When the customer does not know


In the early days of my career I worked as a construction site supervisor.  Then, ready mix was not the prevailing option and we had cement subcontractors come in and pour big concrete jobs.  They would come early on the morning of the pour and so would I as the site supervisor, to ensure they are doing the work right.  There was one problem: I had no clue what a “quality concrete pour” job would look like.  You would think I would ask.  But no.  I decided I had a way to guarantee quality even though I did not know what a quality outcome looks like.

Here is my modus operandi

I would give OK for pour to start.  I let subcontractor start and I time on my watch half an hour.  During that half hour I would give vague instructions to subcontractor engineer to “improve” the work.  When he asks how, I would say, “if you do not know how, then I should not be hiring you to do the job.” He would scurry along scared and confused.

After half an hour or so, I would give a sign to the subcontractor to stop all work.  I do that before any serious pouring has taken place, but after the contractor has just started.

Again, scared and confused, the subcontractor engineer and his crew come to me and ask me why I stopped the work.  My line was always “This is a poor quality pour.  You are not doing a good job, and you are not taking my instructions seriously.” “What instructions?” the poor souls would ask and I say “I have been telling you to improve the work but you do not listen.”…”What is wrong with the way we are pouring?”, “I told you, I am not the subcontractor, you are.  I am not here to teach you how to do your job if you do not know how to do it.  You are not doing it right, so go home, …everbody.” They try pleading with me, they try fighting with me, they try everything.  Finally, I pretend to be MR nice guy and give them “One more chance” to do the work properly.  Not having any other choice, they accept.

That is it!  That was my two and a half cents technique for ensuring quality and I swear I thought it worked.  Well, I figured it was my only choice.  I had no clue what a quality job looked like, and I did not trust my subcontractor enough to ask him to teach me.  I even felt it was a bad image thing for me to look like I did not know what quality job meant.

Until today, I keep hearing stories from suppliers that reflect them working under similar circumstances.  Client thinks his pressure will yield quality.  All it is yielding is maybe some quality imporvement on the short term, but lots of mistrust, discontent, and a short term thinking on the part of the supplier.  All he wants is to get done with this miserable job and move on.

Now, I am not going to talk about a solution here, even though there are good alternatives to this mode of operating that seems to be recurring until now.  However, one thing is for sure, is that this mode of operation does not work, does not yield quality, and hurts the client the most, but also hurts the supplier, and everybody else involved.

Alternatives to this behaviour is for supplier and client to get together at beginning of work and “plan quality.” the first step in planning is to define “what does quality look like on this job and on each deliverable?”

Comments (2)

  1. While your technique might’ve worked for these “poor souls”, it might not work for others. Maybe this is one of your first PM jobs, and you are enjoying the authority you have. You will most likely work on a project where you will not be in a position to treat the suppliers the way you did (there WILL be a project where you will need the supplier/sub-contractor much more than they need you). The project manager must always ensure to treat suppliers the right way, but you will soon discover that yourself.

    I’m not being judgmental here – just giving you a helpful advice gained the hard way.

    1. Thank you for your participating and I think you need to read the article again. I am sharing a story from 25 years ago from beginning of my career as the WRONG thing to do. I am sharing it to make a point about NOT treating suppliers that way. Again thank you for your input

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