Real-World Project Management Results

Project management is not easy and very often we know about just the basics from what we read on the books or the Internet. Real projects require a deeper understanding of project management processes and practices and this may need our special focus on many topics.

In the book Everyday Project Management, the author Jeff Davidson introduces project management as a real-world complex activity and describes real problems and solutions. Everyday Project Management is a book that everyone from the project field should read. Most of the author’s views relate pretty much with the project management educational principles of the BVOP.

In this chapter, you learn why a thorough, initial research phase can pay off handsomely for your project, the difference between squeaking by and excelling, and why open and easy communication is critical to your project’s success.

Helping Site Managers and Project Managers to Be More Effective

Marcus works for a large metropolitan construction firm that handles 20 to 40 projects annually, ranging from new-home construction, office buildings, and parking lots to assorted public works projects. Each project is headed by a project foreperson who has various assistants and from 5 to 25 crew members who handle the labor.

Like any business in the construction field, the company has had its ups and downs over the past several years. Regional weather patterns, shrinking municipal budgets, new competition in the marketplace, and a host of other factors keep upper management on their toes.

A good plan, executed by a knowledgeable foreperson with sufficient labor, ideally adds up to overall corporate profitability. It was the owner’s belief that as a cadre of highly experienced, well-trained forepersons were established, the profit potential on jobs should improve, if only slightly. Yet, things didn’t seem to be working out. One of the biggest challenges, however, was declining profitability per job even as the company matured.

On construction jobs that represented fourth or fifth jobs for a regular client, where the parties involved were relatively seasoned at various processes, profits were down. A thorough audit of the company’s practices revealed that the critical issue was high turnover among labor crews.

All other factors—increases in cost of materials, increases in wages, licenses, permits, bonding, insurance, and the dozens of other issues that go hand-in-hand with initiating new constructions—were handled relatively well. In fact, compared to other comparably sized businesses in the field, this particular company was above average in many categories.

Let’s Assign It to a Project Manager

Marcus was put in charge of an internal project, authorized directly by the owner. The project mission was to determine why the company was experiencing higher than normal turnover rates among its construction crews, and then to develop a strategy that lowered turnover rates to those of industry and regional standards.

Using the same software that the company employed to manage construction projects, Marcus initiated a project of his own, called “Overturning Turnover”—“OT” for short. Marcus was the solo person on the project; he had no staff. All responsibilities were up to him. What’s more, the owner was often lobbying at the state capitol on certain issues, was the chief marketer for the company, and served as the purchasing officer. He had precious little time to spend with Marcus.

Marcus laid out a plan on his own, based on his industry experience. He knew that he would need to speak to each of the forepersons to learn their views, plus several of their assistants as well as the onsite crew chief. Marcus chose to inspect each of the construction sites and then talk face-toface to the players involved, as opposed to calling, though many of them would have opened up to him over the phone.

Marcus felt certain that the key to successfully completing this project and devising a winning strategy would be found largely at the sites themselves. In the days that followed, he made the rounds, spent time with the key participants he had targeted, and carefully updated his notes.

Analysis and Observation in Project management

After his third visit to a construction site, Marcus felt he had made a breakthrough, but he wanted to confirm his findings and continued to maintain his visitation schedule. Marcus’s major observation was that the project forepersons were largely Caucasian, English-speaking males (no surprise to Marcus), whereas over the years, the construction crews comprised an increasing number of immigrants.

The company’s far-flung empire extended to several counties and included projects in major urban and suburban areas from which the company recruited its labor. In past years, many Spanish-speaking laborers, a number of whom knew sufficient English to survive, filled the ranks. In fact, among crews with five or more Spanish-speaking laborers, at least one of them spoke fluent English. So, the language barrier did not seem to be a problem, even between the foreperson and a non-English-speaking worker, because a liaison person was always on hand.

