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The Lowdown on the Letdown:

Why Some People Drop the Ball and What To Do About It

By Kate Zabriski 

He didn’t get the shipments out – again! Makes me crazy. That guy never follows through.

She said I’d get a promotion, so where is it? I’ve been waiting for three years.

“All talk and no action” – that phrase describes that group in a nutshell. They pay lip service to teamwork, but they never pull their weight.

From time to time, everyone misses a deadline, forgets an obligation, or fails to live up to meet a commitment. We are human, and it happens. For most of us, failure is followed by an immediate effort to right the situation.

Problem solved, right? Not so fast. “Most of us” excludes a special cohort: those who chronically disappoint and routinely fail to meet their obligations. They say one thing and do another, they agree to deadlines they have no intention of meeting, and they commit to deliverables that will never materialize. 

If we are lucky, once we identify members of this tribe, we can put a healthy distance between ourselves and them. If not, there are some proven strategies we can use to retake command, push for greater accountability, and regain control of our sanity.

Accountability Strategy One: Confirm a Shared Understanding

Be sure you and the other person have a shared understanding of your expectations. Does the fellow shipping your packages understand what is required? If so, how do you know? Did he say “yes” in a way he had hoped you would figure actually meant “no”? Did he agree because you are in a position of authority, and he did not want to disappoint you in the moment? Did he know that you meant today and not just sometime soon? Before taking other actions, it is important to make sure you and the other person have a shared understanding.

From a Contractor’s Perspective (Jason Ells) – I refer to this as “eliminating Mutual Mystifications.” Mutual Mystifications are the things that we all say that leave both parties mutually mystified. For example, if a customer said that he or she was looking for straight and level walls, we might say, “Oh, sure, our walls are always straight and we use a laser on our footing to make sure they are level.” But the real questions is, what does “straight” or “level” mean to the customer? Is it the same definition for “straight” and “level” that you use? Or, for another example, take a conversation with a new employee about working long, hot days. My guess is that employees who do not come from a previous construction job may not share your definition for “long” or “hot.” The key to eliminating Mutual Mystifications is to identify them and ask clarifying questions or make clarifying statements to be sure that everyone is on the same page. For example, “When you say straight and level, what do you have in mind?” or, “When I say ‘long and hot days,’ let me clarify…”

Accountability Strategy Two: Look for Roadblocks

Once you are sure that you and the other person have a similar grasp of the requirements, look for roadblocks. Is the promotion you have looked for no longer available because of circumstances outside of the promiser’s control? Does the person boxing shipments have someone else demanding his time? If you discover it is the latter, your frustration is focused on a symptom and not the root cause of the problem. Take the time to do a little digging. You need to focus your effort on changing the underlying belief and make a case for your point of view.

From a Contractor’s Perspective (Sean Smith) – We have a foundation that has to be poured today, no matter what, according to the customer and our sales person’s understanding. A conversation with the production team commences: Do we have the appropriate man power today for this job? Can we get panels to the job prior to our crew’s arrival? Can we get all of the additional materials necessary to place concrete for that job? Can we schedule our inspections so that we will have enough time to get the concrete placed safely? Can we get a pump and concrete lined up for the necessary time? Team, are there any other questions that we need to answer before communicating our plan to the customer? IF we have been able to identify most of the variables and provide answers to the seen roadblocks then we can achieve the goal. That does not mean there will not be additional challenges down the road.  

Accountability Strategy Three: Break Steps Into Smaller Pieces

Even with a shared understanding and no obvious roadblocks, sometimes people do not follow through because they get overwhelmed. When this happens, it may make sense to break the task into smaller pieces. Bobby, how many packages do you think you can have ready by 1:00? Great, I’ll check in with you then to see where we are. It’s important that we meet our shipping deadlines because our customers count on us to live up to our promises. When we meet this afternoon, we can see where you are. How does that sound?

