Problem Fixing and Not Problem Solving

I live in an old house, most probably built in the early 1800’s, with doors that don’t close, roof that leak and floors that squeak. My solution? A little WD 40, a little more ‘goop’ around the chimney, and shave a little off the jamb, and, I’ve fixed the problem. Of course it works, but only for a time. Humidity, settlement, and other factors set in and I keep fixing over and over again. The solution? Find the root cause, and make the extra effort in time to ‘solve’ the underlying problem. In fact, if you add up the time and money I’ve spent ‘fixing’ these problems, it probably far outweighs what I would have spent if I simply went in and ‘solved’ the problems.

It’s like that in our work environments also. We tolerate the little inconveniences because we don’t have the time or desire to make the extra effort, to solve vexing problems. Project sites constantly change and evolve as the building is constructed. During the construction process, material, excavations, barriers, lighting, and other things are delivered and/or installed to support the process at the time, but many times, don’t get revisited and adjusted to accommodate the new work flow and environment as it progresses.  The result? Piles of materials that people learn to walk around or through, barriers that impede access through the site, lighting obscured by equipment or partitions – all things that prevent safe and efficient flow of the construction project and produce the conditions for inefficiency, poor quality, and accidents with injuries. The squeaky floor or door that won’t close we just get used to. Because we are busy on construction sites with many pressing issues constantly demanding for our attention, our solutions are typically to clean up the pile, remove the barrier, add additional light stringers, etc., only to have these conditions reappear the following week or month. We have fallen into the trap of ‘problem fixing’ rather than ‘problem solving’: writing up the same deficiencies over and over again. For example, housekeeping or fall protection metrics that constantly result in a high number of unsafe observations and low ‘% safe’ scores, month after month. Sound familiar? How can we break this cycle? We see it project after project; it’s nothing new, yet we fight the same battles, take the same old ground, and make the same mistakes.

How do we solve this?

To begin problem solving, we must first recognize the problem by analyzing the data. How do we experience the most frequent or most severe findings? By looking at which contractors, what stages of construction or specific tasks/hazards result in the biggest range of issues, you can then preplan with your contractors and crews to eliminate the hazard. Solutions may include working with the steel fabricators to pre-bend rebar to remove impalement hazards and the need to cap rebar, identifying areas in the architectural plans where there are details requiring significant power tool work (walls, ceilings, carpentry and casework) and installing extra temporary outlets and lighting in those areas, or locate install hangars in the decking before slabs are poured to eliminate excursions up ladders and drilling overhead. BIM can assist with these solutions but, even if you are not using BIM, effective, thoughtful preplanning can eliminate ‘chasing your tail’ throughout the entire construction project, leaving you more time to clearly focus on the other, more important and critical things you need to do. The key is using the data you have collected from past projects or the recent past, and channel this knowledge into useful discussions with your crews and contractors, before they start their work activity, to ‘solve the problem’. The benefits in more time, improved productivity, elevated morale, better quality, and enhanced safety are countless.



Written by todea

Tony O’Dea is Vice President, Director, Corporate Safety for Gilbane Building Company, where he directs the company’s construction safety program. Tony also represents Gilbane Building Company as a member of the AGC National Safety Committee, he is a voting member of the American National Standards A10 Construction Standards Development Committee, Chair of the National Construction Safety Executives, and a member of the AGC Safety Committees of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Tony holds credentials as a Certified Safety Professional, and Construction Health and Safety Technician, as well as Engineer in Training certification. Tony has a B.S. in Civil Engineering from Northeastern University, where he developed and instructed the Fundamentals of Construction Safety and Health through University College for 10 years, and has been a guest lecturer in Construction Safety at University of Florida, Roger Williams University, and Harvard University as well as for the American Society of Safety Engineers, the Associated General Contractors of R.I., and the Associated Builders and Contractors of R.I. . Tony has been working in the Construction industry for over 30 years in various positions as project engineer, surveyor, superintendent, and project manager.

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