What a crane operator teaches about the power of communications

Construction cranes dot the skyline of

Construction cranes dot the skyline of Gettyimages.com/Alan Schein

It takes training, trust and clear communications for a crane operator to safely lift and place tons of materials. The risk is high and the lessons for government contractors should be clear.

Communications in its many forms is critical to success in the government market and everywhere in the world.

It plays a role at every level of how contractors operate. Between managers and employees. The C-suite and the company at large. Between contractor and customer. Investors and those they back. The list can go on and on. 

Unfortunately, we may not be paying enough attention to the risk posed by poor communications.

I started thinking about it this weekend when picking up my son from lacrosse practice. A construction crew was working on a parking garage next to the school. I love watching construction sites and large pieces of equipment moving around.

I sat in my car and watch a crane swing a large concrete panel into place. The panel looked to be about 20 feet long, four feet tall and two feet thick. I’m guessing the weight would be measured in tons.

Once in place, the panel would connect two pillars that rise several stories into the air. The pillars have notches that corresponded to the four-foot height of the panel. As I watched, workers placed the panel into the notches. Each notch had two large bolts embedded into them. The bolts matched two holes in each end of the panel.

The workers had to be very precise in maneuvering the panel into place. Adjusting it slightly up or down and side to side so that the bolts fit into the holes and the panel sat snuggly in the notches.

While watching them work, I realized that the crane operator could not see the workers from his cab. The workers stationed at the pillar were talking to him via radio as he made very slight movements to get the panel into place. The operator had to rely on what the workers relayed to him. The workers had to rely on the operator's ability.

If that doesn’t demonstrate the power of communications, I’m not sure what does.

Any mistake by the crane operator could result in crushing the workers or knocking them off their ladders, sending them to the ground a couple stories below. The stakes were very high. Literally life and death.

Trust is necessary to operate in that kind of environment. The crane operator has to trust that the workers will give the right instructions. The workers have to trust that the crane operator will understand what they are saying and that the operator knows how to make the fine adjustments needed.

How does anyone get to that level of trust? The first thing that came to my mind was training for the operator and the workers. A second factor is planning and each person understanding their roles as well as each other’s roles. There must be some way for a crane operator to practice such blind maneuvers.

A person watching the crane operator and the workers is also required. I’m sure there was even more that I could not see from my car. I know there is more going on than just a radio connection between the workers and the crane operator.

The parallels to the world of contracting are clear. A breakdown in communications can have disastrous results. Good communications don’t happen by accident. It takes work and is the only way to build something that lasts.