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Crew Hierarchy and Management

Dec. 11, 2020
Time spent evaluating and managing your human resources is critical to your bottom line.
If you are larger than a one- or two-man shop, you have crews of people who work together on any given project. The makeup of the crew might shift and change, but by and large you keep the guys that work well together, well, together, when you can.

We all know that there are various gradations of competency in our employees within our businesses. There always has been. Not every apprentice is as sharp as every other one. Not every journeyman is as competent or as efficient as another. Moving to the larger shops, not every foreman or project superintendent is as organized or capable as another.

It is incumbent upon you, as the head honcho (Owner, CEO, President... BOSS) to know your strengths and weaknesses when it comes to your employees, but especially your field employees. They are, as they say, “where the rubber meets the road.”  Those, “in the trenches, spinning the wrenches” are what makes your business tick. Time spent evaluating and managing your human resources is critical to your bottom line. Oh, you can delegate that task, but it’s YOUR bottom line in the balance, so it is YOUR responsibility at the end of the day.

While I have known a few company heads who were, in my opinion, too far removed from their field personnel, they have been very few. Usually, when a company becomes so large that it branches into ancillary trades (plumbing AND heating AND electrical, etc.) the man (or woman) at the top simply cannot devote the appropriate amount of time necessary to keeping abreast of the field. Delegation, then, becomes the order of the day. That is where prior planning comes in.

If you built your shop from the cab of a truck and grew it to a size where you now have a crew (or crews) of field people, you didn’t do it in a vacuum. You worked alongside of your top people. You know their strengths and weaknesses. You know who you can trust in a crunch and who will fold. You know all of this because you have been there, side by side with your people as you grew. In most cases, you grew because of these people.

Assigning your “right hand” to manage a project in your stead is the first step in expanding your crew hierarchy. Commonly, even if the boss is still working with the tools and a second crew is needed, the foreman of that crew will be the best person the boss can manage. That is, if he wants to be profitable.

It is, ordinarily, difficult to find and retain smart, talented field people. In today’s climate, I dare say it is almost impossible. Therefore, it becomes even more imperative that your first and second tier managers be as solid as can be. You’re building a pyramid here and it doesn’t get built from the top down, contrary to most visual graphics of management structure. The base is the most important part.

When you start delegating field responsibility you are, in effect, saying, “you are now my eyes and ears on the job,” to your foremen. How big a leap of faith that is can be entirely summarized by the caliber of your foremen. In turn, your foremen must assume the mantle of the boss. Where before, they were following your lead, now they must run the show for you. That can be a daunting task for someone who may be extremely competent with their hands, but not so much in the management milieu. Evaluating that ability is your job.

Yeah, I know, you’re up to your butt in alligators, the swamp needs draining, and don’t have enough hours in the day to do it all. Take the time. Remember the “7 P’s.”  For as hard as you have worked to get to where you CAN have more people, you need to make sure that those new hires, and your steady people can make your business MORE profitable rather than a profit drain.

To be sure, there will be adjustment periods where you’ll wonder if you made the right decision to expand, but if you’re fortunate enough to have the work and have the people to do it, it was the right decision.

Matching up your crews is a luxury few expanding shops can afford. Most of the time, it amounts a what warm bodies you have, and where you can send them. Still, you can get a feel pretty quickly as to who works well together and where there is need for improvement.

Just as in everyday interactions, you and your people must make the best of a sometimes less than optimum situation. I believe it was former Secretary of State, Donald Rumsfeld who said, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you want.” That pretty much sums it up.

It would be great if you had a crew made up entirely of seasoned journeymen with, say, expertise in medical gas installation, but unless hospitals or dental offices are your main source of work, you probably won’t have that. So you put together a good lead man with the requisite skills and pair him with other seasoned people and turn them loose.

Likewise, if you get a multi-family project, it might be good to have people with experience in plumbing modular stacks, but if it is your first big project, you might not have that. So the learning curve begins... for you and for your people.

The real trick, moving forward, is to be aware of the team, or teams, you are building and taking care of the inherent strengths and weaknesses we all bring to the job. The satisfaction of watching a team you put together gel and really get the job done right is something you should enjoy seeing.

Yes, you are going to lose people, fire people and promote people. By applying the same criteria to reconstructing your crews as you did to building them originally, you will have a greater success rate than simply throwing bodies at a project and hoping for the best.

Finally, as 2020 draws to a close, I want to say THANK YOU to my readers. This year has been a real roller coaster ride and I feel truly blessed to have your comments and feedback. This is my 13th year writing for CONTRACTOR. As you know, the trade is something I am passionate about, and your feedback helps to keep me on point.

Wishing you and yours a very Merry Christmas, and a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year!

The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a third-generation master plumber. He founded Sunflower Plumbing & Heating in Shirley, N.Y., in 1975 and A Professional Commercial Plumbing Inc. in Phoenix in 1980. He holds residential, commercial, industrial and solar plumbing licenses and is certified in welding, clean rooms, polypropylene gas fusion and medical gas piping. He can be reached at [email protected].

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