Contractor’s Corner: World-class commercial project management - Oct 2021
By Dave Stafford
Somewhere between concept and reality lies the agony of executing procedures to deliver what you promised in winning a bid. Smiles and personality will only go so far. Promises and apologies may extend the deadline, but getting paid will depend on achieving the vision your client had in mind. Plan for flawless execution; accept nothing less than your best in project management. That will matter more than the finest products from a manufacturer. The manner of your delivery will be what gets you accolades, referrals and repeat business.
SALES & PROJECT MANAGEMENT: DIFFERENT SKILLS SETS
The key issue is project manager selection after a review of project complexity, required delivery time of products, installation schedule and overall project duration. A small project with two or three product components and a single delivery is one thing; a large, complex project with demolition, multiple types of prep work and a myriad of dissimilar products stretching out for months can be a nightmare for the company and an inexperienced project manager.
Many companies use selling project managers-you sell it, you manage it. Others focus on the selling aspect and then select the project manager for actual delivery based upon experience or familiarity with required aspects of installation. Most large commercial flooring companies have evolved from the former to the latter. And that makes sense since the personality or mindset is different between the two concepts. “Yes, Joe could charm the birds out of a tree but was an abject failure in scheduling and organization.” Or, “Chip is a marvel at keeping a lot of plates in the air and managing schedules but can be abrasive.”
Of course, a hybrid of Joe and Chip is what any manager will hope for in hiring, but whatever you may be told by an applicant, few exist. I have always been a big believer in personality and skills testing. One or more tests should allow you to zero in on conflicts between what the applicant says and what is shown by their tests. When one proclaims, “I have ten years of experience in sales and project management,” testing may show an appalling lack of growth in the field, perhaps six months of experience repeated 20 times.
One employee, Ray, was a true hybrid: very bright, good with details and charming. On an initial interview, Ray said, “I have some experience in a related field; what makes me a good pick is that I can sell it, make sure it’s installed and collect the money.” That was certainly music to my ears! I hired Ray and was never sorry for the decision. He excelled in delivering the toughest, disaster-prone jobs and always seemed to know how to enhance profitability. He went on to set sales records and was promoted several times. He represented an excellent combination of hard work, ambition and winning personality.
One final point I found to be true: You can teach skills and procedures, but you cannot change personality or aptitude.
THE DETAILS MATTERS
Teaming and back-office support will have an enormous effect on how successful your project management will be. I cannot emphasize enough how critical it is to have an experienced, calm and competent installation manager for commercial jobs. And that is where the project manager and his coordinator should start. Outline the details of the project, including contract timelines, number and type of products being installed, site challenges, and hours of work. What about product deliveries and staging? Must installers undergo a security check or be U.S. citizens?
As the installation manager is being shown project details, he is already thinking about what crews he will have available and the duration of the job versus others in progress, as well as which crew would be the most technically adept and able to maintain the production schedule and has the training and certifications. An additional criterion is how he expects the crew to perform given the expected site conditions. Here is where we get into their emotional maturity and how they handle frustration. I have experienced cases where a master installer with a short fuse severely damaged a client relationship. Once, he became so incensed with a job superintendent’s inability to control the work area that he walked off the job. The client’s lack of ability to manage the work area was overshadowed by our installer’s vitriolic, expletive-filled tirade. “I never want that guy or his crew back on this property again!” The best predictor of what you’ll get from a crew is their past performance.
In spite of the best planning of the project manager, a project can go awry. In a similar horror story, the quick thinking of a terrific installation manager averted disaster. Since Andy understood the parameters of the project, he asked for help from other installation teams and was able to pull in a number of different crews on short notice. He also “borrowed” a couple of crews from a good competitor who owed him a favor. Finally, he assigned a superb installation field supervisor to coordinate the ensuing chaos among the different crews. The result was a financial success rather than an expensive liquidated-damages disaster from a botched delivery.
Another area of crucial importance is coordination with purchasing and product deliveries. When are the products desired or required to comply with installation plans? If this is unclear, special handling may not have been done or a trailer load of products may show up weeks ahead of schedule. This warrants a conversation with the purchasing manager and warehouse operations.
GET IT RIGHT FROM THE START
Documenting the project, warts and all, should start at the beginning. Is the job really ready to begin? Has a pre-inspection been completed? This should be done just prior to a crew being dispatched. I recall a job where we were told, “We are ready for you.” Yet, when I inspected the site, the general contractor was still troweling concrete in a few areas, the drywall taping was in progress, windows were not in and the HVAC was not running. One sure way to start off wrong is to have a full crew show up when the job isn’t ready.
Ideally, the project manager or your field supervisor should meet the crew chief on the job and ease any bottlenecks in paperwork, meet the client’s site rep, go over product and installation plans, as well as site layout, and uncover any glitches. This extra step can be critical for all. Imagine that you get the phone call I did from a client, “This isn’t the carpet I ordered; it’s the wrong color and texture, and it was supposed to be stretched-in over pad, not direct glued.” An expensive mix-up in the warehouse with the wrong carpet being delivered. I still recall the exciting time when a new installer went to the wrong number building, the right room number, ripped up expensive wool carpet and pad and replaced it with direct-glue olefin carpet!
