provides systems (tools, equipment, processes, and procedures) with which the team can complete the work. This boils down into three basic elements that require execution and control. These can be represented by three Ps: the building (product/project); the tools, technology, management systems, etc. (process); and the project team (people).


Construction Safety
December 2012

To successfully complete the project, the product has to meet the expected level of quality and contract terms. The systems have to be integrated and aligned so as to enable the people to perform their work efficiently, effectively, and safely.

Unfortunately, many construction companies engage in repeated ineffective practices that lead to suboptimal results, such as low productivity, poor quality, and worker injuries, among others. What is even more unfortunate is that they repeat these practices time and time again with predictable outcomes. Understanding the causes and effect of ineffective construction management practices may provide an avenue to reducing some of the problems faced by the people involved in project delivery. Those selecting these practices generally have good intentions, rarely get the results they expect, and have no idea why their initiatives fail to achieve their intended outcomes. Recognizing these ineffective practices will assist in avoiding them and so improving the chances of success.

Risk assessments and risk control are the two main elements of managing the project delivery risk. Risk assessment involves identification, analysis, and prioritization, while risk control involves planning, resolution, and monitoring. Assignment of probability takes the management process one step further and is used to evaluate the likelihood of the occurrence of a hazard or exposure. Combining estimates of loss magnitude with failure is the usual way of evaluating risk situations.

Anything that causes uncertainty or variability on the project leads to confusion and invariably increases the inherent risk. As risk goes up, so does the possibility of incidents, injuries, and losses. Therefore the "better" the management processes, practices, and procedures, the safer the project, as workers are not put into positions where they have to make changes to their routine, work faster or longer, or react to changes, etc. So, if operations do a "better job" in setting up the project as well as doing "better" planning and risk assessment, workers will be faced with fewer exposures and risks. These will invariably have a greater impact on safety than the traditional safety practices and interventions do. Some of the more common practices that contribute to adverse project safety are discussed below.

Systems (Practices and Procedures)

Following are common industry practices and procedures that can, and often do, affect project safety.

Overly Optimistic Assumptions

This generally results from wishful thinking or lack of careful analysis. This could apply to the operational plan as well as the schedule. The schedule is based on assumptions of subcontractor performance, workforce productivity, and staff management or leadership capabilities. During construction, achieving the schedule depends a lot on the subcontractors delivering on their promises. Up-front unrealistic assumptions will in fact create situations where the work plan will have to quickly be changed to recover from unanticipated situations and thereby increase the potential for adverse outcomes.

Another key aspect is taking on projects that have very aggressive schedules without providing the appropriate plans, resources, and systems to adequately address the challenges. This places pressures on the project staff as well as the workforce to perform work that may be beyond their capability, driving them to take shortcuts, not giving them enough time to assess risk, stacking trades, extending overtime, etc. All of these situations must get a thorough risk assessment, and the work must be planned with ways to mitigate the risk, or incidents and losses will invariably follow.

Ineffective Risk Assessment

Some of the risks are typical, while others are specific and unique to a job. The outcomes of all incidents associated with increased risks are not "fatal" to the project, but they do have some adverse affect. Some inevitably lead to more issues or cause the project to evolve so that more problems are inescapable. Assessment of risk during construction tends to get less attention due to time constraints and performance demands, resulting in the possibility of greater risk being imposed on the project delivery process. That is why it is wiser to spend time up front to anticipate some of the potential disruptions and have possible recovery plans available so as to make the job of project staff easier, more efficient, and specifically more effective.

Inferior Planning

Planning is more than creating a schedule. It involves logistics–proactively addressing the impact of potential changes, drawing up recovery plans on how to best deal with them, understanding constraints, and implementing workarounds up front. Abandoning proper planning steps under pressure and going into "firefighting mode" will result in greater risks being introduced into the process.

Poor Partner Selection

Contractors are only as "good" as their subcontractors are. Therefore, subcontractor selection is critical to project success and the decreased amount of risk with which staff has to contend. Another important item is the capability of the subcontractor's project staff. It behooves the contractor to ensure that the subcontractor assigns competent people, and the general contractor should assess their capabilities early on and ask for incompetent or incompatible subcontractor personnel to be replaced before they create problems on the job.

Poor Preconstruction Practices

Construction is about creating (building) something, and since the front end does not physically create anything, there is a tendency to try to minimize the time spent here. Time spent before construction starts pays dividends many times over later during construction. This area not only covers the creation of the initial project schedule and operational plans, subcontractor selection, and project risk assessment but also establishing the budget, staff selection, and metrics that identify issues early on, as well as company active oversight to ensure that everything is progressing as it should and rapid and effective problem identification as well. Resolution is crucial to the reduction of cumulative risk as well as giving project staff the time they need to manage and innovate rather than overloading them with problems.

