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The Great Roofing Story

Published: 02nd Mar 2012 in OSA Magazine

Intentions behind following safety rules

What is Project Management? Despite the plethora of information available on the subject and the access to different diplomas/degree courses in Project Management, the cardinal rule is that Project Management is all about getting things done. While a theoretical course is extremely helpful to understand the techniques, the knowledge of project management is mainly derived from experience.

A project is always beset with challenges. Managing a project exposes an individual to a wide array of functional skills that can sharpen his/her knowledge curve. In this article, I would like to share a real life experience about how I went about replacing an asbestos roof with a metallic roof on a decrepit building.

This article is not intended for self-promotion but to show to the readers of this magazine that, if you are passionate about something, you can still achieve your goal despite not having resources and despite lagging behind in subject matter expertise. The learnings from this project from the safety angle are certainly worth sharing with the reader community, as Indians have the reputation of being blithe about safety related matters.

This project has demonstrated that recalcitrant Indian contractors can be motivated to wear Personal Protective Equipment and follow safety procedures by helping them realise the real intention behind following safety rules. When safety is always led from the top, success of a project is a foregone conclusion.

Critical success factors for a project

The ability of a project manager to get things done from a team without being a subject matter expert sans any line authority is well known. The initial project brief was rather simple. In one of the buildings that housed a lab on the first floor and a warehouse on the ground floor, the leaky roof had to be replaced and in the process, the management wanted to embark on a process that would make the site completely asbestos free. This became one of the key performance indicators for driving the safety agenda of that particular location in the year 2007.
In the eyes of the top management, soft skills are considered far more important than hard skills. The reason is not far to seek. A project manager has to deal with a diverse set of people – team members, consultants, vendors, contractors, safety managers, members of the top management team (the gatekeepers who approve the capital budget for a project), finance and accounts. Flexibility in dealing with people without losing track of the project deadline or the resource limitations is really an art that can be developed with practice.

The roof of this building (let us call it ‘Building X’) had been fixed in the year 1963. It was repaired a few times in the next 40 years, but all the repair work on the roof was done as part of maintenance activity. Complaints from the lab about the leaky roof were attended to as routine affairs. In the year 2005, part of the roof blew away when there was a stormy wind amidst heavy rain in Mumbai. Corrective action was taken but this did not solve the problem of leakage.

Finally, an advanced safety audit of the site declared the asbestos roof as unsafe and that it needed immediate replacement.

I was assigned this task in December 2006. I realised that this project was no child’s play. I had absolutely no clue about the chemistry of the roofing material.

The maintenance contractor refused to respond to our calls as he wasn’t so keen to work within the framework of our organisation’s safety policy. He was so splenetic that at one point of time, when our tempers ran high, he challenged us to source a roofing contractor who would carry out the work as per our safety procedures. Our organisation was prompt in releasing payments to contractors and this contractor was no exception. So, it was disappointing that he did not feel like supporting us when we needed him the most. There was no point in running after him if he was used to unsafe working. But, I have always thrived whenever there have been challenges. As they say, every adversity presents an opportunity.

I started relentlessly pursuing contractors, but surprisingly our team met with little success. It was clear that replacing the roof (which was at a height of eight metres from the ground) wasn’t such an exciting proposition after all – despite our organisation’s strong brand equity in the market, the contractors weren’t forthcoming to offer their services. We started doubting whether we could follow the traditional tendering process and bid evaluation to select a roofing contractor.

Out of the blue, I suddenly remembered an architect with whom I had never worked previously, but who spoke to me when he made a cold call for my earlier project. He suggested the names of three roofing contractors and finally we started getting responses. It was a relief because we were able to invite bids from roofing contractors despite our earlier thought that a specialist approach was needed in procurement of the services.

Our team built a contractor-rating matrix for selection of the contractor. The safety manager was asked to play a vital role in the selection. As part of the technical negotiations, we conducted a half day safety workshop for the contractors and once the bids were received and evaluated, the rating matrix was updated to arrive at a weighted rank. Eventually, we zeroed in on a contractor who specialised in the installation of metallic, insulated roofing and cladding systems.

