Abraham Lincoln earned his way through law school as a rail splitter. That hard work shaped his political reputation as a strong man with a strong work ethic.

A reporter asked Lincoln, “What would you do if you had just five minutes to chop down a tree?” He answered, “I would spend the first two and a half minutes sharpening my axe.”  Variations of Lincoln’s quote have been used to describe the importance of preparation ever since.

In construction, pre-start meetings are the equivalent of sharpening the ax. It gets the project team together to understand the needs, expectations, roles and responsibilities of team members and owners.

Start with an internal partnering session. Invite any company employee that had or will have anything to do with this job, or experience with a similar job. The estimator, the salesperson (sometimes they are the same person), the crew leader, the operations manager, owner, even the admin who supports paperwork and document control.  

Have all the project documents at the meeting and pictures of the job site. Present any discussions you had with the owner, architect and GC, so your team knows what their expectations are.

How many times have you heard a project manager complain, “I did everything right but the (fill in the blank) screwed it up with constant change orders.” Change orders are normal, it’s the surprises, delays by other contractors, clashes, and the wrong interpretation of plans that kill your profits.

Pre-start Strategy

First, plan the pre-start meeting. Seek out every contractor, sub, consultant and owner representative. Collect their contact information. In the pre-start meeting, review contractor responsibilities, who does what? What is expected of you and your team? Identify potential problems up front before they become expensive rework. Make sure the project is clearly defined, and a timeline is mapped out. Look at the whole project and understand all the steps to completion. 

Take on the role of initiating communication and clarification with the general contractor. Hand out your phone number and email address and invite key members of the teams to communicate any issues that come up. Be the go-to person for help.

Another important step at this stage is attending the GC or superintendent walk-through on the job site. You can gain valuable insight about conditions, access, Wi-Fi, working hours, parking, and materials storage. In addition, a walk-through allows you to see what may not be shown clearly on the drawings. Specs may include information on systems that are not shown or referenced on the blueprints. Carefully review the written narrative describing the systems, materials, and components. Ask questions. GCs and owners will appreciate your efforts. Relationship building pays off with more jobs. In my early career, I did this as chief estimator and team leader.

W. Edwards Deming, author management textbooks used in MBA programs for 50 years, determined that for every 10 minutes of pre-planning you do, you get four to five hours of productivity improvement.

That is not an exaggeration. Let’s say on day one, your crew builds two sections of walls on the wrong side of the building, without a pre-construction walk-through, and clear understanding of the first stage of construction, the rework could be more than five hours of time.

When in doubt, make sure you or your team leader know who to ask. Communication is key. Put smartphones to use. Text the GC or superintendent if you have a question. Take photos of issues and send them to the office.

With cloud-based applications, two or three team members can look at the same drawings and mark down issues at the same time.  Teams are no longer tied to one server back at the office.

Once the project begins you should set a daily routine for your crew leaders to maintain updates. Set up quick morning and afternoon huddles and project whiteboards.