Last winter, when torrential rains descended after the second biggest blizzard in Washington, D.C.-area history, it caught Merrill Contracting off-guard. The Arlington, Va., remodeling company was working on a large addition that included a new basement.
As fate would have it, the crew had already cut through the wall to the existing basement and had not yet installed a sump pump. When water seeped into the family room, ruining the carpet, the owner was forgiving. "Don't worry," he said. "I was going to replace the carpet anyway." Nevertheless, lead carpenter Greg Rizzardi rounded up some of the crew, who spent several hours moving furniture and pulling up the wet carpet. "My lead carpenters just know it makes sense to do this kind of thing without asking me whether it's in the budget," Merrill says.
The leads on Merrill's jobs routinely make those types of unilateral decisions. But they're far from being left out on their own. Behind every able lead carpenter is a manager who supports them. The vagaries of remodeling conditions make the outcome of every job hard to predict. But managers who pursue perfection in a methodical way -- by continually analyzing, improving, controlling, and communicating about the way things are done -- are the ones who consistently meet their goals, despite the snafus.
"Managers often tend to focus just on people in their organizations," writes Greg Brue in Six Sigma for Managers (McGraw-Hill, 2002). "When something goes right or something goes wrong, they look for a person to congratulate or to blame. The fact is that work gets done through processes executed by people; both successes and problems are usually the result of what lots of people do, not just one person. If you don't pay attention to both people and processes, improvement will not happen."
Consistent on-the-job success happens when managers rely on factual data, critical processes, and a disciplined problem-solving approach. All successful remodelers develop certain control mechanisms for each job phase. For example, the quality of the sales proposal, with all of its numbers and details, inevitably filters down to a project's execution. At Baywood Design/Build Group, Columbia, Md., one sacred practice is to make doubly sure existing conditions are accurate by verifying the measurements after as-builts are drawn.
Another checkpoint ensures that the client's design program is being satisfied. Typically, an owner is presented with 15 to 20 pages of drawings, including detailed internal sections and computer-rendered perspectives. "We literally go over everything and highlight it with a marking pen -- 'Do you understand what's happening here?'" says owner Brett Schoolnick. "The goal is to have the clients understand 100% of what you're giving them."
The highlighter is put to paper again when Schoolnick gives drawings of the proposed project to his estimator, who yellow-lines the drawings so Schoolnick knows the estimator hasn't missed anything. "He has to come back to me two or three days later with a sheet of issues related to the plumbing, structure, waterproofing, and allowances, and we go back and review it," Schoolnick says.
Before construction, the company mitigates remodeling nightmares by requiring that the plumber, mason, and HVAC subs review design schematics on site, tracing air ducts and plumbing lines. Schoolnick also controls for defects by reviewing the "bones" of every project with an engineer before the walls are closed in.
At Jonathan McGrath Construction, Longwood, Fla., the production crew follows another drill: Don't start something you can't finish. That means, says owner Jack McGrath, that a crew member is not allowed to start a job if a portion of his materials or labor are missing. "We have the project supervisor verify materials prior to starting," McGrath says. "When we do go to Plan B, all of our crew and a lot of our suppliers have Nextel phones. Our laborer will get what's needed to get the guys going."
Analyze and improve
Such control mechanisms are designed to narrow the margins for error and waste. But it's not enough to simply follow the rules. Savvy managers also continually analyze and improve their ways of doing things.
As a 45-year-old, family-owned company, Hubert Whitlock Builders, Charlotte, N.C., has had to pay constant attention to its practices and systems to assure a smooth transfer from one generation to the next. Although for the past 10 years, company president Scott Whitlock has been participating in a remodeling peer group, last year the other three key managers joined in.
"It increases my level of security that we're not just wild-catting out there but can see how we compare to other companies in the same industry," says marketing vice president Steven Whitlock. Formerly task-oriented and averse to meetings, the managers are now coming together regularly to tweak internal processes. One issue they're working on is presenting a more accurate and detailed bill to the client. "When we work through the process together, it increases accountability among ourselves," Steven Whitlock says. Thinking ahead, Scott Whitlock is also transferring his system of sales to his vice president of production, who has been targeted for a career redirection. "We're helping Scott push down to his organization more of the things he's internalized," Steven Whitlock says.
McGrath Construction also stepped toward the future recently when it subscribed to Selection Master, a computer program that raised the bar on both spec tracking and customer satisfaction. The Web-based program lets contractors enter all the selections for a project. Using a password, clients, subs, and suppliers can view up-to-the-minute choices on products and materials. "Subs can go there and see whether the client has chosen a water closet yet," McGrath says. "The information gets me out of the loop." And at the end of the job, the client gets a CD that documents change orders, plus specs such as the paint color used in the bedroom.
Having the right systems in place is critical to getting consistent results. But remodeling also requires a good deal of on-your-feet ingenuity. When it comes to employees, Merrill says that beyond construction knowledge, he looks for the ability to communicate and roll with the punches. "I think it takes a smart, mature person who knows how to communicate," he says. "If we make a mistake, we tell the client, 'We can do this or this.' That's a big part of why there's a lot of demand for our services."
Capt. Terry "Moose" Millard, a management consultant and Southwest Airlines pilot, calls that can-do attitude "finding a new reality." Because our brains are hard-wired to let in eight times as much negative information as positive information, he says, the fear of catastrophe tends to paralyze us.
"We have to discipline ourselves to change that ratio and look for other alternatives," he says. "When something totally unexpected happens, the first thing to do is dispute the catastrophic scenario that they'll be livid, and figure out how to make it win-win."
At Whitlock Builders, biweekly meetings encourage that kind of creativity while also cross-training employees and keeping projects on track. "What we really are is problem solvers, which means we want to have as big a bag of tricks as possible," Steven Whitlock says. In the meetings, the field superintendents devise solutions with each other. "The ones managing complex jobs could chart the growth of their capacity to confront problems and deal with Plan B," Whitlock says. "What do you do when a sub doesn't show up, or there are disputes over specs or pricing changes? Usually there isn't a problem no one else has had before."
And once they've fixed something, it goes into a database of "lessons learned" so that knowledge transfer happens continually, regardless of the job at hand.
Indeed, because all projects are not created equal, success ultimately may depend on a manager's ability to encourage collaboration and responsibility while directing change. Says Whitlock: "We have created a culture of improvement. We're here to help each other succeed, no matter who it is." --Cheryl Weber is a writer in Severna Park, Md. She is a former senior editor of REMODELING and a regular contributor to RESIDENTIAL ARCHITECT.
"Moose" Millard's Principles for Managing for Results
* Hire for attitude and train for skills. Give employees a stake in the outcome of a project, so that they have the same desire for excellence and service that you do.
* Make your employees feel valued by listening to them and soliciting their ideas. Show that you care about their development and reputation, not just their income. The same is true of subcontractors. Their goals aren't always aligned with those of remodelers, but the same management principles can apply.
* Take your work -- but not yourself -- seriously. Maintaining a sense of humor during high-stress situations and showing it to your customer is part of the relationship-building process.
* Exercise freedom of speech. "Communicate like crazy" about what's happening, what's not, what is required of clients financially at a given point, and what challenges you're facing.
* Confront the issue you don't want to talk about, whether it's money, expectations, or scheduling. The more quickly you spread the good and bad news, the less conflict you'll have.
* Treat others the way you think they want to be treated. And remember that your attitude toward employees inevitably gets transferred to your client.
* Live with realistic optimism. Find an alternative to the worst-case scenario rather than being paralyzed by it. Make the situation win-win. Optimism is about finding a piece of the action you can do something about and then doing it.