Imagine that you’re a manager on a busy construction project. You resume for the day, and the foreman walks up to you and drops a pile of documents for you to sign off. Do you check each page carefully or flip through and sign as quickly as possible so that you can move on to other pressing matters?
When you do any of the following:
- approve a document without actually knowing or reviewing what you are approving
- report a job as completed without performing the work
- sign off on any type of report (e.g., safety report, job completion report, etc.) without verifying that the said activity was completed as required
- approve any official documents without confirming the availability and validity of supporting data or evidence
...you engage in the practice of pencil whipping. Below, we’ll look at pencil whipping in the construction industry, its dangers, and how to minimize it.
How pencil whipping happens in construction
Below are some typical scenarios where construction industry staff may engage in pencil whipping.
Construction asset maintenance
Acquiring complex and often expensive assets is a norm in the construction industry but keeping those assets in optimal running condition requires a strategic approach to construction asset management. Among other things, construction asset management entails regular inspections and routine activities like oil changes, cleaning, etc.
In the context of pencil whipping, let’s see how that impacts equipment inspections. On busy construction sites where the equipment, vehicles, and other machinery have been functional for a while without displaying any problems, the workers assigned to inspect those assets may take things for granted, rush over inspections, or even skip inspections entirely based on the assumption that all is well, so there’s no need to bother checking that machine thoroughly every day.
In such situations, technicians might hurriedly tick off the inspection checklists and reports and pass it on to the construction manager or supervisor, who in turn goes head to approve without verification. Pencil whipping just happened, and one of the major dangers here is that if this act continues unchecked, asset problems will go unchecked.
OSHA reports that up to 20% of work fatalities in 2019 were in the construction industry alone. Based on this and other often dismal safety records in this industry, proactive safety management remains a major concern on every construction site.
Identifying construction site hazards, and putting measures in place to control and minimize the related risks is a critical requirement on every site. One way to achieve this is via frequent safety checks and site inspections. These safety checks focus on different things on site like the condition of equipment, how staff observe safety procedures on the job, how they use protective gear, and so on.
Yet, complacency can set in, mostly when the site has operated for some time without recording any safety issues. In such cases, safety checks are overlooked, or even when checks happen, they are not thoroughly executed, and the supporting documentation is pencil whipped.
Another area where pencil whipping might happen is where training certifications are issued without staff completing the training. The general assumption is that the workers in question already know the job and that they have years of experience anyway, so why bother going through the whole length of the training.
Receiving supplies like cement, granite, metal, spare parts, etc., are a daily occurrence on some sites. These materials may even arrive multiple times on the same day. Keeping track of all this and checking the accuracy of inventory every single time can be tedious. To get it over with, staff might receive and sign of on the delivery without checking if it actually matches the order.
The dangers of pencil whipping in construction
Pencil whipping can cause serious operational problems and should not be a common practice. Here are some common dangers of pencil whipping on construction sites.
A culture of falsehood
When staff pencil whip and keep getting away with it, there is a tendency for others to copy them. Besides, it’s possible that older staff will teach new entrants how to pencil whip and ‘get the job done faster.’ Eventually, it encourages an ingrained culture of falsehood and negligence that becomes difficult to correct.
Risk of legal action
If a piece of equipment on site has not been inspected as required and it malfunctions and hurts someone, if an investigation shows that the maintenance records for that asset were pencil whipped, that’s evidence of falsifying records - an illegal act, and the possibility of legal action being taken against the construction company is high.
Preventing pencil whipping
Yes, pencil whipping happens, but its effects should not be downplayed. Instead, take the following steps to help tackle it through all levels of your construction operations:
Encourage a better work culture
Start by creating a work environment that discourages pencil whipping by:
- Deploying digitized recording and reporting via construction project management solutions and apps. They simplify the process, and workers will find it harder and unnecessary to falsify records.
- Provide enough time frame for completing tasks. Rushed activities and high production quotas tend to encourage pencil whipping.
- Try varying the composition of records and checklists at intervals so that staff will need to thoroughly check the wording before signing off.
Discuss issues with the staff. Aim to understand the challenges they may be facing that encourage pencil whipping. Some areas to consider are:
- Are their checklists and reports repetitive, confusing, wordy, or complicated?
- Are they juggling too many tasks?
- Is there reasonably enough time to complete their tasks?
Conduct random inspections
Consider performing random checks on equipment and all areas of the site. Or you may choose to assign someone else or rotate staff to inspect particular assets. This helps to cross-check what’s going on and to verify that agreed procedures are observed.
The typical construction site has so many activities running simultaneously. It can be tricky to keep an eye on everything all of the time. By growing a culture that discourages pencil whipping, you will have one less thing to worry about
Bryan Christiansen is the founder and CEO of Limble CMMS. Limble is a modern, easy to use mobile CMMS software that takes the stress and chaos out of maintenance by helping managers organize, automate, and streamline their maintenance operations.