DiBona & Associates
DiBona & Associates

Smart Leaders Make Decisions, Then Take Action

15.09.22 03:00 PM By Noel DiBona

Jack was introduced to our company through one of our live online training seminars. Jack is responsible for the operations of a $600MM division providing specialty process equipment installation services. They work with all of the big-name Engineering & Construction firms on difficult and technology-driven capital projects.

Jack’s organization is subdivided into three sectors, each with about fifty engineers, schedulers, estimators, and project managers. Project teams are assembled for various lengths of time spanning from a few months to a couple of years. These projects are complicated from a technical perspective but also are quite complex given the large number of external stakeholders that Jack’s teams need to communicate and work with.

When we began working with Jack there was a full slate of projects, some were doing well and others not so well. Jack’s company has no shortage of work processes and procedures, tools, and systems to get the job done and can be a bit overwhelming at times. The business also needs a steady influx of engineers, project managers and other technical specialists. From new college graduates to more experienced technical professionals, there is a lot of shifting of resources to make all of these projects successful.

Our first project with Jack was to evaluate his Leadership Team with the goal of building more cohesion and trust. We eventually opened up communication at all levels within the entire division cascading our evaluation and change initiatives across the entire span of all three sectors. As with all teams, each member of the Leadership Team had their own unique skill sets and different ways of evaluating risk, solving problems, and resolving conflict. 

We use a very intuitive and practical approach that results in a plot that depicts the placement of each individual. This simple plot is used to decode each leader’s natural tendencies in how they interact in the workplace. Armed with this information, each teammate better understands how they can work together and also how each leader interacts with their respective teams. These fresh insights begin to answer questions why certain projects went exceedingly well while others failed. They learned why certain initiatives didn’t give them the impact they needed. 

When we aggregated the individual data sets and characterized the nature of the team, they began to see ways that they could de-risk the business from execution problems the team was prone to making. Jack’s team was a Producing Team. Producing Teams are known as being competitive and intense. They knew what needs to be done to produce high quality work, quickly. That are undaunted by failure and drive hard to be the best. The keen sense of competition holds the organization to a high standard of performance.

Unfortunately, as good as all that sounds, the team had some negative effects that were reverberating through the three sectors and many of the project teams were under huge amounts of stress. Jack’s Leadership Team began to realize that they continued to raise the performance bar and were now seeing some key employees burning out. Excessive amounts of competition caused unhealthy rivalries as managers within the three different sectors were competing for the same resources to get their projects completed. And to top it off, this team was prone to frequent conflict with managers getting into tense battles to do whatever they needed to do to win. You can see how this team had some formidable forces working against them and were unaware of the damage being done in the organization. 

As we continued to analyze the team, we then compared the current business objectives and recognized the Leadership Team was not addressing any way to build employee commitment, loyalty, and morale. Yes, to teams of engineers that sounds unimportant, but we were certain these issues were permeating down the entire organization and causing great harm.

With that, we then evaluated the next level down in all three sectors and we confirmed that the organization was suffering from early-stage burnout that degraded their employee engagement to the point where some projects were in a critical stage and could be lost.

We reported our findings back to Jack and it was obvious that they needed to mitigate the risks that we uncovered with the Leadership Team and each of the respective teams for each of the three sectors. Given this data, we customized a plan to get the organization more balanced. We did this with a combination of survey data, focus-group interviews, our 1:1 Team Analysis, and specific training aimed at conflict resolution and our effective communication technique. Incidentally, we have developed standardized peer-to-peer training curricula for a wide range of topics. Our solution spanned working with construction personnel installing the plant equipment, up through the field supervisors, and construction managers and over to all of the engineering-related job functions. 

When we systematically decoded these teams, we found some very useful insights that allowed Jack’s organization to realize a 27% improvement in their productive output by removing unnecessary work and paying more attention to how projects were kicked-off, as well as installing some communication protocols to ensure projects quickly ramped up.

Here is what we found:
      • 15 out of 20 Project Managers were not properly setting up a communication plan with project stakeholders.
      • 22 out of 30 Construction Managers had at least one Field Supervisor eroding the confidence of the installation crews.
      • 35 out of 50 Project Engineers were sidestepping important issues because they needed to avoid conflict with the Construction Managers. 

