Is Your Company Battle Ready?

 OP CIVILBy Conrad Nowak

Few institutions have been forced to implement procedures, doctrine, strategy and discipline like the military. From concept to execution, every plan and decision is tested under the most adverse conditions in an ever-changing environment.

Many lessons learned in the U.S. Army can apply to the construction industry. When working with clients, I often find that use some of the following strategies to their fullest extent can be an eye-opening experience for evaluating risk, procedures, sales/business ventures and project management.

Doing Reconnaissance

Reconnaissance, or “recon,” is a continuous process by which designated individuals set out to gather facts. For the construction business, this applies when a general or subcontractor wants to enter a particular market or bid on a job — or when a manufacturer embarks on designing and producing a product.

In those instances, there will be an opposition force. Conducting a cursory review of the potential “target” — whether it’s a bid or product — can mean the difference between success or disaster. For a general contractor, a team reviewing the initial specifications/bid documents, or perhaps sending a sales/project manager to a project site to spot potential issues, could be a good idea. As business owners, the driving consideration is often getting the deal done; however, continued recon during an operation is paramount. An obvious example would be on-going supervision of a project. It is easy to simply move through the steps with an eye on completion. While this is critical, and timing is important in our industry, keeping an eye behind you — “watching your 6” in military-speak — is important. Many construction defect cases illustrate this. If there is an issue, it should be noted, documented, and corrected. If not corrected, documenting one’s concern can prevent liability later.

Handling Litigation

For all practical purposes, by the time I’m involved, the “battlefield” is set. This means many of the items in litigation are literally “frozen in place” — leaving the task of dealing with bad evidence, difficult witnesses or worse a failure of a company’s obligation to the client.

In construction, your most powerful weapon is within your contracts, which outline your obligations, the obligations of subcontractors and change orders, among other factors. Contracts that were not properly executed, included incorrect terms, or didn’t properly document changes can cause litigation. Contrary terms in different areas can cause litigation or make it drag out unnecessarily.

Each company needs a litigation plan prepared at the direction of the general counsel or outside counsel. The time to figure out how to proceed with a catastrophic injury is not as it occurs. Evidence may need to be harnessed, witnesses interviewed and key documents retained — and all should be done in a thoughtful, not reactive, atmosphere.

Effective Training

When a military unit is not in battle, it is training for one. Effective training must mimic the real situation to measure responses, effectiveness, strategies and, most importantly, failure points. Our industry relies on the various trades to provide appropriate training, but additional and regular training is recommended.

Depending on your company’s specific area of focus, providers designed to certify construction employees are available. Basic training isn’t enough – a company must continue reviewing its processes, responses, and place its employees in a continuous cycle to ensure that industry standards are not only complied and complied with confidently.

I cannot tell you how many times in depositions I have heard construction personnel testify about training; it always ends with the plaintiff’s lawyer asking a question like this: “So, other than the training you received for a few days after you were hired, your company had no programs to ensure you developed and maintained necessary skills?”

How would you prefer your employee answered that question?

After Action Review

One of the most valuable tools used by the military is the After Action Review (AAR), which ensures post-training/incident review is done systematically.

AARs generally ask four basic questions: (1) what were the intended results, or what was planned; (2) what were the actual results, or what really happened; (3) what caused the results, or why did they happen; and (4) what will we sustain or improve on, or, what can we do better. While businesses operate similarly, few embrace the 360-degree method of a military AAR.

Ideally, in a military AAR, all individuals involved discuss the four points above, and every soldier is encouraged to actively participate, regardless of rank, experience or role. There are numerous training scenarios in the construction industry where such an approach could enhance performance and customer satisfaction. The most important would be to conduct an AAR-type meeting after a project. Too often, our industry focuses on getting to the next job.

Tap Your Vets

Many in the construction industry likely employ veterans. While you may have come to know them for their “traditional” military characteristics — discipline, punctuality, work ethic — note that many of them may have a strong familiarity with the above topics. Many of these vets can add tremendous insight into improving your company in ways that might surprise you.

For those that do not have the pleasure of working with veterans, I encourage you to seek them out in hiring. They have given a lot for their country, and they can give a lot back to your company as well.

Conrad Nowak, a U.S. Army veteran, is a trial attorney specializing in construction services at Hinshaw & Culbertson’s Chicago office. 

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