Tips for Getting Subcontractor Performance Back on Track

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How to Partner With Your Subcontractor

Having an underperforming subcontractor on the team can drag a project down, causing unnecessary delays, increasing costs, and affecting morale. It’s up to the super to recognize when a subcontractor is out of control and then to take steps to fix the problem. Some of the signs of poor subcontractor performance include:

  • An unreasonable or increasing list of punch items
  • Failure to correct issues in a timely manner, or at all
  • Incomplete work  
  • Job-ready issues found by subsequent subcontractors on the job

When you see these signs, you have two options: You can change the sub or you can change the sub. This isn’t a typo! One option is to change, or switch, to a different subcontractor, and the second option is to work with your current subcontractor to change the problem behaviors.

Switching Subcontractors Stinks

While it’s sometimes necessary to fire a subcontractor, it’s not an ideal solution for a number of reasons. Labor shortages are a real issue these days, so you often don’t have a choice but to pick from a  limited pool of people. You also don’t know if the new subcontractor you hire will be better or worse. At least the people you currently work with are known entities. And let’s face it, change is hard. Switching subs causes a lot of friction and could add costs to a project that might already be suffering. A better approach, and the one we recommend trying first, is to work together with your subcontractor to improve performance.

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Be a Better Partner

The key to changing a subcontractor’s behavior is to get that subcontractor and its crew back on track without driving them away. Every time a crew has to return to fix an issue, it cuts into the sub’s profits. Chances are that problem behaviors have already eroded much of the sub’s expected profits. Your strategy is to return your subcontractor to profitability by helping to prevent  these issues in the first place. If a subcontractor is willing to make the effort, everybody wins!

Recalibrate Expectations

Identify the issues that come up most often and work with the subcontractor to figure out the best way to prevent them. Break the ice by asking about job-ready issues the subcontractor has experienced with other trades, then segue into job-ready issues that other trades have found with your sub’s work. Finally, discuss any issues you have discovered yourself. It’s not fair to assume that subs and all their crews are always on the same page, so it’s the builder’s responsibility to communicate the specs and acceptance criteria for important details that are often missed.

Create a Corrective Action Plan

Now you are ready to help the subcontractor prepare a corrective action plan. Start by creating checklists to communicate quality expectations.

  • Create a checklist or checklists that include the main issues as checkpoints.
  • Provide the checklists to your subcontractor and review the items to make sure all items are understood.
  • Help the sub decide how to use on-site meetings and toolbox talks to train field personnel on important details that should never be missed.
  • Volunteer to be a guest presenter if you think it will help.
  • Require subcontractor self-inspections—give your sub the chance to correct its own mistakes or oversights first.
  • Include picture requirements when you need to call attention to hotspot details.

Subcontractor Self-inspections

Until the subcontractor’s crew is done with its phase of work, you should be in helping and teaching mode to help ensure first-time quality work. During your daily jobsite walks, informally coach the crews in how to prevent potential problems, and share your observations about problems that should be addressed.  

Once a subcontractor passes its own self-inspection, that sub is declaring that the work is complete and that often-missed details have been verified,

After you receive the subcontractor’s inspection report, your mode should change from coach to gatekeeper of quality. Use your version of the checklist to do your own inspection. If it is obvious that the subcontractor has not put a reasonable effort into inspecting its own work, fail the inspection immediately and ask the sub to try again later.

Know When It’s Time To Let Go

Subcontractors that change for the better will see their profitability improve and be receptive to repeating the inspection process on a shrinking set of recurring issues. On the other hand, when subcontractors are unresponsive, it may be time for you to encourage them to seek work elsewhere.

Leverage Your Quality Management Software

Use the tools available to you to help create and implement your corrective action plan. Quality management software can help you identify the most frequently recurring issues so you can address the most important problems first. Metrics such as first-time quality, time to correct issues, and job-ready tracking can help you monitor progress and celebrate improvements to keep subs motivated. You can also keep an eye on the performance of each crew to provide training support to those who need it most. Quality management software also provides a convenient platform for performing inspections and gathering photos and documents so subs can provide proof of completed work.

Of course, the ideal scenario is to never have to deal with an underperforming subcontractor. While this might not be realistic, you can avoid many problems in the first place by setting clear expectations about quality, defining the inspection process, identifying high-risk issues, and providing training when necessary. It’s never too late to commit to first-time quality, and taking a partnering approach with subcontractors can help both of you be more successful. If you’d like to learn more, get in touch. We’re happy to help!

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