Too many sub-contractors

We’ve just had solar PV panels installed. It’s all fine and we’re now generating our own electricity so I don’t worry about leaving the lights on any more but the process has been slightly, I don’t want to overstate it, stressed.

The problem has been that I’ve got a contract with the PV solar company. I signed up to a deal set up by the County Council and of course it used the advantage of bulk buying to negotiate a good price. The PV solar company for its part then exercised its muscle and squeezed its contractors so that the deal would be profitable for it. All fine. Grown up companies should know what they are doing.

This structure of customer, supplier and subcontractors works well as long as the supplier retains control and communicates effectively in both directions. It suffers when this doesn’t happen.

In our case there were only two sub-contractors viz the scaffolders and the installers and whereas I should only have been communicating directly with the supplier this was not the case so that when the scaffolder told me it was coming ‘tomorrow’ it was the first I knew about it. And when the installers turned up two hours late on day 2 because they’d been diverted to a ‘small job’ elsewhere nobody told me.

The scaffolder told me that it tries to run its jobs in a ‘geographically sensible’ way to keep its costs down. Fair enough but the supplier should be working with them to make that possible. And the installer told me it just gets told what to do, sometimes at short notice, and so changes to what’s previously been promised are necessary. I get that too and if the supplier would keep me in the loop I wouldn’t sit around fretting because the installer had not shown when expected.

The supplier has an admin team and I’m surprised that it doesn’t include people 100% focussed on the customer just making sure that everything goes right from survey through receipt of order to successful commissioning and final payment. That’s the person who would keep me informed and ensure that my expectations were met.

It’s a situation that was replicated when we had a new bathroom installed. Our supplier was also the plumber but he sub-contracted a tiler, an electrician and a painter & decorator. However they were all local and communications were much easier.

More importantly though I’ve seen it on a bigger stage and a colleague who’s in the business talks about six levels of sub-contractors for major public works. That means six layers from the supplier who’s overall in charge and the craftsman who does the job. There’s plenty of scope there for miscommunication and ‘strategic incongruence’.

Strategic incongruence occurs when two organisations work together but don’t share the same, or similar, strategic objectives. I’m not sure that this was really a big issue with my PV solar but when Highways England was building the new A14 I can accept that it’s top management, whom I talked to, was being sincere in its publicly espoused principles of nighttime noise minimisation etc. Trouble is that 6 layers down the sub-contractors chain the only focus was on getting the job done at minimum cost.

Most recently I’ve been involved in to some extent over-seeing the building of a new school and we’ve got the same issue. Fortunately in this case we’ve got the supplier on site and its manager is a model of good communication. Trouble is the customer is nowhere to be see; that’s the Department for Education and too often it behaves like an absentee landlord. In this case its become the job of the end-user who manage the project which isn’t the way it should be. Customers in the end are responsible for manging the relationship with the supplier.

Back to my roof however and I’ve now got my solar panels up and running and, with a battery in the loft, I can theoretically become 100% independent on purchased electricity. Not only am I contributing to saving the planet but I’m also saving money which has got to be a good thing. And thanks hugely to the scaffolders and installers (pictured above) who, despite my grumbles, delivered admirably.

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