There were some additional issues that surfaced, but we chose to concentrate on these three areas:
      • Communication
      • Employee Engagement
      • Conflict Resolution

Key Outcomes
Project Management
Project Managers were too busy to be effective in their jobs. They were running around being totally reactive fighting fires. We reviewed their Management Operating System and determined they needed a better meeting cadence and better ways to share information within the project teams. We worked out a dashboard design and meeting protocols to open up information about important issues before they became big problems. Similarly, we set up communication protocols with their external stakeholders. This was all standardized and drafted into a Standard Operating Procedure. 

The key learning for Jack’s Operations Directors in each of the three sectors was that although the company had a plethora of systems and procedures, the Project Managers were thrown into complicated projects without thinking through their communication plan and how each Project Manager was to engage their staff. These were not all brand-new Project Managers; some had many years of experience. It was the trickle-down effect of Jack’s Leadership Team that was causing these issues. In short, Project Managers were spinning their wheels.

Working with Jack’s Leadership Team, we were able to convince them to slow down a bit and address the following:
      • Increase team cohesion in order to improve team-level outcomes.
      • Increase employee engagement to improve productivity and retention.
      • Drive employees to achieve results with vision and passion.

As we continued to gain success with the Project Managers, Jack’s Leadership Team was fully on board, and we were then able to attack other areas.

Construction Management
We invited groups of ten to twelve construction staff along with a sampling of Field Supervisors in eight different areas representing close to 100 installers. Each focus group used fifteen questions in a real-time survey format. We demonstrated to each group at the beginning of our session that the survey was 100% anonymous and we couldn’t trace anyone back to any answers that were provided. What was interesting is that each group volunteered to engage in a very useful discussion on each individual survey question. This allowed us to uncover the root causes of the installer’s poor engagement. Each session was two hours long and all of the notes were organized into themes and diagrammed to understand the data at a glance.

We uncovered blockers concerning managers, corporate culture, job fit, and team-related issues. Here is a list of the major items we discovered:
      • The direct-hired staff were bitter about being paid significantly less than the contract installers. And for good reason. The direct-hired staff needed to go behind and fix quality issues caused by the contract installers. This set the tone for Jack to present a pay-for-performance program to the corporate executive team and get this issue resolved.
      • The installers were not receiving any information about the bigger company picture and direction the company was headed. Communication was getting stuck between Jack’s Leadership Team, the Project Managers, Functional Leads, Construction Managers, and the Field Supervisors. We isolated the specific interfaces this was happening and provided peer-to-peer effective communications training. We also got Jack and his boss out on the project sites more to address the installers. The company implemented a company spotlight article to highlight the good work happening in the field on key projects. These interventions wouldn’t have been possible without obtaining the data from our eight focus group sessions.

Project Engineering
As we delved into the details on how the project teams were utilizing Project Engineers, we began to see that they were largely being focused on individual tasks wherever they were needed. You can imagine, even early on in your career, how going from task-to-task without being given the opportunity to understand the big picture can lead to employee disengagement because most project engineers want to make an impact in the organization. The manner in which managers were communicating with the engineers made the engineers feel unimportant and micro-managed. Any employee that feels they lack status and autonomy are not going to stick around. So, it was no surprise their turnover in the project engineering ranks was approaching 35%. 

We deployed Leadership Effectiveness 360 surveys with a handful of selected managers and the results were amazing. This data uncovered the need to find ways to show that the managers cared about their engineers. This led the Jack and his team to accept our idea around creating smaller work packages that the engineers could manage from the beginning to the end of a particular portion of a much larger project. They were now working more as Project Managers on a small project than as a gopher Project Engineer on a large behemoth project. In their eyes they went from feeling overloaded, unimportant, and underappreciated and now they were passionate about their work and were able to drive difficult mini projects home successfully. This was a huge win for the company. Cutting the turnover in half represented several hundred thousand dollars right back into the company’s profit.

It is truly amazing when I look back at the last couple of years and see the tremendous impact that all began with a simple 30-minute Team Improvement Plan with Jack after he attended one of our training seminars. To Jack’s credit he saw how DiBona & Associates use of people analytics in combination with solid peer-to-peer training programs, and operations management expertise could benefit his organization.