Motivating people to perform on design and construction projects


M. S. Caspe Co.,

Burlingarne, California


To motivate people to perform, they first must be committed to the project objectives. Involvement is not enough — commitment is needed because it leads to selfmotivation, a motivation far better than that derived from any other incentive, positive or negative.

How then do we gain commitment, motivate performance, and improve productivity? The answer is to be found in MBO. The project is an ideal forum for management by objective (MBO) because its physical goals, budgeted costs, and scheduled commitments are quantitatively defined in the contract at the start of the project.

The key to committing people is in dividing the contracted project objectives into component elements of work, having associated budgets and schedules. By specifically assigning these elements to line supervisors for small working groups and giving them an imput to the planning process, commitment is born.

But commitment is not static. To manage one must either recommit subordinate supervisors to the planned goals on a regular basis or have them project deviations from the planned objective as early as possible. Such projections — when made in advance of the expenditure of resources — can frequently incite negotiation of an alternate solution before it is too late, for example, by reducing the level of detail that is to be accomplished or by simply clarifying what was a misunderstanding on the part of a subordinate supervisor.

Indeed the primary function of a management support system (MSS) is to incite communication between line supervisors, in as simple a manner as possible and without consuming significant quantities of their valuable production time. Once this goal is understood, the operation of an MSS for a design project or a construction project is quite simple. This will be demonstrated by showing how to set up a consistent planning and monitoring system that is married to the project’s organizational structure.

The most cost-effective place to manage the work is at the grass roots level. Front-line supervisors (the people named at the bottom rung of a project organization chart) are in the best position to make decisions efficiently. Management by objective makes each supervisor a mini-manager who is responsible for quality performance, on time and within budget. This on-the-job training (OJT) builds qualified managers. No seminar training program can hope to turn out a manager of the quality of one who grows up with a project run on an MBO basis.

MBO also provides an incentive system, in which success at one management level is a prequalification for assignment at the next level. Individuals can plan their careers and grow along alternate career paths, either as multidisciplinary managers or as technical specialists, knowing that it is performance that counts.

Building Consistency and Simplicity into the MBO Concept

In the beginning there was a contract! Most people might agree that all projects begin with a contract but it is not true. Rather, projects start when commitments begin to be made. And commitments begin long before a contract or work authorization is signed. Many commitments are made in proposals, in presentations, in meetings, and at negotiation sessions.

How these commitments grow within a company says a great deal about its senior management. Ideally commitments to a plan of action will grow up from the supervisors who must perform the tasks being committed, both in terms of task objectives, task budgets, and task schedules. These will be coordinated and renegotiated in-house at the senior management level before the company makes its initial commitment to the prospective client.

The company commitment or contract plan as shown on the top of figure 1 can then be made up of task level commitments on the part of those who must implement that plan on a daily basis. During negotiations, the strengths and limitation’s of the company’s position are known by its negotiators and trade-offs can be made intelligently.

With the successful conclusion of negotiations with the client, the contract terms can again be broken down to the task level as an action plan. Action plans should have certain attributes if they are to be effectice, as follows:

  • Action plans should be simple and concise, containing only that level of detail that is needed to manage
  • Action plans should have a work breakdown structure (WBS) which is married to the hierarchy of the project organization that is to implement the plan
  • Action plans should be supported by a monitoring system that is also married to the hierarchy of the project organization so that information is distributed on a need-to-know basis
  • Budgets and schedules should be in approximate balance with the task objectives
  • Supervisors should be given a contingency fund at each level of management and should be encouraged to manage their bottom line, recognizing that underruns and overruns are expected to occur on line items
  • Action plans should be regularly disseminated to the task supervisors at each level of the organization so that they can be committed and recommitted to their objectives and
  • Action plans should roll-up through the organization from the grass roots level up to top management and to clients. The roll-up of progress reporting is best done by presenting the bottom line of each subordinate supervisor’s report as the progress report for the next level of management.

Action plans must be supported by a monitoring system that provides a concise information in a timely manner. “Concise information” means that a supervisor having six subordinates should receive a progress report having six lines on it. “Timely information” means that the information should be there within one or two days after the close of a monitoring period.

Our company has identified the three major failings of companies having difficulties with their management systems, namely:

  • Too much detail that results in a flood of paper or time cards that are too complex
  • Too much of an intertie between the project management system and the accounting system, resulting in information that is too late to be of value, and
  • Too little consistency between the planning and monitoring systems

Any of these flaws can be fatal to a project. Together they can be fatal to a company. Let us therefore analyse each flaw in more detail.

In setting up a monitoring system most companies spend a great deal of time determining the headings that will go across the page of their progress reports, cost reports, financial reports, and expediting reports. This is as it should be! The problem stems from spending too little time deciding the level of detail that will appear vertically along the left-hand margin and to whom that information will go. When working with a client we frequently recommend that every item to be monitored be proven as “needed to manage.” If it is only needed for institutional memory, get rid of it.

We have found that an unacceptable time delay will always result when an accounting system is called upon to issue management reports. This delay results from the data load that a management system adds to an accounting system, causing an overload that goes far beyond the level of detail needed to run accounts and to issue payrolls.