From a Contractor’s Perspective (Ken Kurszewski) – We talk about the power of incremental improvements all the time in our organization. Any major improvement is not going to happen overnight. A 50% improvement is going to end up being a bunch of 1-2% improvements over time. This strategy is present in so many areas of our personal and professional lives. Losing 20 pounds turns into losing 1 pound 20 times. Pouring 10 foundations turns into pouring 1 foundation 10 times. Building a house turns into hiring several different tradespeople to each take care of their area of expertise. Keep asking yourself how you will achieve the big task and typically the answer is through smaller tasks. One recent example is an experience we had with one of our project managers. He wanted a quarterly goal of eliminating callbacks. A lofty goal that is likely not going to be achieved in three months. I asked him what steps he would take to achieve the goal. One of his answers was to spot-check jobs with his crews. He oversees five foundation crews, so there was very little chance he would be able to spot-check every job. Eventually, he settled on spot-checking two jobs per week. A smaller, achievable goal that will take him one step closer to eliminating callbacks.

Accountability Strategy Four: Make Use of Upfront Contracts

If there are no roadblocks preventing the other person from following through and small steps are not solving the problem, it is time to explore up-front-contract language. If you can get these shipments out by 3:00 today, I can mark your work as complete. If your team can meet the deadlines we’ve agreed to, we will have what we need to move the project to the engineering team. The pattern is simply, “if you/your team can, then I/we will.” If you can clean the odd-numbered rooms, I can take care of the evens. That should split the work fairly.

From the Contractor’s Perspective (Vickie Paslay) – We strive to let our inspectors, engineers and ready mix companies know ahead of time, the day before if possible.  We do this because we are respectful of their time and the other customers they have.  When a crew is running late, due to weather, man power or site conditions it effects several other companies.  By sitting those times the day before and putting it on the schedule board for all to see, we have let the foreman know what we expect for the day.  Having our expectations known keeps wasted man hours to a minimum.  I have found saying “to make sure we are on the same page what is your understanding of what I just said” this simple exchange has helped eliminate miscommunication and lets them know what is expected.  .  I always tell people you expect something from me and I expect something from you.  You expect to get paid and I expect you to do the job to the best of abilities. 

Accountability Strategy Five: Add a Next Step

If the upfront contract does not yield results, it is time to add an “else” component. If you can get these shipments out by 3:00 today, I can mark your work as complete. If I’m unable to do that, we can set up a meeting with Brian to let him know that we’re notifying customers that their packages will arrive late. If your team can meet the deadlines we’ve agreed to, we will have what we need to move the project to the engineering team. If we can’t move forward, we’ll have to escalate the schedule change to senior leadership, so that they are aware of the schedule slip.

From a Contractor’s Perspective (Mike Hancock) – Many times, in an agreement to perform work, we miss the little steps that help us correctly complete a task. It may be a contract for digging a hole, a contract for pouring footings, walls, floors, even waterproofing. The missed step in one phase of the process often leads to an added step for the next process. Adding an “else” statement helps ensure the steps are followed throughout the process. When raising children, we use the “else” statement a lot to achieve the goals we expect our children to meet. “Kym, if you don’t eat all your liver and broccoli, you cannot have desert.”  

Sometimes foundation contractors tend to be a little more direct, with less thought in our “else” statements. “Look, dirt bag, I need wall ties right now or I’ll call the other guy.” And then you find out that the other guy doesn’t have wall ties ready either. By being direct, did a bridge get burned or did your needs get met?  

When entering into a contract to perform work, laying out expectations then offering an “else” can be the difference between profit and loss on a job. If you or the builder hire excavation, an else statement can make a difference in your success. Your contract may read: “I need the hole dug to an elevation of 100 feet plus or minus 2 inches vertical or ‘else’ we will be required to add gravel at $500/ton plus $100/manhour to level the base.” The step of elevation verification during excavation will be met or else the excavator will have to deal with the consequence of added material and labor costs. Skipping steps when using an “else” statement can have negative consequences, particularly if they are ultimatums. It is beneficial to make sure the steps are small and that you present options showing how to succeed. “The basement shall be dug to an elevation of 100 feet or I quit” would be too extreme, preventing any option for success now or in the future.

Accountability Strategy Six: Consider Cutting Your Losses (If You Can)

From time to time, you may encounter a customer, colleague, or someone else who fails to follow through no matter what you do. When that happens, you may decide to cut your losses. Matt, when we spoke about arriving by 9:00, I explained that if you could make that happen regularly, you could continue your employment. For the last two weeks, you’ve arrived after 9:00 more than half the time. For that reason, we’re going to let you go.

