August 2016: Contractor Tip of the Month

Words: Damian Lang

Incorporating Standard Operating Procedure

Damian-LangBy Damian Lang

You want to grow your business, right? But you’re already doing all that you can. You’re at capacity and running so hard that you can’t go any faster. Even the thought of doing more sales stresses you out. Also, adding more projects to your team would only create more chaos and confusion among them. Sound familiar? You’re not alone. I often hear the exact same thing from managers seeking advice on growing their construction companies. My suggestion is simple and crucial. Your company is most likely lacking the right standard operating procedure (SOP). For most construction companies, I find that the SOP is more like the SOC: standard operating confusion — confusion about tasks, processes and teamwork. The company operates day in and day out fighting the same fires they fought the day before, as if every day were the first day on the job. Jason Allman with Allman Brothers Masonry recently joined me on the back patio of my home. It’s a welcoming spot overlooking trees, ponds, water fountains and a few golf holes I’ve developed. Not surprisingly, not far into the evening, our conversation turned to business. Not because it was on any agenda, but because we live it and love it. Jason grew up in the masonry business as a laborer and bricklayer and is now a project manager and estimator. Though he has worked for years in the business, he said the means and methods of doing construction work still have him scratching his head. “Sometimes it seems like we’re operating in a state of confusion,” he said. “Bricklayers will put a 2-inch piece next to an opening instead of a half and a 6-inch piece; some will lay brick going backward instead of forward; and the laborers seem to set the scaffold differently from one day to the next.” Jason, like all of us, wanted to know how to build a well-oiled operation. “How do you get to the point of focusing on growth when you are constantly managing the operation?” he asked. I told Jason I believe every construction company should set up SOPs so there is a system in place that seldom fails. We all know one company — recognized by the golden arches — that has mastered SOPs. Just look at their fish sandwich, for example. Whether I order one in Ohio or Oregon, I know it will always be the same, with just a little too much tartar sauce for my taste. In some ways disappointing (because it’s an otherwise satisfying lunch), the restaurant’s SOP requires every store to put the same amount of tartar sauce on the sandwich. No doubt this procedure caters to the majority of McDonald’s customers. When Jason asked what possessed us to put SOPs in place, I explained that we learned the hard way. Nearly 25 years ago, one of our crews left a brace off the outside of a conventional scaffolding setup so they could more easily access the scaffolding. At about 30 feet high (and fully loaded with brick), the scaffolding collapsed while the crew was eating lunch. If the collapse would have happened before or after lunch, workers would most likely have been severely injured, or worse. We were lucky. Although the collapse was costly, it was a hugely valuable mistake. Worried that a scaffolding collapse could happen again, I visited other jobsites and found that, at times, laborers would stack scaffolds five high/two deep with brick, or four high/two deep with block while attempting to get ahead of the bricklayers before they got on scaffolding, not considering the potential danger of the extra weight. We immediately developed the following SOPs for all jobsites:
  • No scaffolding is to be set without a brace on both the inside and outside, regardless of the situation.
  • Brick is to be stacked on scaffold no more than three high and two deep.
  • Block is to be stacked on scaffold no more than two high with one standing behind the two.
This SOP ensures that scaffolding on all jobsites will be secure and not overloaded by laborers. The standard (among many others) was developed, documented and published, and must be followed by every employee. If you find yourself frustrated on a daily basis about the way things are being done at your company, you need to develop SOPs that become part of your culture. They should be documented and delivered to your team as part of a field manual. This manual clearly defines what is expected of the crew, both individually and as a team. The SOPs should be communicated to all field employees at regular (no less than quarterly) meetings, so everyone understands the ways things are done at your company. Let’s face it. It’s hard to be frustrated with a fish sandwich when you know exactly how much tartar sauce will be added before you order it. It’s your job to make sure your team knows how much tartar sauce you expect to be on the fish sandwich — before they make it.
Damian Lang owns and operates several companies in Ohio. He is the inventor of the Grout Hog-Grout Delivery System, Mud Hog mortar mixers, Hog Leg wall-bracing system, and several other labor-saving devices used in the construction industry. He is the author of the book called “RACE—Rewarding And Challenging Employees for Profits in Masonry.” He writes for Masonry Magazine each month and consults with many of the leading contractors in the country.  
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