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15yearsagoBy David Tisherman

‘It’s a fact of life,’ declared David Tisherman in opening his Details column 15 years ago this month:  ‘The best design feature in the world isn’t worth anything if it isn’t executed properly.  And no matter how good your in-house staff or subcontractors are, they need guidance when it comes to the nuts-and-bolts work of getting the job done the way its designer intends.’  

‘[W]hen you have good, tight supervision provided by a knowledgeable overseer working with good crews and a good set of plans, anything is possible.  Without those fundamental elements, failure is, to some degree, almost certain.  Supervision is all encompassing:  It’s the difference between building quality and building junk.’  He continued:


‘Whether you’re talking about high-rise buildings or swimming pools, weekly or even daily meetings are required to make certain something that was designed by one person and is being built by another is going to be consistent with the initial design.’


‘In terms of what actually happens on site, there are two key requirements for proper supervision:  You have to plan for the time it takes and devote someone to the task; and you have to have someone with the know-how to do it.  And by know-how, I don’t mean anything superficial:  The supervisor needs to know construction processes inside out, how each step influences the next and how every phase of the operation needs to come together.’


‘The first point in the process where physical supervision becomes crucial is before the tractors arrive.  In my own business, the process actually starts at least a week before excavation in a meeting that includes everyone involved in the project:  The landscaping contractor or designer, the irrigation contractor, the arborist, the geologist, the homeowner and anyone else who is involved in the project each should provide input.  This helps prevent problems right from the start.’  


‘[I]t’s common sense.  If a tractor comes out and hits an irrigation line, no big deal, it can be fixed – but at what cost in terms of dollars and customer satisfaction?  With proper supervision, the excavator doesn’t hit the irrigation line, so the homeowner doesn’t stand there watching a geyser.’  


‘A good supervisor thinks all of these things through and directs the action before any damage can be done.  During construction, he or she cannot focus on the things that are going right:  The objective is to look for mistakes, inadequacies – things that aren’t right.  For this person, the satisfaction comes with the end result, not with the little victories along the way.’


‘From start to finish, what all of this boils down to is communication – which generally means you need to work with people you trust.  . . .  I work with the best, but even my subcontractors aren’t geologists or structural engineers or architects or designers:  They’re craftspeople, and they need to be guided.  When you let them make critical decisions of craft or construction, then you’ve lost control.’  


‘[W]ith proper, competent supervision, each phase of the process can unwind and flow smoothly, with no need for adjustment, alteration or reconstruction.  And if things do crop up along the way, it helps everyone’s morale and the bottom line if it’s an isolated thing that doesn’t give anyone a sense that the process is spiraling out of control.’


‘No two homes are identical, no two lots are exactly the same, every customer is different, the ground is different, the trees are different, the materials will probably be different, you may be working with different subcontractors and your luck will be different.  Fact is, you must treat each project as an original – and supervise accordingly.’

‘Call it quality control, attention to detail or perfectionism, there’s no substitute for supervision.  It has to be there,’ David concluded, ‘every time, all the time.’

How do you manage this crucial function in your own business?  Do you agree with David when it comes to his belief that direct, highly informed supervision is the key to a project’s success?  Or do you prefer a bottom-up approach in which accountability is on everyone’s mind at all times?  Please share your experiences by commenting below!


David Tisherman is the principal in two design/construction firms: David Tisherman’s Visuals of Manhattan Beach, Calif., and Liquid Design of Cherry Hill, N.J. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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