As the region began to be inhabited by a more diverse population, construction crews themselves became more diverse. It was not uncommon for a single crew to have several Spanish-speaking workers, as well as natives from Malaysia, Korea, Vietnam, India, Afghanistan, several countries from the Middle East, and various Eastern Europeans, including Albanians, Bulgarians, Greeks, Poles, Czechs, and Romanians.

Many workers also came from Guiana, the Ivory Coast, and Sierra Leone, as well as Somalia, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya. From the western hemisphere, it was not uncommon to have Brazilians, who speak Portuguese; workers from several of the Latin or South American countries; and from French-speaking portions of Canada.

In essence, the company’s construction crews on many sites represented a virtual United Nations! When several crew members speaking the same tongue included at least one worker who had decent fluency in English, foreperson-to-crew relations went reasonably well. Often, however, this was not the case. The composition of crew members varied widely from site to site, project to project, and even season to season.

Communication in Project management

Even kind or caring project forepersons could be less effective at their jobs when language barriers diminish effective communication. After delving into the project at length, Marcus realized that slightly increasing turnover rates were due, in part, to the inability of project forepersons to communicate directly with individual crew members.

He reasoned that if countries sometimes ended up going to war with one another over misunderstandings, then it made sense to believe that workers might be departing at higher rates because of their inability to express themselves adequately, be heard and understood, appropriately express frustration or grievances, and, conversely, receive appropriate feedback or even praise.

When he presented his findings to the owner, at first Marcus received a rather cool reception. “It couldn’t be that,” he was told. “We’ve had foreign-speaking crew members for years.” Marcus persevered and explained that with sophisticated project management software and advancing construction methods, available down time and slack time on many projects were at all-time lows. In other words, construction projects were literally being completed at a quicker pace each year, and the timing, coordination, and precision compared to past operations was a marvel to behold.

Operating at a more efficient pace with little or no slack also meant that there was less overall time for bonding among the workers and conversation in general. Perhaps modern management efficiencies contributed to a “tipping point” in regard to maintaining the human touch.

Stakeholders and communication in Project management

By and by, the owner acknowledged that Marcus’s analysis likely was correct. He then became interested in the strategy that Marcus had devised to “overturn turnover.”

As a result of making his rounds and collecting the input of many others, as well as collecting articles from construction industry magazines on this same topic, Marcus had developed a multipart strategy. It was innovative, even if simple and inexpensive. And the owner liked it!

Marcus’s plan involved having each foreperson attend a short training program that he himself would personally design. The program would last 90 minutes and only require one handout with printing on both sides of the page. Here is the handout that Marcus devised:


Enrique is 19 years old. He came to this country when he was 11, never graduated from high school, and has only a rudimentary grasp of English. Enrique works on one of your crews. He is a good worker, is seldom late, and hardly ever complains. You can feel it, though: He is not going to be at your establishment for long. He will pick up a few dollars and then move on.

Can you increase the job length for workers like Enrique? Indeed, can you motivate someone who, quite bluntly, toils for long hours for little reward? The answer is a resounding “Yes.” It will require a little effort and ingenuity on your part; still, Enrique and others in his situation could yet depart on short or no notice. The odds that they will remain with the job longer, however, will increase if you follow some of the guidelines for motivating these employees.

1. Check Your Attitude—You need to check your attitude before any motivation program can succeed. As human beings, we broadcast messages all the time. What are you broadcasting to your crews? That they are replaceable? That you are not concerned with their needs?

It’s easy for the foreperson or supervisor who has watched dozens of laborers come and go to develop the view that “It’s the nature of the business, so why fight it?” It is that attitude that partially perpetuates the massive turnover in the industry. Resolve that you can take measures to increase the average longevity of low-paid laborers, and your attitude and initiative will make a difference.

2. An Encouraging Word—How long would it take you to learn some key phrases in Vietnamese, or the language of your low-paid laborers? Whether they speak Spanish, Korean, or Farsi, it won’t take much time to master some short conversational pleasantries.

Many bookstores are stocked with dictionaries providing various language translations.

Online, you can find key phrases with pronunciation guides in seconds. Even easier, sit down with one of your key crew members. On a piece of paper, jot down the phonetic spelling of phrases such as “How are you today?” and “You’re doing a good job.”

