What is Wrong with the Construction Industry? Part 5, Symptom 5

Symptom 5 – Poor Focus & FireFighting

Our focus is too nearsighted, and we lose clarity of what matters and what does not.

To make progress, we must focus on things that matter and chip away at the immense workload atop us, but we often don’t. To our detriment, we chose to focus on lesser tasks. Much of our day is spent reacting to problems, often referred to as “firefighting.”

The Construction Executive (AKA Firefighter)

The term “firefighting” is regularly used in construction to describe where the construction executive spends most of their time. When I say executive, I am using Peter Drucker’s definition, “those in positions of responsibility, decision-making, and authority.” Specifically, I am referring to Construction Managers, Civil Engineers, Project Managers, etc.

The Construction Executive?

Construction executives often feel their time is sapped reacting to issues/crises (firefighting), rather than focused on critical tasks required to move a project forward. Such issues could be; absent workforce, delays in concrete deliveries, misplaced materials, miscommunicated instructions, etc. All of which must be dealt with, but take up time that could be spent on the vital tasks of project delivery.

Why Shouldn’t We Firefight?

Firefighting Doesn’t Make Progress

Firefighting doesn’t move a project forward. Nowhere does the scope of works describe, “crisis management a.k.a. firefighting”. You could spend a month fighting fires and be no closer to completing the project. Time spent firefighting is time wasted, and we know it, so we tire of it quickly.

Firefighting is Unplanned

“Every battle is won before it’s ever fought.”

-Sun Tzu in The Art of War

Fires ignite unexpectedly. Nowhere on the program will you find “put out fires,” after, “pour ground beams.”

The above Sun Tzu quote highlights the importance of a good plan and sticking to that plan. Firefighting forms no part of the project plan, and so doing it takes you farther away from victory.

Firefighting is Exhausting

Instinctively we know firefighting doesn’t move a project forward, so our intelligence resists doing it. But at the same time, the fire cannot be allowed to continue. We are being pulled in two opposite directions, each exerting drag on the other. This is a tiring way to work, which leaves us feeling exhausted, demotivated, and eventually helpless.

For me, firefighting (tackling problem after problem) feels like trying to walk along a beach in waist-high water with ten-foot waves crashing into my side.

Each wave slams me to the ground. Once it’s passed, I pick myself up, go to take another step and, “wham,” the next one sends me to the ground. Wave after wave, I keep fighting. At times I’ve wondered if I’ll eventually drown.

It’s impossible to see clearly under these conditions

When I ask my manager or mentor for advice, all their well-intended solutions provided is guidance on how to get up faster or brace and absorb the impact.

I think staying on the beach longer might help; believing I could battle the waves in the day when they’re strong and make progress in the late hours when they aren’t. However, I become so tired and disoriented from the day’s battering that, when the waves calm, I don’t know which direction to walk and can only make a few short steps progress.

I’m left exhausted, barely performing, and before long, I’ll burn out completely.

It’s impossible to see clearly under these conditions, but if I could, I would see the futility of what I am doing. There are only two sustainable solutions:

  1. Calm the water
  2. Get out of the water – or at least to shallower water.

Our nearsighted focus leads us to believe it is more important to tackle the immediate problem, barking in our face like an angry dog, rather than the real problem, standing quietly behind holding its leash.

If we, construction executives, could alter our focus to that of a higher perspective, we would see we’re spending too much time extinguishing flames. We should instead find and eliminate what is causing them to ignite in the first place. We don’t, though. Firefighting makes us look and feel like we are working hard. Our nearsighted focus leads us to believe it is more important to tackle the immediate problem, barking in our face like an angry dog, rather than the real problem, standing quietly behind holding its leash.

Why Do We Firefight?

For every executive employed today, we must employ two tomorrow.  One to fight the fires and one to keep the project moving

Perhaps firefighting is our job?

Robert Rodriguez, a well-decorated filmmaker, shares the following in an interview with Tim Ferriss. “Nothing ever goes according to plan. Sometimes [when] I hear new filmmakers talk, they talk down about their film, how nothing worked and how it was a disappointment… they don’t realize yet that that’s the job. The job is that nothing is going to work at all.”

