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Have You No Common Sense, Man!

A surveyor buddy and I were carping the other day.

“How can I make any money,” he groused, “when I’ve got surveyors out there setting grade stakes, worried to death over 2/1,000 of a foot?”

“That would be less than 1/32 of an inch,” I said, trying to be sympathetic.

“Yes, I know! That’s my point,” he roared. “There isn’t an equipment operator in the world who can shape dirt to within 1/32 of an inch. Heck, just walking by the survey stake could nudge it that far. Heck, that is less than half the width of a pencil mark. Yet there’s my employee, spending hours trying to figure out how to dial in wooden stakes to less than two-one thousandths! If there was any profit in that job, it got chewed up fixing the biggest non-problem in the history of construction.”

“Of course,” I pointed out, “if you call him on it, he’ll tell you, ‘But boss, aren’t you always the one saying to measure twice and cut once?’”

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“And I would answer, ‘Yes I am. But, how many times do you have to measure when you’re within a tolerance so precise, no saw in existence could cut it? Have you no common sense man!’”

And so our carping-fest fumed on.

This issue has confounded every construction businessperson at one time or another. In my profession (engineering), I’ve had employees spend days noodling on a problem without ever actually starting a solution. One particular guy I finally had to let go. In six months he single-handedly cost me over $15,000. What really gripes me is that he showed me his true colors within the first three weeks. I was stupidly naive, thinking I could nurture and teach him. Heck, he did have a great resume, and he interviewed soooo well. I ought to read my own columns. Sheesh.

And then I’ve had those who dive recklessly into every problem without any forbearance or planning whatsoever. These are the “measure nunce, and keep cutting until everything is diced to shreds, and then start over again” types. And don’t expect they’ll bother to ask for help. Why should they when they already know it all?

Builders have it too. I’ve seen framers measuring the distance between every nail in a shear wall — making sure to space them exactly 6.00-inches on center. Never mind that spacing them an eyeballed distance of between four to six inches would make a stronger wall and be much faster and cheaper to build.

As another example, I’ve seen framers painstakingly miter-cut every odd-angled piece of rough framing to a precise, tight fit, even though it would get covered up with drywall and make no difference anyway. I asked one of these guys about it one day. He proudly proclaimed, “It might not make any difference to anyone else, but I’d know the difference.” I was compelled to reply, “Then you’re in the wrong trade. You’re costing your boss money. Have you ever considered a career in finish carpentry?”

It’s all about having a feel for the appropriate tolerance for error. “Pennywise but pound foolish” could be another way of saying it. It boils down to savvy; common sense. Some people have it, many don’t. Some can learn it, lots can’t — at least not in your lifetime.

The best advice I can give if one of your employees struggles with this issue is to intervene immediately. Most times people don’t even know they’re guilty. Bosses have to communicate clearly and often exactly what the expectations are. Explain bluntly what to worry about and what to ignore. Try a rating scale, one to four, with one being mission-critical important and four, complete disregard.

Like so many issues with employees, they’ll never know what the boss wants unless the boss tells them. Plainly. Frequently. Put on your “C” cap (Communication) every day. You can’t teach common sense, but through large doses of communication, you can help employees learn what’s important. Lots of times it means the difference between profit and loss.

Tim K. Garrison P.E. of ConstructionCalc.com has authored books and short courses and lectures on topics relevant to builders. Got a technical or management issue? E-mail buildersengineer@constructioncalc.comTim reads every one.

This column cannot be reprinted without permission from the author.

The views expressed in this article represent the personal views, statements and opinions of the author and do not necessarily represent the views, statements, opinions or policies of the National Association of Home Builders. NAHB does not necessarily endorse any of the views expressed by the author and NAHB is not responsible for any direct or indirect consequences arising out of the views expressed in this article.

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