3. Unannounced Breaks—Periodically throughout the day, and especially on challenging days, give your workers unannounced breaks. Augment these mini-vacations by distributing snacks.

The few dollars you spend will pay off in terms of greater productivity that day. These breaks will also enhance longevity among crew members. It pays to offer little perks.

4. Rotating Leadership—Rotate leadership among some crews. For instance, on four consecutive days, make sure that crew members each have one day as “foreperson.”

For some of your workers, this might represent their first taste of leadership! Rotating leadership is most effective when the crew members are unfamiliar with each other.

5. Awards System—Make “contests” short in duration and high on visuals. For example, you could keep a chart on the wall or other visible location indicating who has had the most consecutive days without being absent or tardy. Which crew performances have prompted words of praise from customers? Who has gone above and beyond the call of duty in the last week?

You can easily chart and share these achievements with crew members on duty. People like to see their names on a chart, followed by stars or other performance indicators. The chart could be language proof, for instance. Everyone recognizes their own name in English, and stars or dollar signs can indicate the bonuses you’ll offer. After posting the charts, offer simple rewards, which could include cash or more time as a team leader.

6. Develop Mentors—Seek leaders among your crew members who can serve as mentors to newly hired staff. This alleviates having to break in each crew member.

Those individuals selected as mentors will be pleased with this special status and will not only assist in achieving smoother operations, but will also help forestall or even eliminate quick departures among new employees.

7. Use a Checklist—Here’s a checklist to help you determine if you are raising or lowering morale, increasing or decreasing crew members’ length of stay, and serving as a leader, not merely as a manager:

  • Do I ensure that employees understand how to properly complete a job?
  • Have I clearly indicated what results I expect?
  • Do I offer adequate and ongoing support?
  • Do I cultivate positive relationships?
  • Do I show concern for crew members as individuals?
  • Have I established appropriate recognition and reward systems?
  •  Did I learn and dispense encouraging phrases for enhanced communication?

If you practice the above recommendations, you still won’t completely eliminate quick turnover or enhance crew motivation. Yet, if you can induce some seasonal crew members to stay on an extra week or encourage them to finish a big job on time, then you have made your job a little easier, and have contributed to the profitability and long-term viability of the company.

The entire program as a success factor

Marcus covered the entire program during this session and then requested each foreperson to employ at least one of the measures, with each crew member, at least once per week. With, say, 15 crew members on a project, the foreperson was responsible for one of the following measures per crew member, per week, for a total averaging three such instances a day:

  Offering an encouraging word in the crew member’s native tongue

  Giving workers unannounced, on-the-spot breaks

  Rotating leadership among some groups, and so on

Each project manager would then report back to Marcus at the close of each work week so that they could assess progress.

Happily, progress was visible from the first day on! Foreign-born crew members perked up immediately when people said a few words or phrases to them in their native language.

After the first week, forepersons reported an increased level of vibrancy, higher morale, and even a higher energy level. At the end of several weeks, the forepersons were convinced that the program was sound.

Marcus Scores Big—After several months, as they looked at the data on a project-by-project basis, Marcus and the owner determined that turnover rates were dropping. Workers were staying onboard longer and didn’t need to be replaced as often. Project profitability was rising. Both Marcus and the owner certainly felt great about that.

Project management in real-life conclusions

Even highly qualified, expert professionals are only as adept at managing as they are at communicating effectively with their teams.

When researching your own internal issues, speak to everyone who might be able to provide insight, face to face if you can.

Be observant of your environment, and also of their environment, to help ensure at the outset that your project is headed in the right direction.

Meet with your sources on their turf, which prompts them to be more open and candid, and which helps you to see aspects of the project you might have overlooked.

As much as any other factor, the morale and good motivation among the troops are spurred on by the positive attitude of management.

Even a menial task can be regarded as worthwhile by a worker, if he or she receives positive reinforcement for a job well done.

Thanks for reading

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