His point begs the question. Perhaps, as executives, it is our job to fight fires? To that, I would ask two questions:

  1. Should it be?
  2. If it should, who is going to do the more important tasks needed to move the project forward?

If it is our job to fight fires, for every executive employed today, we must employ two tomorrow: one to put out flames and one to keep the project moving. There is already so much work for the individual executive that once the fires ignite, the project will inevitably fall behind if further help is not acquired.

If We Must Firefight, Can We Do it Better?

Firefighting is not a good use of time. But if it is our job to do it, at least on occasion, can we do it better?

Effective Firefighting

As I said above, Robert Rodriguez says it is the filmmaker’s job to deal with things that go wrong. After making this point, he went on to tell a story about a film he was shooting with an explosion that was much larger than expected. A large area of the set he still needed to shoot was destroyed by the blast and would have to be rebuilt exactly as it was before. While most of his team were panicked, Rodriguez took the problem in his stride as for him, it was just another day on the job. With a few calm instructions, the issue was behind him, and the film was back on track. This is effective firefighting.

In construction, we either don’t know how to get the best of ourselves, or we don’t try to.

Rodriguez is at the top of his field and knows how to get the best of himself. Google his accomplishments if you aren’t aware. When his scene burned didn’t overreact or underreact. He was calm and without stress. His state of mind enabled an appropriate response.

A professional fireman knows how to get the best of themselves. Their tools are in their rightful place. The fire engine is organized and full of fuel. They are well-rested, well-equipped, and prepared to respond to the inevitable emergency.

In construction, we either don’t know how to get the best of ourselves, or we don’t try to. We are utterly exhausted, disorganized, and ineffective. We are overworked and stressed. After the tenth unexpected error of the day, we look depressingly down at our to-do list showing what we had expected to get done that day versus what we achieved. To be a better firefighter, we need to be better prepared to fight fires. Again, how we are expected to do this on top of our other duties, I don’t know. We need help.

We Must Plan for Firefighting

The projects I have worked on seem to plan their human resources on the assumption that:

  1. There should be no unforeseen issues and,
  2. If unforeseen issues arise, the existing team can deal with it.

The former assumption is derived from madness, and the latter is a losing bet. Furthermore, there is no “Plan B” for when this plan fails.

Unforeseen issues arise all the time. The contractor enjoys claiming these as variations to the contract, and the scope of works will grow. According to this paper, “Factors Affecting Construction Labor Productivity,” 35 percent of all constructions projects will have a major change. With any change comes additional work. Despite this, the project team remains the same. The contractor hopes to declare variations as profit; they are in business after all and need to make money. But this strategy ends up losing money in my experience because the extra strain on the project team leads to costly errors.

A plan to bring in additional help, “Plan B,” should be prepared and ready to implement when necessary. You don’t necessarily need more executives; in fact, I suggest you don’t. Instead, provide your existing executives with assistants who can be instructed to fight fires, leaving them free to maintain focus on the real work that keeps your project moving forward.

Plan B doesn’t exist, however, and with no Plan B, the existing executives stop being executives and spend their days firefighting. Eventually, help arrives, but at this stage, the fires have caused significant damage to the project and the executive.

Again, Firefighting Doesn’t Make Progress

The professional fireman has one job; to fight fires. The filmmaker makes films, but Robert Rodriguez claims part of their job is to handle things when they go wrong. I imagine, however, that a filmmaker spends most of their day saying “lights, camera, action,” not resolving unexpected problems. They only do that when necessary, which is infrequent. If I imagine wrong, then I’m surprised I enjoy cinema as much as I do.
Similar to the filmmakers, it may well be part of our job to tackle issues as they arise. But, unlike filmmakers, this seems to form a significant part of our job. Maybe that’s why the filmmakers drive Porsches, and we don’t.

We only have ourselves to blame for this. If your day is spent putting out flames, there is something fundamentally wrong. Step back, change focus, and found out what it is. Then solve it, get back to the real work, and leave your extinguisher in the cupboard for a while.

Now read, Symptom 6, Incompetence / Ineffectiveness →

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