Misaligned Systems

Over time, all organizations institute change to their internal systems and revise their policies, standards, and procedures. In many cases, these changes are not carefully reviewed for any potential conflict with already existing ones. These discrepancies create situations where staff and workers have to choose between conflicting directions or objectives. This sets the stage for unexpected or undesirable outcomes.

Due to the need for specialization, organizations are vertically organized. Over time, each department or division ends up with its own special practices and goals that serve the department well but may not be fully aligned with the overall organizational needs, thereby creating operational or goal attainment discrepancies. This is a system-driven risk that is difficult to identify, assess, and resolve in the field, especially where safe work is involved.

Little Cross-Functional Communication

Most organizations need specialized functions to operate efficiently and effectively. These functions end up with their own unique processes and practices. They may have their own goals. These then may create barriers to cross-functional communication and flow of information, which ultimately is to the detriment of the organization. Inferior cross-functional communication will also impact expedited decision-making and problem solving, which is critical to the project management process and safe working practices.

Insufficient Company Oversight

In instances where there are different profit centers, business units, or project profitability goals, and they have their own management structures, there is a need for main office or senior management oversight to ensure that those units' practices are in full alignment with the overarching organizational goals and objectives. If these units are in "competition" with each other for performance results, there may be a tendency to take risks and potentially increase the likelihood of losses and accidents.

Metrics

It is a well-known fact that metrics drive organizational behavior. Senior management must be sure that all metrics drive the "right" behavior. This is especially true of any newly implemented or revised metrics. If these are not carefully analyzed for potential misinterpretation, conflict with other metrics, or confusion, it will have surprising unintended outcomes. And, as mentioned above, senior management should be on the lookout to ensure that competition does not drive groups or individuals to take unnecessary and unevaluated risk for gains that have marginal potential benefits.

Conflict Resolution

When people work together, there always is the opportunity for differing opinions and conclusions. These may get resolved at the individual level, or they may create problems that need to be addressed by management. This points to the need for organizations to have a structured process of how to address conflict, quickly and effectively address the underlying issue, and resolve it expeditiously.

People (Workers)

Following are common industry worker issues that often directly relate to project safety.

Motivation

Research has shown that motivation has greater impact on productivity, quality, and safety than just about anything else does. So, the question is how to motivate staff and workers to work safely. The typical interventions used in industry are training, inspections, incentives, and punishment. It has been proven that none of these is highly effective in garnering optimal safety performance.

Training is not motivational and only addresses knowledge deficiencies. Neither are inspections, and research has shown that incentives and punishment really don't work well. Behavioral interventions have their limitations and eventually plateau.

Capability

One of the fundamental elements of performance is the capability of the person assigned to do a task. Therefore, proper selection and placement are important. If the person has deficiencies, management should provide the support or resources required to ensure success. If people have deficiencies, they may choose to do things that are not appropriate or expected in order to succeed or stay employed. Therefore, proper placement and initial oversight and support are critical to the development and ultimate success of the person.

Heroism

Many companies place a high value on production and reward those who overcome barriers and achieve goals. This drives most employees to try to achieve outstanding results. This may encourage workers to "game the system," indiscriminately take risk, and engage in unsafe work practices. If the organization is not careful, it will create a culture that undermines safe work practices.

Unrealistic Expectations

A major source of disagreement comes from perceptions and expectations. Managing expectations and understanding the causes of perception could go a long way to resolve misunderstandings, which if left to fester, can lead to stress, conflict, and undesirable behavior. Sometimes end dates are set because that is when something may be required, and then a schedule is drawn up to meet it without a critical analysis of the constraints, capabilities, and resources. Sometimes people are given assignments for which they are not quite ready and, if not given support, fail in some respects.

Conclusion

There are foundational elements that play a critical role in organizational behavior, be it in performance, productivity, quality, customer service, safety, or other areas. These are culture, values, leadership, climate, etc. Management devises systems that enable performance as well as practices that sustain them. Senior management establishes and articulates the vision, middle management devises the strategy, line management executes the plan, and the workers perform the tasks.

Organizational systems have a great deal of influence on the project staff as well as the workforce. The organizational systems influence and shape their behavior. How management acts and is perceived by project staff and the workforce also shapes their behavior. There is little in the literature that deals with the impact of organizational systems and management practices as they directly or indirectly influence safety outcomes.

There are many potential sources of error or discrepancy in the project delivery process. We covered process and people in some detail, but this is certainly not a complete list. Technology, equipment, agendas, etc., can also contribute to the risk of incidents and injuries occurring on the job. Organizational systems that have differing objectives or management's acts or prognostications that send messages that are in conflict with written goals and objectives or the way things are communicated create an environment where staff and workers have to make choices between one or another policy that invariably create uncertainly or variability and thereby increase the risk of an adverse safety outcome.


Opinions expressed in Expert Commentary articles are those of the author and are not necessarily held by the author's employer or IRMI. Expert Commentary articles and other IRMI Online content do not purport to provide legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinion. If such advice is needed, consult with your attorney, accountant, or other qualified adviser.

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