The modern construction professional must be a forward thinker, an innovator, an inventor, and an inspire. He or she has more choices than ever to maximize efficiency and collaboration while distributing information to key stakeholders in real time. However, with all the tools that we have at our disposal, it seems that we still have the same challenges we did decades ago. Project teams are still challenged with staying on schedule, engineering mishaps, information not getting to the people that need it when they need it, etc. With all the fancy tools and technology are we improving as an industry at the rate we should be? For me, this is a personal endeavor. I entered the industry with a worldview given to me from my father who was a Union Sheet Metal Worker, and a passionate union labor politician in New York City. His heyday was the 60's thru the 90's. As I began my career in the early 90's, I was in my early 20's, and I struggled to have any perspective beyond the messaging my father posited all those years at the dinner table. Union politics, strength in numbers, be united, real men don’t take any bull from their bosses that would undermine conditions. Conditions that men fought for before us. I drank the Kool-aid for many years until I had a turning point. I began to identify with less liberal ideals and shifted more toward the political center. I started to see that the principles that were ingrained in me were necessary back then but were not as applicable moving forward. These sacred principles that empowered the labor worker for decades were undermining the union ranks as well as the industry as a whole. Contractors were not our adversaries nor were we theirs. I broke free of the chains that were hindering my professional development. The chains I managed to take off were the set of principles that broke the chains of injustice and unfair labor practices from years past. We currently operate in a new era with enormous societal growth. Subsequently, I found a shifting of mindsets was required that would align with the modern industry dynamics.
After two decades as a Union Sheet Metal Worker myself, I decided to pursue a PhD in Organizational Psychology with an emphasis on Organizational Development. My academic experience reinforced some of the ideas I learned from my father and some ideas that just made sense regarding labor politics. Such as the philosophical stance of why organizations exist at all. Organizations are formed to benefit society rather than society existing to support organizations. It is easy to lose sight of this bedrock principle. Especially when facing the modern challenges that our industry is experiencing. An unprecedented rate of technological advancements and the overwhelming amount of choices intended to make our life and work easier.
Consequently, as a result of such advancements the engineer, architect, and construction professionals are working in much closer proximity. Communication among the various entities has improved dramatically. Barriers or egos associated with professional identities are also fading as collaborative tools to advance and develop working relationships. Simultaneously, a radical shift to construction management is emerging. Principles taken from Lean Manufacturing have been integrated into an alternative construction management paradigm, Lean Construction. Although Lean construction has been around for roughly three decades, it is just now gaining momentum. Lean is a management paradigm that was born out of the Toyota Production System and the quality movement in American academics that helped Japan rebound after WWII.
Even earlier than the quality movement that began in the 1940's, Frederick Taylor, (1913)) in his seminal book “Scientific Management” presented revolutionary ideas about the nature of work. During that time, American society was undergoing the most radical transformation from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy. Taylor identified the concept of waste. He understood the deficiencies in job design, and work processes were a problem for the early US Manufacturers as they competed with the English and European counterparts. Taylor’s theories and research influenced the likes of innovators such as Henry Ford inspiring the assembly line. Within the Tayloristic framework, standardization and work processes were engineered to be followed to the detail. A fierce evaluation of each element in production processes was a necessary facet of standardization. This intense evaluative process uncovered deficiencies and waste which were subsequently eliminated. The resulting management structures and processes created an authoritarian relationship between boss and employee. Supervisors were the bosses. The labor worker was told how to do each standardized task and was not permitted to inject his or her own ideas.
Much has been learned about this level of employee restriction and the related negative organizational consequences. Even this negative phenomenon is not a black and white issue. History has revealed to us as we progress through time, societies are influenced and are also the influences of the many moving parts that create societal, economic, and political change. For example, scientific management was the answer for the early 20th century manufacturers of goods. Similarly, to the early 20th century, modern society is experiencing another radical change as we transition from the industrial age to the information age. For many of us, the transition already happened. On the other hand, among the blended workforce consisting of three very different generations still working together, such as Baby Boomers, Gen Xe'rs, and Millennial, the transition point may not be so defined or clear. Three very different work ethics, personal values, and political lenses are blended in the modern organization.
