Know when to call for help

Aug. 20, 2007
Sometimes a construction manager is a necessary evil, says Dirk Williard, in this month's Field Notes column.

Roger’s response was, shall we say, frank. After a year in Korea building the plant, he would become part of its commission team; he was looking forward to going home. I gave him the happy news. As the crew chief, I needed someone familiar with the steel mill and the area. Thankfully, I could offer him a bonus. Over the weeks that followed, Roger’s skills in finding resources, such as a translator, were put to the test. Naturally, he grumbled but later Roger showed some natural talent in teaching operators.

A construction manager is a conduit between the construction engineer and the crew. In some cases, as with Roger, they work in different time zones; there’s a 12-hour difference between Korea and Pittsburgh. He managed sites in different countries, including Indonesia and the Philippines, while the engineers designed the plants in the United States.

At another company, a single construction manager handled the projects of half a dozen engineers at one site. Although this is possible, I’ve found that an engineer must watch the projects very closely. With this much work, the construction manager had little time for details like preparation for the operational qualification portion of validation.

So, when should you ask for a construction manager? If you’re managing more than five projects or when a project budget exceeds $500,000 — you’ll need help. Years ago, I ran a $750,000 project single-handedly and, with other plant duties, it just about killed me.

If you’re hiring a construction manager, look particularly for good administrative skills. The manager should be a competent craftsman but managing project budgets is the most crucial skill for the job. In today’s world, with the importance of instrumentation and controls, a journeyman electrician might have the best background for a construction manager. Avoid people who can’t resist doing the work themselves. They should do the work only as a last resort. A manager also must know who should do a task. One of the best plant engineers I ever knew, Dick Hughes, once told me, “My job is to know which one of my guys should be assigned to a problem.” This takes intuition about people, their skills and their personalities.

A poor construction manager can cause all sorts of troubles. In the worst instance I’m aware of, a manager actually ran a project into the ground.

Some managers pretend to know more than they do. In one job, the construction manager knew nothing about carpentry work when scaffolding was required. No one was hurt, we got some outside help. This is a good example of where your role as a project engineer overlaps with that of the construction manager. When you think the manager is out of his depth, tell him.

Always watch out for the “wheeler-dealer” type. He may forget whose side he’s on and connive you into believing all’s well when it isn’t. On a job in Turkey we had such a fellow. Every time I asked a tough question I was led astray. Eventually, we — that is, me and my commissioning crew — developed a comedy routine to pass the time. We would ask: When will the acid pump be delivered? In-sha-la! (When God wills it.)

Being assertive, to the point of being bull-headed, is another necessary, though often unappreciated, trait. A good construction manager isn’t afraid to tell a designer in his cushy chair back at the corporate office where to go and how to get there.

A construction manager should lead by example when it comes to regulatory standards. If he doesn’t know or defies rules on safety, it will encourage poor behavior among the contractors. This is a common problem not only in the U.S. but also overseas.

Without a construction manager, engineering drawings seldom are smoothly transformed into working processes. Roger left our company a few months before me. It was easy to see the difference during later start-ups: burners were sticking out into space — off the catwalk; beams were installed through stairways; and a laboratory handling acid came without a ventilator. The topper was in a photo I sent to corporate: a 3-in. riser at the top of a stairwell. I described it with two arrows — the second one read, “Direction to the big sleep.” A careless operator would be treated to an unassisted flying carpet ride down 120 ft. All of these mistakes cost time and money to put right. Instead of gliding from construction through to start-up, my crew spent two weeks fixing problems so we could limp through start-up.

If Roger had been there, construction would have been correct and drawing errors would have been caught and reported. It’s too bad that an over-sensitive manager couldn’t see the good he did and let him go.

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