Supervising subbies better: the challenges and rewards of efficiently managing subcontractors

Lagging productivity on construction projects costs the world a whopping $1.6 trillion a year, according to an extensive 2017 report by McKinsey and Company. Given that the construction industry employs about 7 percent of the world’s working-age population and is one of the world economy’s largest sectors, improving productivity stands to significantly boost economic values the world over.

Subcontractors are an essential piece of the puzzle if we’re to resolve some of construction’s major productivity woes. Subcontractors “not only employ the vast majority of people in the industry but they also represent the front line, where the physical task of construction is undertaken on site,” Martin Loosemore, Professor of Construction Management at UNSW, pointed out in a 2016 article, Subcontractors speak out on productivity.

Loosemore went on to cite common areas (identified by subcontractors themselves) that are negatively impacting productivity:

  • Trust and relationships
  • Poor tender processes
  • Poor project documentation and document control
  • A drop in the quality of management and supervision in recent years
  • Poor scheduling and planning
  • Burnout
  • Industrial relations

While the productivity issue is multi-pronged, a clear contributing factor is the low rate of technology adoption and innovation in construction, compared to other industries. Advances in construction project management software such as sitemobi in recent years are providing tools to address many productivity problems simultaneously, by:

  • improving scheduling, planning and supervision
  • addressing administrative burdens created by compliance regulations
  • improving the quality and management of project documentation
  • developing greater transparency, accountability and trust.

Pros and pitfalls of using subcontractors

Construction projects typically involve a principal who employs subcontractors to carry out specific aspects of the work and communicates with them via a project manager.

There are obvious advantages to using this model, but there are also pitfalls.

Pros

Some advantages of subcontractors include:

  • Some pieces of work can be undertaken while other work packages are still being finalised.
  • Subbie contracts can be managed and amended individually without affecting the overall contract.
  • The principal has oversight and control over the whole lifecycle of the project.
  • Subcontractors can contribute positively to the project’s overall execution.

Pitfalls

The downsides of subcontracted work include:

  • Unclear planning that gives subbies an incomplete view of the work to be undertaken. Without comprehensive information, it’s difficult for subcontractors to plan ahead.
  • The admin involved in negotiating and amending individual contracts can be costly and time-consuming for the principal.
  • The principal has to accept total project cost risk.
  • A distributed workforce of subcontractors can lead to accountability issues.

Keys to better subbie management

So, how do we manage subbies better?

As we mentioned earlier, project management that harnesses digital tech is vital if construction is to resolve its fraught relationship with subcontractors. Project management software tools offer principals the chance to radically change the dynamic of subcontracted work. These tools rethink project planning and documentation by making information:

  • Mobile,
  • cloud-based,
  • accessible,
  • integrated,
  • centralised and authoritative.

Paper and spreadsheet-based systems are failing because they can’t work fast enough to be useful in terms of tracking costs and quantities. There’s too much time-consuming double handling involved. For example, supervisors prepare a site diary each day, collecting paper dockets and recording hours and achievements. Engineers check the paperwork and enter the data into a spreadsheet. By the time this information is collected, documented, analysed and reported, much of it is no longer useful.

McKinsey & Company argues in its report that infusing digital technology is vital to the viability of construction projects now. Companies can put themselves at the cutting edge by making use of technologies, including:

“digital collaboration and mobility tools (such as construction management apps loaded on mobile devices) to better track progress and collaborate in real time. On-site productivity can be increased by as much as 50 percent by implementing a cloud-based control tower that rapidly assembles accurate data in near real time that is both backward-looking and predictive (for example, using plan conformance and other variability and inventory metrics).”

Introducing our Docket app

sitemobi’s web-based project management software and mobile app are already helping construction companies achieve productivity breakthroughs by using real-time data to better track costs and progress. Our recently released Docket app has been designed specifically for the construction industry. It digitises dockets for plant, labour and materials – all in one easy-to-use mobile app.

With the Docket app, nothing falls through the cracks – a simple, cloud-based system allows plant operators and supervisors to communicate better with subbies and manage documentation easily. How does it achieve this?

  • It’s clean and intuitive. Meaning less confusion and greater accountability.
  • It’s smart. Details from previous dockets are remembered in the app, so subbies don’t have to re-enter information. You can also add multiple resources per docket.
  • It talks to other systems. Automatic integration with your sitemobi daily diary and cost register saves time and reduces pressure on site supervisors.
  • It keeps everyone up-to-date. Subcontractors and businesses are instantly emailed a copy of the docket once it’s approved.
  • It reports back. You can export your docket expenses directly to your payroll system. Simple!

Find out more about how sitemobi can supercharge your subcontractors’ productivity by taking a look at our website or getting in touch.