Passing by River Valley Road a few months ago, I discovered that one of the first few buildings I managed for waterproofing subcontract works in 1995 was gone. Sigh... 那些年 (those years) when Singapore Expo is still at Vivo City and not at Changi / Expo MRT Station (yt, 3 Dec 2011) 的日子. Quoting what my lovely wife said last night, time flies.
The building was special to me because in addition to being the first few projects I managed; it is also the first project that I got the workers to let me try flame-bonding 2 pieces of bituminous membranes together. I was visiting the site during a Sunday and out of curiosity to understand how the work is done, I demanded the workers to let me try. They reluctantly agreed, found an area under the shade of an adjacent taller building, position the membranes and carry the gas cylinder and torch over. The work seems much tougher than what I read on paper and after 30 minutes of trying, I decided to go for my coffee break.
I met our supervisor and foreman at the canteen and follow them back to the roof top to highlight a few mistakes I discovered. When we were up on the roof top, I immediately discovered that the workers had patched the area I worked on earlier with a new piece of membrane, perfectly bonded. My work must be so terrible that the workers worried it will fail the water test and redo it again.
Before I could talk about it, the Supervisor started scolding the Foreman, and then the Foreman turned and scolded the workers. Reducing wastages, a practice I so often preach to maintain profitability of the project. I swear I did apologize for causing that wastage of material, but nobody believed in what I said. I felt bad, really bad for involving the workers and seeing them receiving scolding for the mistake I made.
Ever since that day, I make sure that if I made mistakes, I owned up, apologize and not let others suffer on my behalf. Recently, while helping my colleagues who were dispatched to handle other issues, a mistake occurred and I wrote an email to our working partners, copied to their reporting officer and my colleagues, apologizing for the mistake and thank them for helping out on their side. I believed this time, everybody believes because it was sent using my email account. Haha...
Be it 12 years ago or now, going to the ground occasionally, hands-on and doing the work helps us to be a better planner. If not for that experience 12 years ago, I will never feel the difficulties of what is written on the method statement of "bonding 2 pieces of bituminous membranes together...". Now I am aware that it equates to getting the workers to carry the tools and gas cylinder, climbing 7 storeys on unfinished flight of stairs and working non-stop for at least 4 hours under the hot sun without breaks (which I lasted less than 30 minutes under shades). It had enabled me to have a better understanding when I plan the work schedules and make work arrangements, taking into account the golden period when workers are more alert to start on work which requires more concentration.
While we should get our hands dirty once awhile to experience the work on the ground, we should be mindful that we can never get the true experience of the workers. Examples include the specially chosen shaded work area I had and the magical appearance of the tools and gas cylinder 12 years ago, to the super cooperative reception I experienced now. Due to the nature of our position and work, it will be difficult to duplicate the exact scenario. Nonetheless, it provides us with some experience and understanding, and prepares us to be more receptive to the feedback from the ground.
In the same way, people on the ground should also be cautioned not to expect the frequent appearance and perfect performance of people on the planning board. In order for the team to function, we need different people to focus and work on the different roles. People on the planning board were engaged for their skills in managing and not doing the physical work. I can keep trying and I will never be able to carry a gas cylinder up 7 storeys. But that does not mean I am not good, neither does it meant I don't care about the workers. It is equally important to take note that the time we spent on the ground is also at the expense of our time to be on the planning board, to coordinates and move the team forward.