Being in the coatings industry for 25 years, I’ve had the chance to work in many countries including the United States and I can tell you the industry varies greatly; however, the basics are the same wherever I go.
Whether you call them trades’ staff, journeyman, or contractors, the system is always the same. The guys in the field think they’re doing all the work and the guys in the office think they’re doing all the work.
They are both right: Each team is pulling and tugging in their own direction. As a result, project outcomes end up looking something close to what the office staff wanted as well as something close to what the site staff are used to doing.
The key is that the project never ends up looking exactly like what the business owner wanted. It’s an ongoing battle between trying to align your field staff’s motivations with the outcomes you require.
Aligning Field Staff
Field staff have become specialists in many ways. Advancements in today’s safety requirements, quality standards, new machinery, new environmental requirements, and coating technologies have forced them to be so. People in the field must labor hard and also manage a complex set of issues.
If they thought their job description was, “Perform surface preparation and apply coatings” they’d be wrong. It’s actually closer to: “Go to work in a dusty and noisy environment using heavy protective equipment with limited lighting and make sure you get a perfect surface before coating application. Then, have experts and engineers pour over and pick on your work.”
All staff need direction and field staff are no different. People are creatures of habit, and just like cattle that follow the same trail each day, so too do human beings. In our case, people want to take strategies from the last project to the new project. That’s the good and the bad habits, meaning that left unchecked your field staff also carry bad habits from job to job.
Alignment Is Communication
Field staff need constant alignment because each job is different. The difference may be in structure, environment, weather, coating system, access methods, surface preparation, method of application, team members, or substrate type.
To align the field staff, managers need a specification or a scope of works to describe what outcomes are required and these will often encompass:
- Methodology and sequence of works,
- Quality requirements, and
- Safety and environmental controls.
We will focus on the quality side in our discussion here. Many Tier 1 asset owners have specifications that describe detailed quality objectives, and we can take these principles and apply them to many mid-tier projects. The two main elements from these principles are the requirement for:
1. An Inspection and Test Plan (ITP), and
2. The daily report forms.
Essentially, this is a check list of all the quality requirements on a project where each stage must be signed off by the contractor, project manager, and client representative. These are developed by the contractor, as the document is part of their internal quality control system.
This document can seem like an obligation; however, we have found developing this document into a guide for the field staff helps systemize them. It aligns them to a specific sequence of work.
We have also found using the ITP method on all your projects creates alignment for every project. The field staff get used to following it.
Daily Report Forms
Behind each step of the ITP is a requirement for reporting. This is usually captured by using a daily report form for field staff to complete each day for such things as weather, surface profile, preparation methods, and paint batch numbers.
We find the daily report forms are very similar and generic. Examples can be found in many standards, and they are often just copy and pasted. However, these are another opportunity to communicate and align your workforce to the project.
A New Way Forward
For those who currently use ITPs and daily report forms, I’m sure you will attest to them being generic for many projects. Ask yourself, “How can I expect my field staff to focus on this new project when I’m giving them generic documents?”
Generic documents create generic results, and they don’t seem relevant by those whose task it is to fill them out. Rather, they see it as another obligation.
Instead, a renewed focus should be applied to the use of existing quality documents, including ITPs and Daily Report Forms. The focus should be to provide ITPs that:
a) Are aligned with each project.
b) Saves frustration of applicators and project managers in trying to develop these documents from scratch.
Daily reporting needs remodeling to produce forms that are relevant to the project tasks and reference the objectives of the project. This is the best chance you have to align your workforce. The more useful these forms are to the site personnel, the more likely they are to fill the form out accurately.
Each section needs to include project requirements for the field staff, such as what is the tolerance, how is it measured, which standard is being used, and what are any noteworthy items (e.g., when salt testing is required, what dry film thickness [DFT] tolerances are allowed).
Including the relevant information about the project makes your form a handy reference for the site personnel and increases the likelihood of them using the form.
A Recent Study
We recently reviewed two years of in-field data using the above principles and found a 43 percent decrease in coating repairs. To put that into context, rarely does a coatings project achieve compliance within a single application. Often, there are minor areas of re-work required to meet specifications, and poor workmanship will require significant re-work.
This study reviewed the frequency of re-work being identified on a project by project basis for a single asset using a single specification. It found:
1. Applicators use of reporting increased 90 percent. Rather than seeing the report forms as an obligation, they began using the forms as their go to when checking job requirements.
2. Applicators implemented secondary systems to reduce reportable repairs. With applicators using the report forms, they had to report on defects and testing of repair applications. With this comes an acknowledgement of poor workmanship and a realization by the applicators that defects are documented and reported to their manager.
3. Re-work overall decreased by 43 percent; however, when we strip out re-work events that are out of the applicators control, re-work due to poor workmanship decreased 60 percent.
The advantage of improved quality reporting is an improvement in the quality of works being delivered because the project team are focused on minimizing reportable defects.
Hard Copy or Electronic?
There are many apps out there that take on a subscription fee but allow you to build your forms on a tablet. The alternative is a hard copy printed form that may be messy.
These documents need both options. Often, site-based tasks occur in a range of environmental conditions from:
a. hot, dusty, and humid to frigid, windy, and wet.
b. With site constraints, including enclosed and dark, open and noisy, at heights with difficult access.
Sometimes electronic items are not allowed into the site. Here paper-based recording is easier for operators to juggle the various environmental conditions whilst recording important data. Paper can be dropped, it can get wet and dry out, it can be folded whilst using both hands to perform tasks like climb a ladder. For those who are less tech savvy, paper is an easy choice and note-taking on paper helps provide a wealth of additional information. This may include different hand writing means different persons filled out the form; you can see the process of note taking and corrections; you can see the sweat and dirt on the page. A handwritten page tells a story behind the data.
Paper-based forms easily become electronic by taking a photo of the completed page or scanning it and saving to your computer. However, an electronic form has benefits. It can be completed on a tablet and photos can be uploaded to the form. There are proprietary cases and harnesses to carry them whilst performing other tasks. The entered data is automatically saved to the cloud and when completed the form can be shared across offices and geographies.
The best system may be an online form that can be printed as a hard copy for the in-field data to be recorded and the captured data is then entered into the online form from the comfort of a site office or wherever you set up your laptop.
You need to place the emphasis on the site personnel; those at the workface who are living, sweating, and breathing your project. They need documents that they feel are relevant and that help them achieve their outcome. Without relevance they don’t volunteer the information rather they see it as another obligation. So beefing up the ITP and the daily report forms provides a place for the applicator to reference project requirements and when following good documentation field staff will follow the order of documentation and increase productivity and reduce the likelihood of re-work. These should all result in profitable jobs for contractors and quality outcomes for clients.