Construction Projects: Project Communication Tools to carry out the project goals

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October 04, 2018
Author: John Donley
Organization: Donley Construction Consultants

Project Communication Tools to carry out the project goals
What are the Project Communication Tools and Habits going to be?
Some projects have very structured chain of command hierarchy’s, of who can communicate directly with whom, unlike an Integrated Project Management System where the parties strip themselves of formalistic contract roles (Owner, Designer, Prime, Subs, suppliers, QC, CM, QA) and communicate in roundtable format face to face or electronically.

Small projects often have the opposite – ad hoc communication styles, almost all sit down unscheduled talks, reactive to situations, or to the tempo of weekly billing or inspections. Some thought is required going in, on the communication tools and habits the project needs, and does not need, and how to enforce or guide the team to use those tools as intended, and modify them if better ones emerge.

To start with the basic challenge: Bee hives and ant farms have genetically coded “specifications” and “contracts” that define roles – who is the Queen Bee, who is the worker bee, etc. – and tasks. Cultures develop rituals, as can projects or communities, that become habits, indeed, at times, moral imperatives, like celebrating the Fourth of July with flags and a parade. Etiquette, pleases and thank you’s, develop as a way to make social interaction more pleasant. These social and communication patterns, while goal driven – survival or social enjoyment – took years or millions of years to hone into embedded code until first or second nature. In contrast, a construction project has familiar contract templates, and trade practices, even “unwritten rules” in the trenches. But each project has its own culture, its own communication protocol and challenges, usually with a grouping of individuals and companies sharing common goals for success but also adversarial ones. The owner wants high quality but to pay less; the contractor wants to maximize profit; all share in reputational upside or down if the project design or installation fails to be appreciated, does not work, or gets mired in disputes.

There are a number of key tools or choices available to the owner, designer and CM before bids are solicited to enhance both verbal communication – talk – and written documentation, that go beyond but carry out the contract duties. These are a few and they should be considered with care, both in terms of whether they work, add cost, end up getting lip service, or actually impair good old fashion “just talking.”

The Dangers of Email as if Contract Documents. I am fond of saying, when people start emailing, they are not communicating; they are operatically carrying onto “send all” emails, their gripe and dis about something or someone. They can be recriminatory, viral, and cancerous. Emails are a lawyers’ dream; a full employment act. Someone invariably says something sharp, as if the comment is not recorded for all time, to blow off steam. So often in courts, juries are fascinated by emails and treat them as if a person’s unvarnished state of mind, and rely on those half-second, half-baked and regretted off hand comments, as more pivotal than the contract terms, or a bevy of daily reports. Emails have intrigue.

I recommend using emails as envelopes to send out documents, and not to use for important communications, except to schedule events. The reason is that an attached letter generally takes more time to draft, is more thoughtful, and will engender a more thoughtful response. Off the cuff emails, aside from being on very small font and at risk of being buried in a huge chain of emails, do not sound official. The sound like banter. Sometimes unavoidable, but if a communication is a contract document level communication, it should be a letter or formal transmittal, even if transmitted electronically.

Electronic Bid Documents. This is the wave of today and here to stay. However, many owners still want it both ways, and say, you will work from the electronic bid documents for submittals, and shop drawings, but they are not contract documents and only the hard copies can be relied upon.

The problem with this is the advent of BIM, AutoCAD and other three dimensional electronic drawings which are both more efficient for transmittal (speed, accuracy, and cost, and able to share and integrate with other team members quickly), because they contain 3 dimensions of data not 2 (as opposed to traditional plan sheets). Functionally, the 2 dimensional sheets cannot “control” or adequately describe the final design and as built record once the design or design implementation and shop drawing process has gone electronic and three dimensional.

This becomes a problem for those subcontractors – digital fabricators, mechanical, computer and specialty trades – where electronic design documents are the norm, but building plans at building departments are approved on two dimensional sheets. Care should be made to make sure the contract documents determine what function electronic data has, and how it relates to the written, two dimensional, traditional plan sheets submitted for permit.

It is our view that it is artificial to say the 2 dimensional sheets control when the 3 dimensional electronic plans actually define and instruct the builder what to build. Like standard rules of construction, the two should be interpreted harmoniously, as a whole, and when in conflict, usual rules of conflict, approvals and the like apply.

