How Subcontractors should manage through congested, compressed and accelerated projects

Oh, the holiday season is upon us and I am starting to talk with people about their holiday plans, holiday parties, and holiday meals.  One of the meals that I am completely fascinated with is the “Turducken”.  If you are not in the know, a “turducken” is a dinner that people make (usually around the holiday season) that consists of an entire chicken that is jammed inside of an entire duck and then this Chicken-Duck combo is jammed inside of a turkey, hence the name “Turducken”.  I am fascinated by this meal because it seems like an impossibility of sorts, but nonetheless it is possible to stuff a chicken inside of a duck inside of a turkey.  Being that I am a construction consultant, I am always thinking in the ways of construction projects and I have actually named a particular scenario that I see often in the construction world as a “Turducken”.

I associate the title Turducken with a construction project that is significantly delayed, but has a date of delivery that is immoveable, such as a new stadium or school. These projects have to be completed on time come hell or high water. I refer to these types of projects as Turduckens because the delays cause compression of the project schedule, which results in “stacking” of trades and inefficient progress across the entire job. Whereas the meal consists of birds jammed inside each other, the construction project consists of trades essentially jammed up against one another. This situation becomes a free-for-all, with coordination out the window and trades working wherever there is any hint of availability.

This situation is terrible for everyone involved. It is a coordination nightmare for CM’s and GC’s and the Owner is usually worried that the project is not going to finish on time. I firmly believe, however, that this situation has the most negative effect on the subcontractors. Subcontractors are literally told to bring as many tradesmen to the site as possible, work wherever they can, and even throw in some overtime as well – with no guarantee that they are going to be compensated for the premium time. Subcontractors are left with the decision to keep the customer happy (at a substantial financial risk), or refuse to reach into their own picks at risk termination and backcharging (also at a significant financial risk). The decision is often made with minimal information and background:

  1. Subs (particular “follow-on” trades) are typically unaware of the cause of the delay and why this is necessary;
  2. Subs are usually at the mercy of the CM or GC from a scheduling/coordination perspective and are spread real thin across congested areas all over the site;
  3. Enormous inefficiencies and overtime are often financed by the sub who will likely have to fight for payment at the end of the project;
  4. If the sub cannot keep up with the demands of the CM/GC, they risk termination, which will place an undeniable smudge on the relationship they have worked so hard to build.

So, in summary, subcontractors have minimal say in how the work is performed, yet they are funding the overruns, and if they don’t do what they are told, they risk termination….and if they do get the job done, they will often need to fight to make themselves whole on the project (forget about making a profit)! This is just a terrible place to be in construction.

The purpose of this article is to give some recommendations about what subcontractors can do in this situation. The simple answer is to start preparing for a claim. The only way for subs to effectively do this is to track their manpower like they have never tracked them before! Track every manhour for every single tradesmen or crew every single day. Labor cost and productivity is what gets killed here, and that is what needs to be tracked very closely. In addition to tracking the number of hours, it is very important to document which activities each tradesmen or crew is working on every day (make sure to align the activity description with the current schedule) – this will begin to give some sort of basis for analyzing productivity and impacts.

When documenting this information, elaborate on the surroundings for each activity being tracked and document every little thing that would impact productivity, such as equipment and materials in the way, trade-stacking, crew spreading, lack of access, weather, unanswered RFIs, start/stops, etc. Document everything.  Take a ton of pictures as well to support what is being tracked and documented. This is the point in time where daily reports become the absolute most important piece of correspondence on the entire project, and the more detailed they are the better.  All of this information, if properly recorded, will enable the contractor to calculate resultant overruns associated to each schedule activity to the penny – and will essentially align these overruns with causation, entitlement, and responsibility – the things that are necessary to be successful on a construction claim.

For many in our industry, this often sounds like a lot of work. In reality, it is a 10-15 minute process per day for a superintendent or project manager – one that is usually required through the contract anyway. I actually recommend that every single contractor record this level of detail on every project, Turducken or not.  In my experience, these 15 minutes per day of disciplined tracking on each project is the difference between a construction company that is profitable and one that is living paycheck to paycheck.