Once Is Enough

Nov. 1, 2002

A bad haircut might be the most visible evidence of not doing a job correctly the first time. With that haircut, it’s often only a matter of a few days before it becomes acceptable again. With an excavation or grading project, the problems of a poor first attempt can continue for much longer, with complications never imagined. With the haircut, you can’t put the hair back once it’s been cut off. With the excavation, you can replace soil if you take too much, or redo the grading if the result was inaccurate, but it makes the job more expensive and everybody very frustrated.

Contractors dislike some “R” words: Rain can hinder progress, rebar has been known to jolt a few careless diggers, repairs threaten ruin, but the most dreaded R of all is rework. Anything you can plan and do to ensure that the first pass, or the first cut, or the first grading is correct probably will save you time and money. In a recent issue we looked at what is available for machine guidance; those instruments are tools to help you avoid rework. The first step is to decide why a past job had to be reworked and then plan to avoid the same mistake on this job. Was it the operator? Was it the machine? Was it carelessness? The cautions we present are not new but are worth repeating because they are sometimes neglected or deliberately avoided.

More Than Just Saving Money

“You are free to spend more time marketing and estimating, as opposed to worrying,” observes Diana Mucha, president of M&V Builders based in Orlando, FL, where the market is as competitive as anywhere in the United States. “When work is done correctly the first time, your employees are free to work on another project, and your owner is happy because he perceives that the item is complete and on schedule. Quick, first-time completion of the work means that there is no callback for warranty or guarantee work and there should be no concerns about product liability for items built on your work.” She does mention that there might be a few attorneys unhappy when the first attempt is successful, complete, and accepted because they have no potential business concerning workmanship claims. “It all equates to a savings of money,” adds Mucha. “Saving money equates to greater profits and greater profits equate to better benefits and happier employees. Happier employees equate to pride in better workmanship, which equates to a monetary savings. Ergo, the cycle repeats!”

Your business is a cycle, and it needs to go ’round and ’round smoothly. In recent years contractors have tried to make their estimates of life cycle costs for their equipment as accurate as possible. They will include obvious items, including initial costs and operational costs such as repairs, fuel, oil and grease, estimated residual value of machines, and interest costs in purchase. Of course, labor costs will also be included. Labor is becoming more expensive–no need to tell you that–but consider how much it costs when work that should take three hours takes six because it wasn’t done correctly the first time. Without wanting to sound too picky, let’s look at an excavation job and see how rework explodes its cost to you. The job should have taken, say, eight hours. It takes 14 because there is rework required to meet specifications (and justify your charges). That means six extra hours of labor, six extra hours of machine wear, six hours lost when your workers could have moved on to their next job. There are also the daily costs of running the company, office personnel, insurance, and so on. “Years ago, when I was just starting, my boss kept reminding me that the profit from a job was in the iron,” recalls Rick, an experienced operator in central Oregon who, for this comment, prefers to keep his last name unpublished–he still has the same boss. “Today I think we should look at the causes of losses on jobs, many of them due to rework. Those losses could be our failure to win the next bid or our failure to complete a project within budget. And whatever experts like academics, engineers, and–yes–journalists tell us, I think most rework is necessary because [some of] my fellow operators have become careless and less proud of their work, and few bosses seem to take steps to correct that.”

We don’t intend to harp on the shortage of skilled and motivated workers; there are thousands of others already doing that. Something that several of them miss is this: If you have skilled, motivated workers, keep them. Look back at that cycle previously described by Diana Mucha.

Things–and People–Change

When bumper stickers were so popular, one of the most frequently seen advised us tailgating drivers that “S**t Happens.” Change is another of those things that happens–all the time. Contract terms change, liabilities change, machines change, tools change, materials of construction change, and people change. One of the causes blamed for poor-quality work is that today’s workers have changed. They don’t have the pride in their work of yesterday’s men, older workers frequently lament. People have always complained about previous generations, as much as teenagers complain about the older generation, but in the matter of work ethics or getting the job done right the first time, example may be everything, so honestly ask yourself if your workers have been shown how to work well, how to use a machine to the best of its ability, how to avoid basic mistakes with certain materials or in specific situations. If our employees learn their jobs in the same way that children learn to walk, there will be crashes and damage. They’ll end up finishing the job, but not with the first attempt.

