The Construction Industry’s Supervision Model is Broken (Here’s How to Fix It)

You’re about to read a post that’s a part of a blog series from Gary Fuchs, our Workforce Management Advisor. Want to take a step back and read his earlier blog posts? Or skip a few topics and read ahead? Here’s a quick table of contents to help guide you:

Post 1 | How to Start the Workforce Evaluation Process
Post 2 | The Ten Commandments of Project Execution
Post 3 | The Construction Industry’s Supervision Model is Broken (Here’s How to Fix It)
Post 4 | How My Team Restructured an Entire Electrical Contracting Firm

Having a firm grip on managing labor is essential to a successful project. Are you professionally managing or simply supervising your workforce? Are you proactive or reactive when it comes to controlling your workforce? 

Have you ever asked yourself these questions? If not, it may be time to do so. But before you do, it’s important to consider the difference between supervision and management.

Merriam-Webster defines supervision as “the action, process, or occupation of supervising; a critical watching and directing (as of activities or a course of action).”

Merriam Webster defines management as:

  1. the act or art of managing; the conducting or supervising of something (such as a business)
  2. judicious use of means to accomplish an end
  3. the collective body of those who manage or direct an enterprise

Here’s what’s interesting: the word management isn’t mentioned in the definition of supervision. On the contrary, the word supervising is found in the definition of management.

Now ask yourself, should I be supervising or managing my workforce?

My answer to this question is BOTH. You can’t manage your workforce through supervision, but you can supervise your workforce through management.

This image reads, “You can’t manage your workforce through supervision, but you can supervise your workforce through management.”

Some have described the management of a construction company’s workforce as “controlled chaos.” After all, many aspects (from marketing to estimating, from project management to contracting, from financing to safety, and many areas in between), although typically successful, are a bit chaotic. And understandably so; a construction management team has to keep a lot of balls in the air in order to operate efficiently and return a profit.

But what if the reason for this “controlled chaos” is because many construction companies utilize only a Workforce Supervision model? 

What is the Supervision Model?

The Workforce Supervision Model.

The image outlined above is what the Workforce Supervision Model looks like. Note that the Project Manager isn’t shown. Arguably, this is a streamlined organizational chart. Workforce management is such an important part of the business, so it is justified to use this model. After all, this model places craft labor at the top of the chain as the one in control of the workforce.

Pros of the Supervision Model

  • It puts the most trustworthy “do the work” person (the General Superintendent) at the top of the structure as the leader.
  • It can shift the management team’s time and focus away from directing labor and toward other aspects.

Cons of the Supervision Model

  • It can put the General Superintendent on an island with little support (other than the tradespersons he/she works with).
  • The General Superintendent may have too many duties to fulfill (see the exercise below).
  • One of your most valuable and expensive employees ends up spending most of their day playing middle-man and doing admin work. (The best surgeon wouldn’t transition to scheduling surgeries.)
  • It sometimes encourages the company to employ an Administrative Assistant (another overhead cost) who may not understand the nuances of construction like a Project Manager would.
  • It creates a workforce in complete control of labor and cost with little or no time to focus on job costing.
  • It isolates the project management team from labor decision making, consequently creating a condition that foster cost overruns (more on this can be found in this blog post).
  • It creates a lack of accountability.

Try This Supervision Model Exercise

Trying to determine whether or not your company is suffering from the Supervision Model? I encourage you to complete these two tasks to help guide you.

Write your General Superintendent’s job description.

If you haven’t done so, you should take some time and write your General Superintendent’s “GS” job description. What duties are expected from the GS? I’ve seen job descriptions contain as many as 40 line items. Do you expect your GS to make assignments to each project, stay abreast of all project schedules, insure all projects have the correct labor mix, mentor foreman, train, participate in all aspects of safety, understand the labor plan on all projects, review all pertinent job costing reports and communicate the details of the items listed to the management team and the workforce? If this is your situation, your GS should have a Superman cape and a shirt with a big “S” printed on the chest.

Ask your General Superintendent to journey his or her daily activities.

Ask your GS to keep a journal of their daily duties. You may be shocked to discover where their time is directed and what they are focusing on. Remember that the GS’s background is as a tradesperson. A tradesperson’s natural instinct is to build things. The top priority becomes meeting schedule, keeping tools and equipment current and providing the foremen with an adequate number of tradespersons. Also, remember that the GS’s customers are the field foremen. It’s important for everyone to keep their customers happy. The last thing a GS wants is to shortchange his customer. This can easily lead to overstaffing a project.

The Supervision Model Isn’t Right for My Company...So Now What?

Now that you’ve asked yourself some tough questions, what do you do next? I’ve been in your position and have experienced your pain. Here are some suggestions and ideas that worked for me.

I was that General Superintendent at Westphal & Company. But I wasn’t particularly good at imitating Superman. At times, I was overburdened with what was expected of me. I prioritized constructing buildings, keeping our customers happy, and keeping my foremen happy with the support I gave them. Yes, I did my best to review job costing reports. I typically reviewed the monthly Work in Progress (WIP) report for a quick overview of every project. I would also review the project's status reports on a bi-weekly basis. But I never felt that I had enough time to dive deeply into job costing.

Years after being promoted to Vice President of Construction, I came to realize that the Supervision Model was failing us time and time again. So, we decided to make a change.

To learn the story about how my team restructured our entire organization to steer clear of the Supervision Model. Read all about it here.

Until next time,

Gary Fuchs

Workforce Management Advisor

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Gary Fuchs

Workforce Management Advisor

Gary Fuchs is Workforce Advisor at LaborChart. Prior to LaborChart, Gary was VP of Construction at Westphal Electric. He and his wife Cheryl are proud parents of three daughters and 10 grandchildren. Gary enjoys woodworking, golf, hunting, fishing, and working with LaborChart. In his past, Gary was a volunteer firefighter and basketball official.