The Importance of an Effective Construction Supervisor

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The Importance of an Effective Construction Supervisor

The difference between the success or failure of a construction project in great part lies in the role of the construction supervisor. The supervisor may be a project superintendent, a foreman, or a project manager.

Simply put, the supervisor runs the project and how he or she manages it is the difference between a productive and nonproductive project.

Studies indicate that frequently the supervisor makes more than 100 decisions a day at the project that affect the time and cost of the project. Some of these decisions, such as decisions regarding the selection of a construction method, are apparent. But decisions such as what time to pour concrete, while appearing less important, also affect productivity, time, and cost.

Given the importance of the supervisor, the question can be asked, what are the characteristics or skills of an effective construction supervisor? Here are the 9 most important characteristics of the effective construction supervisor in today’s complex construction process.

1. Technically competent; knows how to build

You should not discount the importance of the supervisor knowing how to build; he must be technically competent. Regardless if it is general work such as paving concrete, or specialized work such as electrical work, the supervisor must know the ins and outs of the construction process. In this regard, there is no substitute for experience.

The construction process is a complex process, one that requires considerable technical knowledge, and the supervisor seldom gets the respect he deserves in this regard. Given the numerous constraints or factors such as weather, various governmental regulations, and labor work rules, one might suggest that the construction supervisor needs to be more adept than the supervisor in non-construction industries.

2. Challenges and critiques as well as monitors work

As much as 50% of the typical construction workday is non-productive. There are numerous reasons for this non-productive time. Included are inadequate project planning and scheduling, equipment breakdowns, poor communications, indecision, and ineffective material handling.

A 50% non-productive construction day is not necessarily bad news. One can argue that this non-productive time offers the supervisor the potential to increase productivity. Instead of looking at non-productive time as waste, one can view it as opportunity.

It is important that the supervisor of construction closely monitor the many workers and pieces of equipment he has at a project. He must monitor them in order to reduce non-productive time.

However, in an industry with as much as a 50% opportunity to improve productivity, it is important that the effective supervisor challenge or critique the work process as well as monitor it. The supervisor should not accept a work process. He should be constantly challenging the work process by looking for improvements.

3. Focuses on work production and cost

Many supervisors commonly focus on production when performing his supervision role. He tries to produce as much work as possible (while also focusing on ensuring quality). For example, the supervisor will often attempt to do as much earthwork or paving as he can in a specific time period.

The point is that by focusing only on production, the supervisor may improperly allocate his own supervision and management time.

The fact that the supervisor might not review the estimate or think “cost” may lead to a poor allocation of his own time. The supervisor must know and think cost when managing specific work tasks.

4. Monitors equipment productivity and usage

While it is important to keep craftsmen in a productive state, it is equally important to keep available equipment productive. Equipment and labor can be viewed as the resources a supervisor uses to perform productivity, to place material. Perhaps the only difference between a piece of equipment and craftsmen is their hourly rate or cost. Whereas a craftsman’s hourly rate is $25, most construction equipment rents or has an hourly ownership rate of $40 to $200.

If you were to analyze a project, you usually would find that equipment is in a non-productive state more than a craftsman. There are days or even weeks when a piece of equipment might stand idle at the job site.

One of the main reasons why the supervisor is not as critical regarding idle equipment versus idle labor relates to the supervisor not focusing on the equipment as a cost center. Instead, he might view a piece of equipment as a big piece of metal, a machine. Perhaps if every piece of equipment had an hourly rental or ownership cost painted on it, the supervisor would be more attentive to keeping it working. In addition, if the supervisor was accountable for productive versus standby hours of equipment time, he would be attentive to nonproductive equipment time.

5. Is attentive to timely and accurate record keeping

Timely and accurate job site record keeping serves three major purposes:

  • Provides the means of monitoring and controlling labor and equipment costs for an in-process project

  • Provides data and information for preparing future project estimates and plans

  • Provides the necessary documentation and support to “prove facts or events” should a dispute, claim or lawsuit evolve.

The first two purposes should be enough incentive to pay increased attention to timely and accurate record keeping. The increased use of computers in the industry has enabled the contractor to better estimate and monitor construction time and cost.

However, the computer and accompanying software is still only as good as the information gathered at the job site. The availability and use of the computer is making job site record keeping even more important.

Unfortunately, sometimes the constructor and supervisor only get attentive to the importance of job site record keeping when they get involved in a dispute, claim, or lawsuit. Accurate and timely job site information is often the difference between winning and losing a dispute, claim, or lawsuit.

The supervisor should be evaluated on many factors to include his safety record and ability to build projects on time. However, the supervisor’s attentiveness to collecting timely and accurate job site records should also be considered. Thought might be given to giving recognition or an award to the supervisor that has kept the best set of job site records.

6. Treats individuals with respect and as equals

The effective supervisor must show leadership and exhibit an authoritative type of management style. However, while he must be authoritative, he must also treat his subordinates with respect and dignity. Labor cost represents as much as 40% of the total cost of a project. Given this high dependence on labor, the supervisor must be attentive to the needs of his subordinates to include the on-site craftsmen.

Every person at the job site needs the following in order to be a productive worker:

The only difference between the supervisor and a craftsman is the approach to these four needs. While the supervisor might measure his success by how much the project can be constructed under budget, the craftsman might measure his success by his ability to meet a work budget. Similarly, while the supervisor might obtain pride-in-work via being highlighted at the company’s annual meeting, the craftsman might take pride-in-work by being called out in front of his peers for having made a good “work smarter not harder” work method suggestion.

The effective supervisor recognizes his subordinates as equals. He continually searches for means of providing a working environment that provides each worker the four worker needs.

7. Is willing to try new ideas

Experience is often cited as an important characteristic in the construction process. However, if experience means unwillingness to change, it is not a favorable attribute.

The supervisor should remember that a typical construction work method might contain as much as 50% productivity improvement potential. In an industry that offers this much potential, willingness to try new ideas, to include new work methods, new approaches to assigning crew members, and new assignment of responsibilities can be the difference between increased productivity and the status quo.

In an industry characterized by low productivity and the potential to improve, there is a need for individuals that are willing to try new ideas, not just accept the inefficiencies of the past.

8. Places as much emphasis on planning as on putting out fires

As much as 24% of an eight-hour construction work day is non-productive due to a lack of planning and scheduling. The supervisor may expend most of his day “putting out fires” that result because of inadequate planning.

Much of the “putting out fires” characteristic of the construction workday can be reduced by more attention to planning. This may entail procedures aimed at preparing a detailed overall project plan such as a critical path diagram or something as simple as setting out a work plan for tomorrow’s work. Readying tools, equipment, and labor at the end of one day for work to be performed the next day can result in a reduction of wasted idle time.

Is it possible to build a construction project without planning? The answer is “yes.” Is it possible to build a construction project for the least amount of time and cost without adequate planning? The answer is a resounding “no!” Consider what would happen if you headed to a new location in your automobile without taking a road map. You might eventually get there, but you would not get there in the least amount of time or for the least of cost.

9. Puts a high priority on quality and safety

Last, but certainly not least in importance, is the concentration on obtaining a high quality of workmanship and attention to safety. A productive project is a safe and high quality project. These are compatible objectives.

Poor quality or work accidents result in people having a negative attitude about their work and company objectives. Given a work environment that stresses quality and safety, everyone attains pride-in-work and a winning spirit. It is this type of spirit and work ethic that the supervisor must promote and achieve.

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