“Miscommunication–that’s what usually causes me to do things wrong the first time,” relates Sean Schwartz from his loader, working on a project near his small hometown’s youth baseball park in eastern Montana. “I had two incidents just last week where I didn’t do it right because I wasn’t told exactly what had to be done. The boss said there was a job to be done and told me to go and do it. He didn’t give me all the details until I’d made the mistake.” Schwartz and coworker Brent Kutzler grin ruefully at each other again and repeat that miscommunication causes too many errors. The culprits might be the owner of the job or the workers’ boss. “I don’t enjoy doing rework,” Kutzler remarks. “It wastes time, and it’s an unnecessary waste of money.” “It’s never intentional or a lack of willingness on our part when the first attempt goes wrong,” adds Schwartz. “We enjoy doing our job well, but it always helps to know what the job entails.”

Tim Timmins is an owner of Eagle Ridge Builders in Coeur d’Alene, ID. His longtime experience tells him that there always will be mistakes, but some of them should not occur. “I’m a working owner, and I think that the key to first-time success is supervision, whether the workers being supervised are my own or those of a subcontractor for a specific part of the job.” Timmins describes himself as a hands-on boss as opposed to a paper pusher who might not even understand techniques well enough to know when something has gone wrong. “It all starts with good supervision. I make sure that all my operators and I know how to get the best from their machines and tools. How else could I expect them to do things right?”

Are the Machines Good Enough for Today’s Work?

The old adage about bad workmen blaming their tools might be true, but in our conversations we have heard few operators of loaders, graders, excavators, and dozers blaming their machines. Even if they wish they had all the advantages of the newest models, they usually understand why they can’t have every new product offered, and they still believe that the operator plays a vital role in the success of the work. In grading and excavation, they perceive the operator and machine as a partnership. “Everybody would like the latest model, but the business climate makes new purchases unlikely for a while,” observes Terry Nelson, working on a grading project in Mandan, ND. “We are used to that situation, just as we put off our purchase of a new car or taking a vacation away from home till next year. What has surprised me is that some operators don’t take advantage of the time-saving and accuracy features on newer machines when they do get them, but that might be because nobody has shown them how to do so. I’ve been driving these types of machines longer than some of my coworkers have been alive, but I’m the first to admit that new controls will mean retraining for me. It doesn’t take long, and it’s worth it.”

Excavators were the first machines to offer work modes, which allow the operator to adapt the performance to the current application. There’s a mode for light digging, where fuel is saved, and another for demanding digs, where as much power as possible is required to do the work and fuel conservation cannot be the main priority. There are modes between the extremes too. So why have the original types of work mode virtually vanished? Owners and manufacturers discovered that many operators asked their machines for full power, whatever the application, by selecting the strongest work mode, and that tended to cancel out the advantages of the different modes. So the machine itself is choosing the best mode, with a primary goal of reducing cycle times (and getting the job done right, quickly, the first time). Volvo, for example, offers the Automatic Sensing Mode, Kobelco has a system called the NeuralNet Command System, and Case promotes its Pro Control System. Caterpillar offers similar control, based on the movements of the joystick, and an optional Tool Control System for attachments. HydrauMind from Komatsu has been familiar to us for some years, and Link-Belt LX Series excavators use hydraulic pressure readings (rather than any hand movement) to select the best mode for a particular job. Your manufacturers have engineered improvements to help operators get it right (and fast) the first time. Rather than fill up space here, we encourage you to contact your favorite distributor or manufacturer. They have all the information you need.

Before You Start the Machines

Site preparation is an industry in itself for some contractors; they clear trees and brush and remove stumps and rubble. They leave the surface in good condition for the next stage of construction. That kind of site preparation tends to be recognized at large sites rather than the smaller ones that are most contractors’ daily workplace. It takes only a few minutes to prevent those “Whoops!” about the water pipe by the front window or the gas main that makes a bend by the junipers. Before your workers start excavating, make sure you know what is already in the ground where they will be working. If it’s a residence, the owner might not be the best authority on where everything is, so bear in mind that location devices are inexpensive compared to errors in digging. If you are excavating trenches, take no chances. Use shields or shoring for the safety of everyone. A man who lives near me was caught in a trench cave-in and will be on crutches for as long as he lives. “We were always so careful,” he tells me. “That was the first time we didn’t bother to shore the trench, and the earth just came down like a tidal wave. The loader came with it.”

Making sure that your site is safe for that first, fast work is plain common sense. Barton Malow Company, headquartered in Southfield, MI, has been in contracting since 1924 and has done successful work in 37 states; they know about doing it right. “The consequences of not doing it right the first time, in terms of safety, mean that you often have no second chance,” states John Gleichman, director of safety and loss control at Barton Malow. “Accidents always have permanent consequences. You risk schedule, budget, and customer goodwill, but even more importantly, you risk permanent injury and death.”