From a Contractor’s Perspective (Mike Kana) – We take so much time (professionally and personally) trying to make the right choices on items we purchase, hires we make, clients to partner with, and every other “go or no go” in our life that it becomes difficult to cut your losses and move on. In some cases, it is very difficult to let someone go. When we go through the hiring process, I always rely on the idea of  “slow to hire, quick to fire” (with caution). Sometimes, letting someone go is inevitable. You go through the correct management steps with the team member in question, trying to help them along and improve behavior, but with little success. At the end of the day, you feel that the organization could absorb the loss or find a candidate who would excel in this particular role and make the team stronger. Easier said than done, I know. But take the long-term approach and think, “What will this look like in another 30, 60, or 90 days? Is the situation going to get better, or am I making the same bad decision over and over again? Is this person a family member, friend, or long-time employee with close ties to the operation, making it difficult cut ties?”

Potentially, you can run the situation by someone outside of your core group. They could give you and honest opinion, hopefully confirming your thought process. Another idea would be to step away from the situation and try to relate to what the person is going through. Ask questions like, “Is there something going on outside of work that is causing this?” And, “What don’t I know and how could I help?” One more thought would be to put your ideas on paper and list objectively the pros and cons — seeing your thoughts might make the decision look very clear. You know what you need to do, you just need to do it.

Accountability Strategy Seven: Take Back Control

What if you are not in a position to fire someone or walk away from a relationship? In these situations, it is important to realize you are making a choice. I’m not getting the promotion. I know this. I’m going to continue to work here because it’s close to my house, and the schedule is flexible. Jane is chronically late, and she’s the owner’s daughter. Although I’ve brought the issue to his attention, he’s chosen not to act. I need a job, and this is the one I have now. I choose to work around this instead of walking out the door and having nothing.

From the Contractor’s Perspective (Amanda Kurt) – Ultimately, there is one thing we all have control over, and that is our own attitude. No matter the circumstance, we have the choice to take ownership of our thoughts, approach, and reactions. 

For example, you may have one team that requires more supervision and makes more mistakes than other teams because the team is less experienced. You can choose to overcome this adversity by managing your own expectations and attitude,  knowing there is a long-term benefit in working with this team. 

Another example related to working with customers: Everytime you work for a specific home builder, the plans get revised at the last minute, making your work more difficult. The builder always pays on time, pays for extras, and contracts a lot of your work. You can choose to recognize that the benefits of the relationship outweigh the burden of the changes and make an effort to minize the disruption to your work.

And that is the lowdown on the letdown. Few people enjoy disappointment or appreciate someone who chronically drops the ball. Sometimes better communication can fix the problem, sometimes upfront contracts paired with consequences can make things right, and, if all else fails, a little positive self-talk can help.  

About the Author:

Kate Zabriskie is the president of Business Training Works Inc., a Maryland-based talent development firm. She and her team help businesses establish customer service strategies and train their people to live up to what is promised. For more information, visit www.businesstrainingworks.com.  

About the Contributing Contractors:

The contributing contractors are members of the Concrete Foundations Association Board, including: Jason Ells, executive vice president at Custom Concrete Company of Westfield, IN; Sean Smith, sales manager at MPW Construction Services of Wellington, OH; Ken Kursewski, president at Hottman Construction Company of Madison, WI; Vickey Paslay, chief operating officer at ABI Corp of Lee’s Summit, MO; Mike Hancock, president at Basement Contractors of Edmond, OK; Mike Kana, vice president of Business Development at Doggett Concrete of Charlotte, NC; and Amanda Kurt, partner at Kurk Inc. of Union Grove, WI. For more information on these members and more about the CFA, visit www.cfaconcretepros.org.

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Concrete FACTS, a publication of the Concrete Foundations Association, is THE voice for residential concrete industry news, market intelligence, business strategies, technical solutions, product information, and other resources for professionals in the cast-in-place concrete industry. Subscriptions to Concrete FACTS is available to anyone involved or interested in the residential concrete industry as a service to your industry. Please contact CFA Headquarters to find out more about your free subscription or Email Us