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Three Sentences That Should Tell You Something’s About to Go Wrong

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Business Advice

Small sentences. Big Problems.

Mistakes are all-too-frequent in every company. It’s really easy to look back and blame someone, get frustrated, or shake your head, but it’s almost as easy to tune your ears to hear mistakes coming. The best mistakes are the ones you can stop before they happen.

We narrowly avoided an issue onsite recently that would have cost many productive hours, added stress, and a resulted in a lot of finger pointing. As we went through the questions to examine the problem, I felt my blood pressure rising. In 15 years in this industry, and previous work in construction and project management, I’ve subconsciously trained myself to react strongly to certain sentences. They’re just a few words each, but they’re enough to set off my warning bells – I know something bad is about to happen. At that point, everything stops and we get clarity, because I’ll spend a lot less time and money stopping a problem then I will solving one.

“The best time to solve a problem is before it starts.”

Certain answers to questions result in problems just about every time I hear them. Here, in this article, I want to take a look at three sentences that are shouting to you that something’s about to go wrong.

1. “I was going to, but…”

The Real Meaning: “It’s not done… but I have an excuse.” There are rare occasions where there is a good justification, but upon hearing this answer, I’m mentally prepared to deal with an excuse. It’s critical that we, as owners and managers, really look hard at the second half of this sentence, the excuse, to ensure we create a culture that doesn’t tolerate lazy habits.

Why it’s said: People generally fall into two categories: people who ask themselves “Why won’t this work?”, and people who ask themselves “How can I make this work?” As Tony Robbins says, your brain will find the answer to any question you ask it. If you ask yourself why you can’t get something done, your brain will justify a reason. Ask yourself how you can get something done, and your brain will figure out that answer too. Unfortunately, most people ask themselves why something can’t be done – especially in their work lives. And when you ask these people why something hasn’t been done, they’re primed and ready with a “reason”. Be realistic and recognize this fact. Anyone can come up with a reason why something can’t be done… that’s easy. Good employees get things done in spite of reasons. Unfortunately, most employees aren’t wired this way. You need to deal with it.

What to do about it: Your job as an owner is to get tough on the “Why won’t this work?” thinkers. They are costing you time and money and worse, you are likely working extra hours thinking and planning to make up for the “why I can’t” thinkers on your staff. As leaders, its our job to train employees to ask themselves how could I get this done? You can help this training along by always replying to this warning sentence with: “What did you do to try to solve the problem?” Don’t do the thinking for them – that’s critical. It’s more than likely that you’ve been doing that for years, and look where it’s got us. Our staff will no doubt come to expect that you or someone in management is responsible to do the thinking for them. Instead, keep asking questions. Lazy workers will paint themselves into corners. Good employees will get the message and, in the future, start to prepare themselves for your line of questioning by asking themselves “how can I get this done?” before they have to answer to you. When you and your staff start to change the questions you ask yourselves, you’ll find your jobs go smoother and your work lives get easier.

2. “We don’t have the right designs/specs/takeoffs/information…”

The real meaning: “Something’s wrong… but it’s someone else’s fault.” In landscape, especially construction, we hear this sentence all too often. Blame is shifted to the designer, the architect, the operations manager, the customer, or even the owner. The employee feels that, since the problem occurred before they got involved, they’re not responsible.

Why it’s said: In the construction side of the business, this is a very easy excuse to fall back on. There is so much to plan, so many variables that need to be considered in landscape, or any construction, that it’s impossible to create an airtight job plan in the design and planning phase. On every project, our field staff should expect to find unanswered questions. Foreman who can detect this missing information before it causes delays are worth good money! The problem is, many of us have accepted this sentence as a reason why work is behind schedule. There are only two reasons why this sentence should be an acceptable reason for slowdowns:

  • The foreman or crew has made attempts to get the information, but are still waiting
  • Your company policy is to put together perfect work packages for crews

In my company, we put together work packages – but no one expects a perfect work package. A perfect work package is like a rare jewel – worth a lot of money, but rarely found in real life. Therefore, the only reason we can tolerate slowdowns as a result of missing information is if the crew has requested answers, but are still waiting.

What to do about it: Hundreds of potential billable hours are wasted because field crews don’t have accurate information when they need it. Worse yet, your employees will spend more time complaining about missing information then they would have been spent picking up a phone to deal with it.

When planning any project, we do our best to build a solid execution plan, but in this industry, we’re never going to have a plan for everything. The foreman or project supervisor is in charge of the job. It’s their job to identify missing or incorrect information and to deal with it. Profitable companies employ foremen who, on their own, surface missing information, questions or decisions needed to bring the project in on time and on budget.

Smart phones (Blackberrys, etc.) are considered essential equipment – right up there with shovels – for our crews. If the crews are missing information, smart phones give them the tools required to deal with it, on the spot. When you don’t deal with problems immediately, you put your head down and forget about them. You don’t think of it again until the moment you need the solution. A quick email, on the spot, is enough to get the request out there, before we’re in a position where we’re losing productivity. Remember, most people will naturally avoid surfacing problems. They don’t want to bug someone senior, they don’t have the confidence to admit they don’t have the answers, or they procrastinate because solving problems isn’t as easy as staying busy. You need to be firm on this one…

“If you need information, it’s your job to ask for it!”

3. “I think [insert name here] is doing it…”

The real meaning: This is the thinking man’s way of saying “That’s not my job.” Unless you’re in a union, you can’t get away with the “it’s not my job” sentence anymore. That answer doesn’t fly. Instead, employees have come up with new and improved ways of saying the same thing.

Why it’s said: Beginning the sentence with “I think” means:

  • they’re not doing the task
  • they haven’t make any attempts to do task
  • and they haven’t done anything to make sure it’s being done

To make it even worse, they try to deflect responsibility, by redirecting the blame on the person they are fingering.

What to do about it: Your job is to immediately ask the return question…“Does [insert name here] know they’re responsible for this?”. If that answer is “I think they do?” or worse, “I don’t know.”, then brace yourself for problems. Unclear answers clearly demonstrate a lack of control. The answer you need to hear sounds like this: “Yes, I asked them yesterday.” Anything vaguer than that means your company stands an excellent chance of dropping the ball on this task.

Winning teams hold each other accountable. Foremen have to coach their crews in the field. They are responsible for ensuring that tasks are clearly assigned, and are being executed. Can you imagine sports teams where positions (roles) were left unmanaged? “Who’s playing left defense?” “Who’s batting fifth?” The results are going to be embarrassing.

Whether its equipment maintenance, material planning, loading fuel, or filling out paperwork, your foremen are responsible for ensuring that the work gets done right. “I think someone else is doing it” is going to cost you (the owner) a lot of money.

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