Laid out on the table under the intense rays of the fluorescent lights, the victim was a $100,000 addition that had exceeded your estimate by 10% and missed your scheduled finish date by six weeks. Precisely what went wrong was unclear, but the evidence suggested a multitude of culprits.
In terms of labor, in-house hours were nearly a third more than you expected. The demolition subcontractor went $900 over budget, and roof work was off by $4,000, thanks mostly to the rotten rafters that needed replacing unexpectedly.
Among administrative glitches, permits and inspections exceeded their estimate by $350, including fees for the expeditor you had to hire when the city lost your application.
In terms of products, three windows were incorrectly installed. The bathroom sink was bigger than its base. These and other glitches set the schedule back several weeks while replacements were on order. On the plus side, trim was $200 under budget.
Less measurably, there were the clients. They were edgy with your crew and gave your company a “C” on Angie's List. Their biggest specific complaint? They felt they were always the last to know of changes to their schedule or costs.
BODY OF EVIDENCE OK, so it's not CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, the hit TV show populated by glamorous forensic scientists and bizarre plot twists. But what a successful remodeling “autopsy” lacks in fingerprints, fetishes, and dismembered body parts, it more than makes up for in realistic scenarios, positive outcomes, and practical, constructive, democratically arrived-at strategies for doing a better job next time. Consider the scenario above, which was cobbled together using actual job autopsies (variously called close-outs, postmortems, and debriefings) performed by remodelers interviewed for this and other articles. Had it been your debriefing, it might trigger the following changes to your systems and procedures:
Expensive demo: When it's fairly minor, consider delegating it to a versatile staff carpenter instead of a subcontractor.
Delayed permits: File applications as early as possible, and put weekly reminders in your calendar to call the permit office for a status check.
In-house labor overages: Institute a line-by-line analysis of weekly work-in-progress reports. If overages persist, increase your labor markup, or add more hours to your estimates.
Roofing overage: Hold a “trade day” for subcontractors to evaluate the job and provide fixed-price proposals. Make oversights and inaccuracies their problem, not yours.
Window problems: Stop using that window installer.
Sink problem: Triple-check product specs before placing orders.
Trim under budget: Continue to seek ways to use materials left over from other projects.
Client disgruntlement: Discuss communication at your pre-construction meeting, and meet or talk with clients at an appointed time each week. You'll be able to take their pulse as their project unfolds — and take corrective measures that prevent minor grievances from festering and becoming serious sources of resentment. (See “Pulse Points,” right.)
More than anything, post-project debriefings underscore the importance of pre-project planning. Give everyone the time and information they need to develop accurate estimates, and always set the clients' expectations realistically.