Don't become a statistic when projects fail

MY MODEST reputation within the industry is that I'm a "garbage man." I'm the hired gun who comes in when a project is tanking and threatening the company along with it. By methods that are sometimes as appealing as making sausages, I manage to bring the job in on time and on budget. At least, I can get the worst job to break even. My perspective of seeing so many failed projects first-hand and fixing

MY MODEST reputation within the industry is that I'm a "garbage man." I'm the hired gun who comes in when a project is tanking and threatening the company along with it. By methods that are sometimes as appealing as making sausages, I manage to bring the job in on time and on budget. At least, I can get the worst job to break even.

My perspective of seeing so many failed projects first-hand and fixing so many others has given me unique insight as to why some projects succeed despite the best efforts of many to kill them and why others that should have everything going for them are doomed from the start. With my intent only to help, allow me to elaborate a tad more.

Even if the job was properly estimated and bid and has plenty of money to do it, that doesn't help if the company isn't willing to actually fund the job properly.

Like the greed and/or stupidity of the owners of a company who think they can save $20,000 by, for example, renting only one scissors lift for six months for a 1 million-sq.-ft. warehouse job. The estimate budgeted for the needed six. Guys like this are so far beyond clueless to me that I have to wonder, if they've done this kind of budget-gutting on other jobs, how they've managed to stay in business at all.

It's not just a matter of having one instead of six lifts on the job. It's simply killing crew productivity because six crews might have to share that single lift, and five crews are twiddling their thumbs while they wait their turn to use it. Their payroll will be far more than the cost of the rental on the lifts.

I could literally give you a thousand more examples, but you get the idea. If a company doesn't have the money or won't give the job the money it needs to show productivity each month so progressions of The Schedule of Values can be billed, then the job is sunk before it even begins. This is why that, within reasonable limits, I won't take a "problem job" unless I basically have an open checkbook to hire the crews I need and get the materials and tools those crews need to actually show progress on the job.

The schedule is unrealistic.

Even in this day of computers and software that can tell within a few man-hours how long a given job should take, it's still not uncommon for the money men to poach the schedule and try to get everyone to fast track a 240-day job into, say, 180 days, with no allowance for fast tracking. Sometimes they just flat-out lie and include an unrealistic target completion date in the scope of work that's based on nothing more than a thin-air wish.

Not much you can do about if you're taking over an existing job with an unrealistic schedule. Just don't bid on future ones if the completion date or schedule doesn't feel right to you.

Beware the Project Sabotage Frog. He can and will kill you and the job if given the chance!

In the Amazon, it's not the 30-ft.-long anaconda that's your primary danger. It's that tiny and brightly colored poison dart frog that carries a neurotoxin on its skin.

Similarly, on every project that's tanking, at least one deadly Sabotage Frog is at work. He's often a seemingly harmless little critter that you'd think would have a rooting interest in the project's success. He can be so seemingly insignificant to the overall progression of the job that almost no one notices, yet for whatever crazy reason is determined to sink the job. If that means sinking you along with it, so be it. Identifying this person can be difficult but is necessary. If you don't, the little maelstroms of chaos he creates often become tidal waves of trouble, which translate into lost profits at best and usually worse.

This isn't to say one or more other subs aren't sometimes targeted as scapegoats when a job is headed south, but most of us know when that's happened because lawyers get involved. The Sabotage Frog usually manages to hop out of the legal quicksand.

How do you neutralize such an entity? Once you figure out who he is, simply let him know that you know what he's up to. That will normally make him behave himself.

Sometimes, stuff just happens.

A tornado hits the job, your unions stage a sympathy strike, your factory rep runs off to Mexico with the money you had to pay upfront to COD the equipment because your company has such poor credit or every bit of concrete in the floor has to be replaced because the independent tester was caught taking a bribe.

Who knows or even cares why or what happened? Fact is that sometimes stuff simply happens and you have to deal with it the best you can.

Just remember to have lots of paperwork handy in the form of your daily log, photos, videotape and all the contractual documents for the job that might give you some wiggle room.

Whatever you do or don't do, don't panic! Be a professional and do your job to the best of your ability — which you always do anyway, of course.

H. Kent Craig is a second-generation mechanical contractor and project manager with unlimited Master's licenses in boilers, air conditioning, heating and plumbing. He can be reached by calling 919/367-7488, or via e-mail at [email protected]