Most often, general contractors hope that the various trades will work together, and sometimes that does happen. If not, and your team cannot be productive, then reschedule. Take pictures of the situation and add it to the job file. “Jerry, I’m pulling our crew after today. When you can give us cleared areas, we’ll return. I’ll do another walk-thru with you on Thursday and have the crew back on Friday and Saturday to wrap this up, okay?” While it was not ideal, we finished on time. Much better to have this conversation with their project manager and outline solutions rather than wait and face liquidated damages when you wind up behind schedule and it’s your fault.
Change orders should occur when you have site conditions that are well beyond what a reasonable person would call “minor.” Most contracts have language that includes “minor prep.” What constitutes minor prep for installation? Examples include flash patching to cover small holes, blemishes, ridges and hairline cracks up to 1/8”. Skim coating the entire floor to eliminate a rough texture is not minor prep. Sanding or grinding down high spots or floor leveling and cleaning is not minor prep. Having to remove the occasional spot of drywall mud is one thing, scraping most of a floor is another. Your installation crew chief and the project manager should walk the site together to spot anomalies and potential problems that would prevent successful installation under the terms of your current scope of work or require a change order. Everyone needs to be on the same page.
Upon arrival at a 3,000-square-foot site to receive new resilient tile, we noted that the contractor had repaired concrete areas and cleaned others. However, the floor looked like craters of the moon. This was not “a little minor patching” as we were assured, but a major resurfacing project. When confronted, the site supervisor agreed that “they left it a little rough.” As a fix, we recommended a floor leveling compound and gave them a price. They balked at the added cost, and we then provided a price on skim coating. The site manager agreed but said the project manager would have to sign the change order. Unfortunately for us, the project manager was at another location, and the site manager signed for the change. When it came time to be paid, the site manager said, “Oh, I didn’t have authority to approve; I was just acknowledging that the work should be done.” We were screwed out of about $0.75 on the dollar for that one.
TIPS FOR SUCCESS
Substantial completion, punch-out and getting paid for a job gives you your final exam score. Here are some tips and thoughts about achieving high marks:
• Stress a quality, error-free installation mindset with your installation teams. Your standards should always be higher than or in sync with the client’s expectations. Inspect and punch-out as you go so that there’s no need to return to any area.
• Is your quality-assurance rep trained to do final walk-thru areas and get them signed off? Beware of multiple inspections of the same area. Each pair of eyes may fix on something different. Limit re-inspections to only those items picked up on the punch list. Any items uncovered later become a part of a warranty issue rather than a specific reason to avoid project sign-off. It is particularly important that you have a clear understanding with the client on what will constitute substantial completion and project sign-off as opposed to a warranty repair.
• Substantial completion generally means that you have fulfilled the scope of work called for in the contract; the right products have been installed in the specified areas according to the best practices of the trade. Substantial completion is what should trigger the timeline for either a progress payment or final payment according to contract terms. Minor corrections or punch list items may still need to be completed.
For example, the completed corridor of new carpet tile is peaking, and wall base has not been installed in all areas. This is major and would prevent a sign-off for substantial completion. Here’s another example: Two areas were added during the remodeling phase and included by change order into the main job; products were not available and so could not be installed. This would not impede overall job completion and required progress payment. And another: There was a water leak in a main area, and while flooring had not been installed, floors were wet, and drywall had to be replaced. This was an integral part of the original contract, and the resulting delay was not our fault; therefore, we would be due a progress payment rather than one based upon substantial completion.
After waiting for six weeks for the delivery of carpet tile, the tractor-trailer carrying the load was involved in a wreck on Interstate 95, about 40 miles from our warehouse. Pallets and boxes of carpet tile were strewn all over the road. Since the truck’s progress was being tracked and we had a crew standing by to install, we dispatched a large truck and crew to the site to salvage as much product as possible. While the client was upset at the delay, we told him what we were doing. We were able to salvage most of the product and able to complete the installation in 48 hours. When there is a significant problem and it is quickly and efficiently solved with a team effort, the result can be a much stronger relationship than if the job had gone perfectly. Clients always want to know what you are going to do when there are problems; extreme customer service can cement those bonds.
Consider how you are assigning your most important asset, the project manager. Is he or she up to the task? As you grow as a company, make changes in how you approach delivery of larger, complex projects. Ramp up training in the technical arts and do emotional maturity checks on key employees. Document projects through written notes, pictures and video. Pay attention to project glitches and how they could have been avoided or positioned for change orders. Develop set guidelines for quality assurance and inspections. Aggressively pursue payment as primary activity, not as an afterthought. Do this, and you’ll be successful rather than bankrupt.
Copyright 2021 Floor Focus