Another risk of electronic documents is the tendency they have to allow machines – computers – to think through tolerances and clearances but without a human oversight. Three examples of “garbage in, garbage out” or inadequate oversight of the computer’s logarithm:
• Designer potholes and finds high value buried fiber optic lines directly below a planned driven pile location. Designer orders surveyor to plot more locations of the fiber optic line, after potholing, but fails to instruct the surveyor’s AutoCAD team to merge the two plotted electronic survey files. The result is that the known utility conflict disappears, precisely because of a “measure twice” effort to add more data. Yes, this happened. The pile hit the duct bank. Oops.
• Bullrings or cul de sacs in a subdivision had a very flat grade of 0.02” per ten feet. Concrete curb and gutter is set on ten feet offset stakes behind the gutter. In a semi-circle, the ten foot offset stakes are a larger circle and therefore flatter than 0.02 than for example, the parallel straight lines between front of curb and ten foot offset on straight sections. The bull ring or cul de sac was designed by accident flatter than the straight part of the street, because the offset settings on the plans ten feet back on a circle, get flatter with the bigger second circle ten feet distant from the curb of gutter. The gutter does not drain, and disputes arise.
• Stair case design requires a design of empty space – the space between each tread and height of ceiling above. Designing a staircase, especially a circular one, must be hand checked tread by tread otherwise what appears on paper to work, once installed, could lack adequate headroom. And so on. In other words, computers are not fail safe thinkers.

Project Meeting Minutes. Most complex projects, and almost all high end residential projects where the finishes and finish selections and coordination dominate the workflow and owner expectations, will have and will need regular, weekly progress meetings. These are typically led by the Architect or CM, with the Prime Contractor reporting on progress, challenges, bottlenecks, and so forth. The Architect and CM typically provides meeting minutes before the next meeting, listing outstanding task items, and resolved items. If well structured, it can serve as a support to schedule and manage expectations in all directions, and nip issues in the bud.

Sometimes, but not always, subcontractors and key trades will be included. Sometimes the rule is “speak with spoken to” as a matter of chain of command and efficiency. Sometimes, specialty trades such as HVAC, or finishes are the controlling work item and they may have design build elements that in turn provide the floor to that sub. Have a meeting template format, in writing, word processed, and circulated – not in hand, and not ad hoc. With specific items, and timetables, and updated, so one can track meeting to meeting what is done as promised and what is not, and why.

Quality Control of Project Documentation- tailor to needs; review and comment.
Too often, Project meeting minutes, daily reports and the like involve unfocused narratives that seldom are useful in later disputes. They do not document or quantify claims or delays adequately or at all. Often they devolve into gripe sessions by a foreman feeling under-resourced. Fix that early.

RFI’s. Requests for Information (RFI’s) are important coordination tools on all large projects. They are prone to abuse as an indirect way to imply design error by the simple approach of adding up the number of RFI’s issued, suggesting that a contractor’s question automatically means a design issue is unclear. Often this devolves into noncommunication as the design team perceives its design is being attacked or the owner set up to receive a design defect claim that in fact involves Contractor means and methods.

How to Smoke this out? One way is via a partnering type meeting to go over a handful of the RFI’s in person, with key stakeholders present (owner, design team, prime, any affected specialty sub). That way, the Contractor must show the owner team what is stumping the contractor; and it can be quickly gauged if there are more than one way, or a dimension bust – less than one way – to achieve the design drawing’s intent. This also breaks down the tendency to over-paper construction where a meaningful design coordination or contractor assist meeting can solve the challenge.

Partnering. Partnering came in vogue as a way of team building on large projects. It now involves facilitators and partnering specialists. Some would say cynically it is window dressing before the fight and claims; a collective “happy face” that is ultimately insincere, and actually gets in the way of direct communication, by putting a premium on acting as if all are on the same page, when in fact, a construction contract in a competitive bidding situation –where the contractor can get the next job by being low bidder even if the owner dislikes that contractor – is adversarial.

The antidote. Since partnering is here to stay, the antidote to avoid partnering from being Pablum or politically correct but not genuine speak, is to weave it dispute techniques that frame how adversarial discussions will take place, have a process for effective resolution, and not disrupt the flow of work. That takes work.

Other Thoughts; profanity, off color remarks, contractor speak. Construction has been known for salty language. Construction is not immune from communication styles that berate, belittle, discriminate, harass, or amount to hate speech. Managers must be vigilant to make sure the workplace has good esprit de corps, and that official mission statements about respect among team members are in fact followed, and there are not two parallel universes –the one when you are watching and the one when you are not. This topic is larger than this seminar, but ultimately, your crews need to pull in the same direction, and not have malaise, Lord of the Flies attitudes, sexism, racism etc. Crews mirror the culture; your job is to make sure team comes first, and bad attitudes and bad apples are isolated, reprimanded, and removed. Otherwise, you lose control, and the project suffers.

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