As part of our engagement process with contractors and due diligence required, a three member team visited installations where this contractor had executed roofing projects earlier. Here, I would like to mention two things. A top management team member in our organisation who was the head of safety played a crucial role in deciding the type of material that conformed to our organisation’s standards. This was?important input, as indecision about the suitability of the roofing material was a bottleneck. The second aspect is about man management. The safety manager whom we were working with was disillusioned with the organisation. Expectedly, his responses were characterised by lack of enthusiasm. His manners were typical of those employees who are on the lookout for another job and are therefore mentally switched off from their current tasks.

He refused to cooperate right from the beginning. It was a nightmare!

Luckily, the head of our site (an expat from the UK) was able to spot the indifference of the safety manager at an early stage of the project. As a leader, he advised the individual to take leadership on safety related issues, but the guy was baulking all the time. Maybe he was afraid that someone else would walk away with the credit. The inertia of the safety manager to come forward and make a meaningful contribution to the project was an anathema for us. This prompted our leader to enlist the services of the Safety Director, who acted as a catalyst to expedite matters. Mercifully, there was a perceptible change in the attitude of the safety manager once the director got involved.

It was March 2007. The March heat in Mumbai gave us an indication of the impending summer and the unbearable, sweltering May heat in Mumbai. The order had been placed, the plan was ready and we did not leave any stone unturned when it came to discussing safety aspects of the project with the contractor. A special safety workshop was conducted by the Safety Director, and this infused energy into the project.

The delivery of materials for the project had a lead time of three to four weeks. There was very little that we could do except complete the planning process, release the mobilisation advances to the contractor after receipt of the bank guarantees and train the workers in the safety processes. Luckily, this time gap was a real blessing as we planned everything in minute detail – including the drinking water and first aid requirements for the contract workers who would be working in the hot sun. We managed to engage a prominent supplier of PPE in Mumbai and ordered gloves and full body harnesses. The PPE supplier’s team also imparted special training to the contracted labour force about using the PPE.

When the contractor protested that the cost of PPE was prohibitive, I took a special sanction from my line manager to share half of these expenses with the contractor. Thus, prior to the actual work commencing in April 2007, we spent all the time available at our disposal doing a comprehensive risk assessment exercise, paying attention to every small detail and educating the contractor about safety.

To my chagrin, one fine morning, the roofing contractor’s sales manager lost his cool and fumed at me: “Venkatesh Sir, please do not keep on talking about safety endlessly. We know our job. Nowhere have we faced these sort of safety instructions. We know our job. Don’t blame me if my workers run away from your site.” Though I was dogmatic about not diluting the safety standards, I mollycoddled the sales manager by stressing that he was dealing with a world class organisation and this exercise will reap rich rewards for their brand.

I was amazed at my own tranquility. Frankly, there was no way we could go back on this project. I could not let incandescent rage about the contractor’s obstinacy take over from the purpose of the project and its value for the business. There is no formula for contractor management, is there? Our approach has to be a combination of strictness (about safety and quality of execution) and leniency (with regards to the time).

As part of the tool box meetings with the contract labour, I had already struck a chord with them. I began asking them about their families, their responsibilities as an earning member and finally I broached the topic of safety – something like – giving them a sugar coated pill. Much to my surprise, the labour bonded with me in unimaginable ways. They brainstormed methods and techniques to carry out the work safely and even gave a few suggestions to our safety manager. They were charged up and their attitude was so electric that soon, our team members eschewed their inhibitions. Work began progressing at a brisk pace.

Using the technique of positive visualisation, I told the labourers: “If you successfully complete this project, your company will win other orders from our organisation. Do you want that to happen? If you follow all the safety procedures, you will become an accredited contractor for us.”

I spoke to them twice daily and on some occasions, in the post lunch sessions too. I ensured that the labourers had access to free meals at our canteen and we ensured that they had mineral water to drink. Glucose packets were kept ready in case anyone had sunstroke. The workforce was amazed at the humanitarian treatment meted out to them. In one of my regular safety tool box meetings, they confided in me that they had not received such a wonderful treatment in any of their other projects.
The fear of accidents made us more vigilant. I know that positive fear is an oxymoron. But, all of us, decided to rise to the occasion. The sultry April heat was unbearable and I appealed to the labourers to start work early so that they could rest in the afternoon and then recommence the work when the afternoon heat had dissipated. Believe me, it was a marvel to see the rising safety consciousness of the workforce and the increasing team spirit among them. They wore their PPE religiously and followed every safety instruction. They had listened when we told them about the near misses and obviously wanted to avoid these.
Our motto throughout the project was: ‘Plan the work, work the plan’. Every morning, we took turns to recite a prayer along with the contract labourers. We were regular in taking a safety pledge that “We would return home in the evening safe and sound to our families.” I prayed to Lord Ganesha (the Hindu God who is believed to remove all obstacles) and Lord Hanuman (who gives immense strength and courage to deal with impossible situations) for successful completion of the project.