Subsequently, as baby boomers are leaving the industry in record numbers, the much smaller group (Gen Xe'rs) are taking most of the leadership roles. Since the gen x group is such a small group sandwiched in between the massive retiring group and the equally massive millennial group, a shortage in leadership is the result. These positions need to be filled, however, forcing many unseasoned millennials into roles that were previously occupied by seasoned leaders. The aging construction leaders typically accumulated an excellent foundation of work experiences as they worked their way through the ranks. Superintendents and supervisors generally began his or her career as a craftsman followed by a series of promotions and increasingly complex projects. The career trajectory for the modern construction professional has radically changed. The millennial construction leaders often begin their careers in a leadership role shortly after finishing an engineering, or construction management degree and have minimal construction experience.
As market trends change, alongside the generational adjustments organizations are forced to identify how else they must adapt to keep up. Contractors are being inundated with such a high rate of external influences. Uncertainty and unpredictability are increasing at the rate of technological advancements. In response to these highly unpredictable forces of change, many construction companies have found that the old way of managing construction projects doesn’t work in the current business environment. These forward-thinking companies comprised of very young leaders are breaking the mold that so stubbornly hindered growth in the construction industry for decades at a time. Compared to other industries, construction companies are historically laggards in developing innovations that promote growth. I see a significant gap in research that could provide insight into why construction companies collectively evolve slower than companies in other industries. A possible reason for this lag is due to inadequate performance metrics in the construction industry. Much of the performance metrics relied on by construction professionals to learn from are lagging statistics. Lagging statistics tell a performance story in quantitative form after the projects were complete. Alternatively, Industry leaders like myself have pursued higher degrees and advanced knowledge in statistical analysis to develop more sophisticated analyses. Many facets of performance can be measured and analyzed to produce leading statistics.
Conversely, leading statistics provide a story of how performance is coming along and can predict the need for necessary adjustments. The construction market is becoming increasingly competitive, requiring performance metrics that lead versus lag. Rather than waiting for the job to be finished and counting losses at that point a quality and forward-thinking culture have emerged.
Industry-Wide Vision and Alignment
As each organization attempts to sort out their own story in this new chapter, one thing can be certain. Change is necessary. Each contractor will determine how radical a change they will make. Unfortunately, industry-wide change is never a homogeneous transformation. The external forces that cause such a radical change to an industry tend to overwhelm rational logic. The rate of new technology and the uncertainty that accompanies abnormal levels of risk behavior create large levels of collective anxiety and disorder across the industry.
However, in the face of such a rapid-fire environment homogeneity might be the appropriate goal. Frederick Taylor inspired homogeneity among business leaders during the industrial revolution. Taylorism became a movement that brought some calm to the chaos. Would we benefit as an industry to become a bit more Tayloristic for a time? In any case, movements such as these are temporary. As Taylorism was no longer the answer and scientific management began to fail an alternative movement was born. Thought leaders such as Abraham Maslow, Herzberg, and Kurt Lewin answered the call in what is known as the human relations movement that began in the 1940's and persisted into the 1990s and much of the human relations movement is still current. The problems that eventually arose out of scientific management created an opportunity for academics to become bridges between academics and business. Academic research supporting the human relations principles brought back autonomy in the workplace which engendered creativity, problem-solving skills, job satisfaction, and employee motivation. Subsequently, soft skills were heavily researched such as recognition and found to be the answer to an unmotivated workforce.
Today’s chaos requires another Management shift. Would a management paradigm consisting of a blend of scientific management and human relations be what is required? A willingness to standardize processes while at the same time encouraging continuous improvement feedback from all employees. Such a paradigm that consists of standardization and autonomy may be able to settle the industry-wide chaos. Just enough to allow the industry to create industry alignment intelligently. An industry in sync is more apt to empower individual contractors to develop similar organizational structures and business practices designed for such a time as now. Organizations will begin to reap the benefits of all these new tools when the industry has a new vision and a new movement.