Consistency among the plan, the organization, and the monitoring system is a must. To demonstrate this consistency and to show how it fits into both a planning and a monitoring a construction activities, we have prepared figure 2.

Conflict management

Figure 1. Conflict management.

Consitency among plan, organization and monitoring system

Figure 2. Consitency among plan, organization and monitoring system.

The planning phase is shown in figure 2 as a series of steps which we normally set up in a series of forms, one for each step. The primary document for planning is listed at the top line:

  • In design it is the drawing control
  • In procurement it is the list of materials and permanent equipment and
  • In construction it is the activity list

The manner in which these three primary planning tools are used to generate both budgets and schedules and to then allocate resources is clear from figure 2, but that is not the subject of this paper. Our point here is to demonstrate consistency in setting up an MSS that motivates people with MBO incentives. Note that in figure 2 the bottom line under monitoring is always identical to the primary planning document shown on the top line. That is to say that we must be consistent in monitoring the same commitments made in the plan.

For example, in design where the drawing control is the primary planning document, the monitoring function of what remains to complete each element of work is made against this same drawing list. In most instances we have set up this first level of management reporting on a manual basis, that is, without computer support. The raw information of man-hours remaining to complete and time remaining to complete each drawing is written on the drawing control itself and passed up to the second level supervisor at specified cutoff dates.

The progress reports that are issued to the second level of management are usually automated, although we have on occasion set this up on a manual basis for clients. The reports compare the planned commitment for each task (cost and schedule) and the expenditures to date with the projections to complete as of the last reporting period.

These progress reports arrive concurrently with the handwritten projections (the drawing control in this example) from the subordinate supervisors.

Deviations from the plan can be rapidly identified and a communication begins. To “incite communications” between supervisors in the line organization is the primary function of an MSS. Each element of the MSS should be designed so that the responsible supervisor either:

  • Recommits to the project objectives for that component task in a very simple manner or
  • Identifies forecasted overruns (in time and/or in budget) before the resource is expended (that is, while there is still time to take corrective action).

The progress reports present very concise information to each level of management. The validity of the information is very high because the input comes from the frontline supervisors who are closest to the work and then rolls-up to higher levels of management. Since communication is directly between line supervisors and information is provided to each level of management with an appropriate level of detail, corrective action is self-motivated. The best place to correct deviations is at the frontline supervisory level. Only at this hands-on level can immediate action take place.

The report formats for progress reporting, financial reporting, and so on, that we have developed are not included with this paper. Such reports can be set up using the report writer of any software tool available from software vendor companies, such as McAuto’s MSCS/COPES package, IBM’s PMS IV, PSDI’s Project 2, or K&H’s Premis. Instead we will graphically demonstrate the process of committing and recommitting project supervisors to their task objectives, using the two graphics shown as figures 3 and 4.

Graphic report for monitoring fixed measurement resources

Figure 3. Graphic report for monitoring fixed measurement resources.

There are two categories of resources that must be managed on all projects. These are fixed measurement resources as shown in figure 3, and budgeted resources as shown in figure 4. With fixed measurement resources (such as the yards of concrete or tons of steel to erected) the magnitude of the resource is known in advance of starting the task and only the time element has to be managed. The task supervisor has only to be committed to the start and completion date for the activity and, once the activity has started, the only recommitment required is to the date of completion.

Graphic report for monitoring budgeted

Figure 4. Graphic report for monitoring budgeted resources.

With budgeted resources it is a bit more difficult. Budgeted resources do not have a known usage of the resource being monitored. An example of this might be that a crane was budgeted for two months on thejob and by the third month it still cannot be released. A projection is needed for how much longer it must remain on the site.

Design is another example of a budgeted resource in which it is necessary to project not only the date of completion but also the man-hours remaining to complete. With budgeted resources there is no way to turn off the faucet until the task is complete, because an incomplete task has little value. So we must ask the task force supervisor, say, in the design of a mechanical system, to review each drawing listed on the drawing control and project both the man-hours and the time remaining to complete each element of work.

This projection is the supervisor’s recommitment to the task at hand. It is made independently of data on expenditures to date, by objectively looking at the status of each primary element of the plan (that is, the actual drawings) and estimating with more and more accuracy as the work progresses. Note also that projections should always be made in units of measure (i.e., man-hours) that are consistent with those of the plan.


The experience gained by our company in setting up project management systems for clients has consistenly indicated that motivation and productivity skyrocket when people are made to understand their authority to make decisions and are supported by a simple and concise MSS. Criteria that we utilize in establishing an MSS are summarized in figure 5.

Motivation stems from commitment. Commitment to achieving the planned goals, commitment to attaining the satisfactions of a well-performed team effort, and commitment to achieving personal objectives are the primary motivators in the design and construction industry.

The reason we make the effort to define the project plan and to organize the project is to strengthen communication and coordination among the people in the line organization. The reason we monitor production is to improve performance, thereby assuring that the people in the organization communicate any deviations from the plan as early as possible so that coordinated action can be taken to correct the deviation. Motivation stems directly from these communications and the MBO commitments and recommitments that are made by each task leader (i.e., mini-manager) to the next level supervisor.


Figure 5. Principles for designing the MSS.

Principles for designing the MSS



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