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Pains of a site project manager: Can technology change this?

Considering the thin margins that construction projects tend to provide to the general contractor on a project, there is a lot to be said for the importance of the project manager or supervisor on every job site. The project manager is, essentially, the physical representation of the construction company on every single site. With this responsibility to deliver the project on time, on budget and at the highest quality comes the responsibility to work as effectively as possible. But where the industry has failed is in equipping the project manager with the right technology tools to ensure he achieves his objectives on the job site.

Types of Job Site Issues and technologies that solve them

The problems that the project manager/supervisor has to deal with can be bucketed into two.

  1. People: These are issues that have to do with the core element on every  job site.
    • Skills: Subcontractors that the general contractor has to hire on the site, especially in locations that are not local to the general contractors home base, may not be up to the high-quality standards that the PM requires on his job site.
      • VR/AR: While not yet adopted in the construction industry, Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are fast gaining in other heavy industries. The simple definition for VR/AR is technology that alters sensory perception. These are technologies that convince the senses that the wearer is in a 3-Dimensional space. While it seems to be in the domain of toys, this technology is now being used to train employees of utility companies, employees working with 1000 tonne equipment. It enables their employers to simulate several repairs before the employee touches a turbine in real life. The same can be applied to the subcontractors on a job site. Using data from previous job sites, captured by drones, the site training process can include a simulation of the work done on other general contractor sites to familiarize the subcontractors with the general contractor’s way of working at a fraction of the normal cost and in a fraction of the time.
    • Communication: Poor communication can be considered the highest contributor to project completion delays. This is a soft but highly impactful issue that arises due to poor systems of communication loops that might exist between the people on a job site.
      • Messaging Platforms: Similar to the construction industry, power plant operations tend to be in shifts with several crews working on site during a particular period to achieve a shared goal. A simple communication tool that some utility shifts are now using is the WhatsApp group; all subcontractors on a project are added to a group where instructions for the group can be shared in the morning before everyone dives into the work for the day. The ability to chat in near real-time also enables the parties involved to keep the project humming along.
    • Accountability: This is another soft but highly impactful people problem. An example of this is when rain falls on the aggregates placed out on a job site. Who is responsible? Is it the project manager who did not realize there was unexpected rain? Or the aggregate company that delivered the sand despite the dark clouds up ahead? Considering that 30% of the waste on a job site comes from aggregate, this issue (which is closely tied to communication) is one that needs to be addressed.
      • The communication discussed above is powerful because it also helps to keep everyone accountable with a record of the day’s tasks and who is supposed to do what. Course correction can be implemented by simply sharing a message to divert resources where needed or to place aggregates in places where they will not become waste.
  2. Process (or operations): People, on every job site, are dependent on processes. Processes can either amplify the people problems or alleviate them. The main ones on a project site include:
    • Safety and Risk Management: We lump safety and risk management in the same technology solution because there is no general contractor or project manager that does not believe that safety procedures on a site are the most important thing related to the people on the site, and that the safety consideration is tied to risk. Continued updates to the safety requirements and processes on a site, especially as new methods and tools are implemented on sites, means that the project manager needs to be champion of safety in an ever-increasing world of new standards.
      • Safety training must continually be updated and upgraded to keep the project team and job site team aware of how things are changing and to instill a continuous growth mindset into the organization. At the core of embedding safe practices on a job site is the data collection possible on that site. Data from all subcontractors should feed into the central store of data owned by the project manager/general contractor. For example, inspection data can be recorded on site through mobile phones, in real time, and used to improve inspectors’ reports.
      • A useful technology for the safety updates and training of job site subcontractors is the virtual reality tools mentioned previously. Key to this is the ability to train in near real time to dampen the effect of the skills shortage that is creeping into the industry. This should be done with contractors who are also virtually trained in the most up-to-date safety standards.

On the face of it the issues are on much broader, but putting them into these two buckets helps us tackle the issues with some simple technology tools. At the core of these tools is the ability to use data to make better decisions. But before one can use data, one has to capture the data. The ability to capture data on a project site without impeding the work on the site, at a granularity that is unprecedented up until this point, has been vastly improved by the use of drone technology. Working with partners that understand this technology and its benefits is now a critical tool for the top project supervisors to use in ensuring they deliver projects on time, on budget and at the highest possible quality.

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