In the past 10 years, the lead carpenter system has gained acceptance and dramatically changed the way many contractors work in the field. Most people agree the lead carpenter system, with its one-man crew, significantly increases productivity.

Measuring efficiency

But by just how much? In the 1980s and early 1990s, a carpenter on the job could expect to produce anywhere from $80,000 to $180,000 worth of work annually. At the time, most companies had at least two men on each job, a fact that accounts for those figures. Today the accepted benchmark for a carpenter in the field is $300,000 per man per year. But as a benchmark, that figure may be misleading. While many contractors have achieved or exceeded $300,000 per man annually, there are too many variables to make that figure accurate enough for many remodeling companies. Consider, for instance, the following:

* Labor costs nationwide range from $12 an hour to $25 or $30. Obviously, the overall figure should be adjusted according to wage rate.

* Type and cost of material can inflate the amount spent on a project. (Compare high-end kitchen cabinets, appliances, and tile with those of a basic kitchen.)

* The use of subcontractors for basic tasks such as plumbing, HVAC, electric, drywall, and insulation increases the price tag of a project. Many remodeling companies now subcontract roofing, siding, insulation, painting, and flooring, too.

Streamline the process

The lead carpenter functions as a one-man crew, except when a second or third person is needed, such as for framing. In most cases, the lead carpenter performs the carpentry work and, on projects such as kitchen and bath remodeling, almost everything else except plumbing, electrical, and HVAC. He also manages the process -- that is, communicates with customers and schedules subs and materials deliveries. Most leads aim to spend no more than 10 or 20 minutes a day actually managing.

Looking for a realistic benchmark for your leads? First, consider how well the project's sold and organized. You don't want your lead to spend time and effort dealing with problems that develop because of lack of coordination and setup. You can streamline the process, and get a better handle on just how efficient it is, by doing the following:

* Make sure all customer selection decisions are made prior to the preconstruction conference.

* Inform customers that if they have any thoughts about additional work requiring change orders, these should be expressed before the preconstruction conference.

* Set the job up, with the lead carpenter's help, so that all permits are obtained, subcontractors signed and notified of the probable start date, and materials ordered.

* Hand off responsibility for the job to lead carpenters only after the customer, salesperson, and lead have gone through the preconstruction conference.

Communication is key

So what's the best way to maximize lead carpenter efficiency? Develop systems that minimize the amount of time leads must spend managing so they can handle the actual work. For instance, at the preconstruction conference, have the lead set up a system for daily communication with clients. That system can function via phone, fax, e-mail, or in writing -- whatever's the most convenient way for clients and lead carpenters to exchange information. That will allow the lead carpenter to maintain control, because the customer will need to go through him for changes or to have questions answered. Another solution is to provide lead carpenters with Palm Pilot-type software, enabling them to use technology to order materials, keep track of hours, confirm delivery, and more. --Walt Stoeppelwerth is a publisher of management and estimating information for professional remodelers. (800) 638-8292;;