Regular project updates were sent to all the team members and selected members of the top team. The safety director encouraged us from time to time. His benign posture and kind words acted like a health tonic. My line manager was impressed with the progress despite an occasional grumpiness.

The execution phase

It was a sorry plight to see the workers on the roof amidst the sweltering heat in Mumbai. I was never at my seat as I was constantly walking around with safety shoes and helmets. My team members took turns to monitor the project. We also encouraged other employees to report near misses and we took those reports seriously. To their credit, the workers put their heart and soul into the project.

Metal scaffoldings were in place. The asbestos roof was carefully dismantled, when of course RPE was worn to protect workers from inhaling hazardous asbestos fibres. The team occupying the building had been evacuated a week in advance as a safety precaution. The dismantled roof was placed in a segregated place and we actually paid money to a contractor (approved by Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB)) to dispose of the hazardous asbestos waste. Snaps of the work in progress and updates about the project were regularly sent to a Technology Center in London, UK.

Interestingly, we told the contract workers that safety received precedence over everything else and it did not matter if there was a time overrun of two or three days. “Please do not compromise on safety” was our fervent appeal to the contract workers. Every evening we had a toolbox meeting where we asked the workers to share their experiences of the day. Slowly, I got a feeling that the workers were beginning to appreciate our sincere efforts. It did not take much time for them to realise that in the end they would be the ones who most benefited from complying with the safety procedures.

At every stage, there was a challenge, a stumbling block – not of all these can be shared here in the public domain. To be candid, I went by my instincts at every stage. Releasing the running account bills of the contractor was a key priority. The roofing contractor was pleased to receive his payments within two weeks after submitting his bills.

Finally, the work was completed to the tune of 98% by end of May 2007. We permitted contractors to work on Saturdays and Sundays and our team members (including me) made a point of working in shifts to keep up the morale of the support team as well as the contracted labour. We were keen to complete the roofing project before the onset of monsoons in Mumbai.

After the roof was successfully replaced, the building and the lab were tested to determine the air quality (to check whether the air contained asbestos fibres) and two weeks later, a report confirmed that the building was safe to be occupied. Luckily for us, the monsoons had still not shown signs of their arrival in Mumbai, though it was mid June already.

Celebrations in order

Two weeks after the project was completed, Mumbai experienced a heavy downpour. There was no leakage. We felt exhilarated. A celebratory lunch for the entire team at a luxury hotel was organised. The same evening, the roofing contractor called me to profusely thank me for the project and told me that he had, through his team, learned the value of working safely.

The moment of ecstasy came three months later (Sept 2007) when I was informed that at a high level BU (business unit) meeting held in Dubai, the roofing project was discussed and the top team had conveyed their appreciation for the way in which the roofing project was executed safely.

My perseverance, sourcing skills and people management skills got a real fillip during the execution of this project. The good memories associated with this project refuse to fade away despite the fact that five years have whizzed past. 

Published: 02nd Mar 2012 in OSA Magazine


G Venkatesh

G Venkatesh lives in Bangalore, India. He graduated in Oil Technology from University Department of Technology (UDCT), Mumbai. He completed his masters in business administration from Southern New Hampshire College, Boston. He holds a diploma in insurance and risk management and a supply chain management diploma from APICS. He has also been a guest faculty member at management colleges, teaching the subjects of HR, Project and Technology Management, Supply Chain Management, Risk Management and Insurance. He currently works for a private firm that operates in the infrastructure protection space. A versatile writer, Venkatesh’s oeuvre is vast, covering book reviews, blogs, spiritual articles on Hindu mythology, music reviews and articles on safety, quality, project management, insurance, fire safety, cookery and human resource management. He has written fiction, too, including short stories for children. Venkatesh believes that a passionate effort contributes in no small measure to a great output. With more than 19 years of experience in industry (most of which was in the oil and energy sector), Venkatesh feels that his best is yet to come.

G Venkatesh




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