Play Chess not Checkers

Chess is about thinking and winning, a game that intrigues the mind by mimicking the dichotomies of life. 

As in all things, chess demands fluency in fundamental principles, yet punishes rigid adherence to predetermined game plans. Successful players learn to respect rules without being ruled by them, exercise method in conjunction with madness, and distill strategy from a fog of chaos and disorder. Observing the unfolding patterns of the board over time, the chess master thinks not in terms of one piece or one move, but in terms of the entire board over dozens of moves. 

Ironically, the symmetry of a chess board seems to be the picture of order and predictability. But alas, upon the first move, there begins a descent into chaos. After both players move, 400 possible board setups exist. After the second pair of turns, there are 197,742 possible games, and after three moves, 121 million. At every turn, players chart a progressively more distinctive path, and each game evolves into a match that’s probably unique in history.

Construction and chess share much in common, albeit with one key difference: a construction company doesn’t play against a single opponent, but rather, contends with multiple adversaries. To wit, the art of tendering is an exercise in maneuver warfare, whereby the other guy’s bidding approach is anticipated and countered. Outwitting the competition at this stage may yield a project award, but this only marks the beginning. A signed contract means earning the privilege of fighting bad weather, or dealing with surprise ground conditions, ornery permit issuers, volatile exchange rates, unforeseen global pandemics, ad infinitum. Simply put, delivering a project is often a highwire act in the balancing of probabilities, the weighing of risks, and adapting to new and changing circumstances. 

The dreaded knock-on

Having spent considerable time in construction myself, it’s a beautiful thing to take part in a successful project delivery. And conversely, nothing quite like that sickening feeling when a job goes off the rails. Today I share a story about the impacts of another variable that can lay waste to the best planning: worker disability. 

Some time ago, I worked for a company that was sole-sourced by a key client to undertake back-to-back jobs. The construction window was extremely tight, and the client made it abundantly clear that there was zero margin for error. Confident in our crews and execution planning, yet cognizant of the risks, we decided to go all in. Thankfully there was a bit of breathing room prior to mobe, so we reviewed and re-reviewed every inch of the plan, preparing contingencies for all conceivable curveballs. Or so we thought. 

But it was going so well

Lead up to mobilization presented no challenges and it seemed we were off to a promising start. One slight concern was the availability of a key crew member we’ll call Jason. Jason sustained a mild knee sprain on a different job, but was expected to travel to site with his team, or at worst, be a day or two behind. No big deal, as there was sufficient cushion in the schedule to absorb a few days of suboptimal productivity.  

Anxiety was setting in by day 8. Our razor-thin margin for error was rapidly consumed by poor weather and lacking productivity. We couldn’t find our rhythm, seemed out of sync, and frustration was growing. Finally, after a very lengthy delay, a site supervisor reported that Jason was ready for prime time. This news was a welcome relief, as the team desperately needed a shot in the arm.  

Despite the good news, the days came and went with no improvement in Jason’s condition, forcing us to mix-and-match crews as guys timed out. We consistently undershot daily production quotas, tools were going missing, the bickering and frustration boiling over into conflict with other contractors on site. 

Suffice to say, when the dust eventually settled, the project ended with massive budget and schedule overruns. We put our key client in a bind and broke trust that would take years to rebuild. And perhaps worst of all, company morale took a major hit. 

Post-Mortem: what went wrong?

Extenuating circumstances did factor into this failure, but the root cause can be traced back to our management of the injured worker. We later learned that Jason’s knee healed long before he arrived on site, but no one told him we desperately needed his help. Contrary to second-hand reports, nobody actually contacted him—everyone assumed somebody else was handling it. 

Jason’s absence caused a dramatic upset in team chemistry across all our crews. Group dynamics apply to construction crews as much as any other team, and the result of moving guys around like chess pieces triggered a series of unfortunate events to say the least. In the final analysis, our zeal to minimize slack in the schedule jeopardized a key client relationship, caused serious and lasting dissension in the ranks, and necessitated a withdrawing from the second project.

Systemic breakdowns 

As I look back, a handful of key errors come to mind:

  • Why was Jason at home? His manager probably thought that giving Jason time off was the compassionate thing to do, not realizing that the minor injury was accruing substantial claims costs. Jason should have been present at work and assigned modified duties until a full recovery was made. If he’d been at work, he would have known that his presence was desperately needed on site.
  • Poor communication: We believed that every contingency had been thoroughly mapped out. We were wrong. Nobody gave Jason’s disability a second thought, nor did anyone make the effort to physically call him to check up. Instead we relied on second-hand anecdotes versus speaking to Jason directly.
  • Lack of foresight: Our company didn’t have any predetermined modified positions, nor any idea how to accommodate disablement. Perhaps that explained why Jason’s manager sent him home, not knowing what else to do with him.
  • Absence of policy: There was no process for handling disability. No defined roles, no accountability, and no communication, and so these claims were expected to resolve themselves almost by accident.  
  • Cost relief: Jason was a champion skateboarder in his youth and had the battle scars to show for it. We would later learn that Jason had ACL surgery prior to spraining his knee at work. Our company may have been spared the full brunt of the claim costs arising from the knee injury—and the complex and expensive injuries that followed—if we had known about the cost relief potentially available.

 

The WCB labyrinth 

Disability joins the list of adversaries on the chessboard of construction. I’ve seen firsthand how disability and WCB claims can overwhelm a business. Moreover, contractor vetting companies like ComplyWorks compare your WCB premiums to industry rates, and if you’re in surcharge territory, this alone can thwart your ability to bid on jobs. Added to this, WCB requires that you reinstate every injured worker regardless of whether modified duties are available. Unless you can prove undue hardship (a hard case to make), you face steep fines for failing to accommodate an injured worker. And lastly, disability claims have become more complex and expensive than ever before. The WCB has undergone major changes and now accepts ‘heavy workload’ and ‘interpersonal conflict’ as valid reasons for disability leave, thus exposing employers to unprecedented levels of risk. 

Call (780)-340-5727 to speak with our 541 Eagleson Wynd, Edmonton T6M 0Y4 team for free.
Ben Barfett

Ben Barfett

Ben Barfett, Principal and Consultant, has spent his life in the construction sector, specifically heavy civil, enviro, commercial, and energy. Having held senior roles in business development, technical advisory, and regional management, he earned his stripes in the field and in head office. Conscious of the interplay between commercial, legal, and execution aspects of construction, his business insights are informed by expertise in WCB policy and enhanced with disability-specific training.

Ben Barfett

Ben Barfett

Ben Barfett, Principal and Consultant, has spent his life in the construction sector, specifically heavy civil, enviro, commercial, and energy. Having held senior roles in business development, technical advisory, and regional management, he earned his stripes in the field and in head office. Conscious of the interplay between commercial, legal, and execution aspects of construction, his business insights are informed by expertise in WCB policy and enhanced with disability-specific training.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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