The simple rules–such as wearing gloves and the right clothing and not giving rides on your machine–work not only for safety at the site but for a good start to every stage of the project. Some engineers have studied the best way to move an excavator into its work or a dozer into the slope. An engineer at Caterpillar once showed us how the movements of a loader could save dollars each shift by adjusting the angle of approach and departure. Positioning the truck in an ideal position (and having a size to match the excavator) can speed efficient digging.

How many bucketsful does your operator get before he has to reposition the excavator? Such aspects are worth checking.

Unclear instructions are as much a hindrance to a start as debris on the lawn or cables under the driveway. Keith Mitchell of Pine Street Construction says grading areas has been a frequent request in his many years of excavation and grading in the Western states. “You must understand that the customer probably does not know as much about grading as you do,” he points out. “Many of the sites we’ve graded have allowed a variance of 4 inches or more because that was all that was necessary for the next stage of the owner’s project. But some people expect all grading to be blue topping. They imagine that all grading is fine grading. Before putting that blade on the ground, make sure [you are] clear as to what fineness of grading your machine must work.” Mitchell says he has heard of projects in which the contractor thought his first effort was perfectly good, only to discover that the customer had a totally different perception of what the ground would look like. “That turns out to be not doing it right the first time,” notes Mitchell. “But whose fault is it? I think the wise contractor will be certain precisely what is expected of him before the job starts.”

Once you know what is required for a specific job, you might find that a particular machine is the ideal tool. If you don’t have exactly what you need, you can rent it. For digging ground and laying new pipeline where there are already utility lines that must not be damaged, contractor Daniel Hawkins in Charlotte, NC, found the Allmand backhoe to be practical. “We needed a machine that could give precise control as well as power,” notes Hawkins. “Our workers’ safety was a major consideration. After we had calculated the best position for each piece of sewer line we laid, we had to work carefully around existing gas and utility lines. The compact backhoe was ideal.”

Why do we see so many skid-steer loaders at sites where the work involves grading, excavation, and all those tasks related to site preparation? Look at the attachments available for skid-steers from such manufacturers as Bobcat, Gehl, Takeuchi, Case, Deere, Cat, Volvo, New Holland, Mustang, and Komatsu. The machine to get your job done right and fast at the first attempt is available. If you don’t own one, consider leasing it for a specific job. Rather than using a loader that is too big for the job, consider renting a smaller one (or vice versa).

How careful should you be? Does it matter much if you have to excavate further or grade one more time? How much could it cost you to make a grading or excavation mistake on the first attempt? “In northern Nevada, you’d better check with a soil engineer first,” advises Jesse Haws, an owner in Hawco Properties north of Reno, NV. “His soil report is critical, whether you’re doing the work yourself or having a subcontractor do it. The report will tell you if the soil is clay, how elastic it is, how many rocks you may find. You may want to replace the clay before you proceed. Everything is dealt with on a case-by-case basis, and every job is the most important at the time.”

How costly can mistakes be? “The worst thing you can do when you are developing properties in places like Eagle Canyon is have to move the dirt twice,” says Haws. “There is a story of a contractor, a big one, who came into the Reno area, unfamiliar with soil conditions. His men and machines had to do the grading, the earthmoving, three times. Rumor has it that it cost $20,000 per lot to correct that mistake.”

The soils in upstate New York, Michigan by the lake, Iowa, West Virginia and southern Illinois where the coal has been mined, New Mexico, Colorado in the foothills, Florida with its unusual water table, and Louisiana are all different. Local excavating contractors usually know the problems to expect–not because they were born there but because they have taken the trouble to find out. Earthmoving specialists know which types of scraper work best in their local soils, and they have profitable projects to prove it. Excavating workers for Haws in Nevada take out the clay before construction of the new homes; Carl Clausen in Montana brings in clay to make ponds for ranchers. “You have to get that slope right too,” emphasizes Clausen, who at 72 years old is still going strong and looking for better ways to complete his county road and pond work without rework. “Dig a hole with a vertical edge and you’ll have to do it all again.”

Everybody agrees that doing it right the first time is ideal. The ways suggested–and there are many more not mentioned here–to achieve that do not appear to be as difficult as we first thought; most of them are common sense and simply involve using the knowledge and skills of your profession that you already possess.