Managing Risk Is About Much More Than Safety

By The Superintendents Of Hoar Construction

No doubt about it. In today’s world, capital projects are risky. They’re more complex, and more expensive. The technology revolution that hit manufacturing well over a century ago has finally started to impact the AEC world, shaking up how we communicate, organize our teams, manage our work, and structure our contracts. And, even post-recession, those who finance large capital projects, be they taxpayers or shareholders, pay closer attention to ROI than ever before.

All that means risk is more than safety. It’s more than budget or schedule. Risk is also return on investment and maximizing value. It’s meeting strategic goals. And it’s reputation – the owner’s, the architect’s, and the builder’s. For today’s capital projects to be successful, risk has to be recognized and explicitly managed from the earliest concept design to the last punch list walk-through – and maybe even a bit beyond.

At Hoar, we often characterize ourselves as risk managers. In 75 years, we’ve earned our scar tissue, and we’ve learned to leave no stone unturned, no option unexplored. Our goal is to predict problems before they become problems, so we can address them BEFORE they disrupt a project. While most Hoar associates involved in projects manage risk in various ways along the way, our field superintendents in particular are charged with risk management.

Senior Superintendent Boone White sums up the issue our owners face – and his obligation to help them – in a nutshell: “Anytime an owner spends the capital to improve their property or create a new property, they’re taking on risk financially, legally, and so forth. It’s our job to manage that risk, to make sure they’re getting the most bang for their buck and to make sure they’re not taking on any risks that aren’t necessary.”

Senior Superintendent Tim Wilson agrees, and takes a holistic view on risk management: “Managing risk is not just safety. I think managing risk from start to finish is our job. And it is safety, quality, schedule – everything.”

Senior Superintendent Clayton Salmon, who often works in and around busy hospitals and their vulnerable patients, particularly feels the burden of managing risk and recognizes the very real impact our work can have on those around us: “At this facility, risk management is pretty important because we have sick kids 20 feet away from us. Our actions and how we plan for that and the risk management process is extremely important.”

Give how critical risk management is, how do we go about understanding project risks and developing mitigation strategies for them? A key element of our approach is the site-specific Safety & Quality Planning Meeting (or SQPM) we do for each project. Led by the superintendent, the meeting is a multi-day exploration – in minute detail – of every aspect of the job. Subject matter experts in safety and quality, superintendents with experience in unique elements of the project – a special kind of curtainwall, for example – and other veterans from across the company gather to test the team’s thinking.

General Superintendent Mike McKinnon picks up the process from here: “The project team sits down and they think about the building from the beginning to the end. They think about, when you first get on site, what are your risks? What will be the biggest challenges? You look at your site and, again, you’re thinking about it with your partners – what’s the biggest risk and how am I going to mitigate that risk? And you go from sitework to building foundations to the building structure to the skin to the interior, and you think about everything it’s going to take to build that project, constantly asking what are your risks and how are you going to resolve them?”

Once the project team, which at this point often includes several key subcontractors, has completed its analysis, it’s time to get some feedback on their thinking. McKinnon continues the story: “You bring in your quality guy and your safety guy, who both have twenty or thirty projects going on, so they have a lot of experience with different things they’ve seen on projects, so they bring that tremendous resource to the table. All these experts come in, and you explain to them what you’re going to build. You say ‘This is what we think our risks are. This is how we think we can mitigate those risks.’ And those guys give you input based on their experience and what they’ve seen on other projects. It’s a great ‘lessons-learned’ type of process.”

After implementing – and continuing to refine – the SQPM process on hundreds of projects over the years, we’ve come to appreciate the deep links between planning and risk management. Senior Superintendent Gabe Moore says it well: “Planning is everything. If you do not plan, you are not going to have a successful project. You may get the project done but it is not going to be the quality it should be. You are not going to have the budget you should have and you are not going to have the safety you should have.” That’s the kind of outcome the SQPM process is intended to avoid.

As a project gets underway and for the duration of construction, General Superintendent Brandon Dexter offers up another solution for risk management: “The better we communicate, the better we are at finding problems earlier. Bringing in the right subcontractors early on and getting their foremen involved creates a certain culture. That helps manage a lot of the risk on a job.”

As the primary field leader on his projects, Tim Wilson knows his risk management obligations are significant and he takes them seriously: “As a superintendent, you have to be able to see the risk some people may not see. You have to be able to advise the owner who may not totally understand the problem, or the architect who has drawn a detail a certain way that it won’t work, that we’ve seen this detail before and it leaks so maybe we should do something else. To me, that’s all risk management.”

Mike McKinnon sums up Hoar’s expectations perfectly: “I mean that’s what we do. We manage risk. There are a lot of people that depend on us to manage risk properly.”