Ask any contractor if he has “transfer of information” issues, and he'll respond with a resounding “youbetcha.” Efficiently moving contract details, plans and specs, and all pertinent data from sales, design, and estimating to production poses Herculean challenges. “I work with an estimator to develop numbers and specs, but I can't keep up with all the information needed for production to start the job,” laments a New York remodeler, who does about $3 million a year in a busy design/build business and admits to constantly struggling with hand-offs. “It seems I'm still pushing out last-minute drawings, product selections, permits, signed contracts. ... This upsets my lead carpenters because they'd like two weeks to review the job. How can I avoid this problem?”
The processes of the following five remodelers offer answers. They all swear that if their salesperson or estimator were hit by a bus or quit, the field would still know how to build the job. Whether it's called a “Bible,” Job Book, Production File, Site Book, or doesn't even have a specific name, it's the bottom line when it comes to building up. Who develops the package varies, as does the amount of information provided and the degree to which it can be changed.
There's no perfect solution, as each company's management, design process, and paperwork flow differs. But some facts about job packaging emerge:
- “Transfer of information” issues are more likely to occur if sales is involved in production, because salespeople often retain details in their heads.
- There's no such thing as too much information.
- A standard package turnaround time is measured in weeks, not days, and job size and client indecision can extend that.
- It helps production not to rush package development, otherwise they'll end up like our New York contractor mentioned above.
Examine these five systems for passing the baton, and see how they complement yours.
The “Bible” Steve Scheipeter, owner, S.W. Scheipeter Construction, St. Louis
Although he has been in business only three years, Steve Scheipeter has learned solid job packaging from his Remodeler 20 group and from a consultant helping develop systems at his $2.5 million firm. Although he occasionally does million-dollar projects, Scheipeter and his construction manager typically develop packages for $120,000 jobs. His project manager oversees three lead carpenters, called foremen at his company. Design is subcontracted.
Scheipeter begins building the package during preliminary budgeting, before the design/build agreement. Once the project is through design, he uses a template to customize a specifications/materials selections sheet. “It's a lot of little stuff that we try to compile,” says Scheipeter. “It's not really complete until we're through estimating, and by the time we get to the construction contract, this is the bible for us. Really, it would override drawings most of the time.”
The bible is a binder that includes room finishes; number/name of rooms; specs for ceiling, walls, trim, and windows; what's painted/stained; a colors list; and a list of plumbing fixtures. Also included are lighting layouts, permits, a description of the job scope, daily cleanup requirements, pre-drywall inspection checklist, copies of plumbing fixture and appliance specs, and subcontractor contracts with their scope of work.
“This is so complete that after our pre-construction walk-through, I can start to pull away,” Scheipeter says. Regular meetings with production staff iron out any issues overlooked in the package, and the project manager has the same book that foremen have.
Even with all that thought and organization, Scheipeter says he's still experiencing growing pains with sales packaging. “The biggest thing is rushing to start before we're ready,” he says. “But we've learned to slow down. I've lost so much money by not having a clear scope.”
The usual time needed to complete a package, from construction contract signing to production, is three weeks. During that time, Scheipeter also schedules a walk-through. The homeowner learns when the project will start, who the foreman is, the logistics of cleanup and parking, and Dumpster and toilet locations. Foremen have about a week to review the package.
Scheipeter says selections are an ongoing Achilles' heel but are included in the design phase because his overhead covers interior design services. If selections still remain to be made, he writes allowances into the contract and notes those allowances in red on the job specification and materials selection sheets.
He says foremen typically call only when there's a complicated framing issue or a load issue requiring an engineer. A recent snafu brought him out to the field when carpenters applied maple veneer from a kitchen through into a bathroom. “It wasn't written on the sheets anywhere that it was supposed to be in cherry, and they kept going in maple,” he says. It cost him at least 12 carpenter hours and some veneer.
“We're not anywhere near perfect,” he says of his package system.
He insists he's never in danger of including too much information. However, he feels it's dangerous to “overschedule” foremen, dictating deadlines for specific tasks. “If a foreman has good control, and he's thinking ahead, I need for him to have some flexibility,” Scheipeter says. This way, foremen feel like they have the ability, and owner's trust, to complete the job as they see fit.
The Job Book Craig Smyth, owner, Clemleddy Construction, Lake Wallenpaupack, Pa.
In business since 1986, Craig Smyth works with an estimator/salesman who has become his right hand in a company with 24 employees remodeling $4 million in work each year. Last year, Clemleddy Construction completed 18 projects in its second-home vacation community, with two production managers and four lead carpenters.
“All of our package information comes from the scope of work,” Smyth says, “developed by the salesperson out of a template. That's given to production, along with specialty selection sheets.”
The template, called the Estimate Checklist, runs 23 pages and includes about 400 “task descriptions” in 25 categories, such as general conditions, site work, and finished carpentry. Nine of those pages are product selection sheets and include descriptions, number, color, type, and notes for selections.
The salesperson stays involved with the job and works with the client on selections and change orders. That information is passed to production through change order worksheets. “There's a lot of communication,” Smyth says. “The salesman and production team are all in the same boiler room office. It's not like sales are separate from production. I demand that we communicate.”
Smyth says the package doesn't have to be complicated. He prepares a “job book” that organizes everything that passes between sales and production. The book rests above each production manager's desk. Nothing is kept on site. “Putting even a set of plans on the job, they disappear,” Smyth says.
What slows his process (from design to production, three months to two years can pass) is that many of his clients are out-of-towners. He overnights product or stain samples to clients or schedules visits with their hometown suppliers to select materials. He sends videos to show what's completed and what's held up due to client failure to make a selection. “It slows the process and blows schedules to hell,” he says.
If field questions arise from lack of information, carpenters go to a production manager, both of whom are on jobs each day.
If there's still no clear answer, the production managers contact sales. But first they look at the plans, then at the scope, then at the change order worksheets. “If it's not there, someone dropped the ball,” Smyth says. “Then it can only be in somebody's head. That's a dangerous area.”
But Smyth says business isn't as simple as “use these five forms and you'll have it all.” “Personalities are very important,” he says. “My people are self-motivated and good communicators. It's never 100% complete, but if you have 90%, it's a good start.”
Process, Not Package Scott Watson, owner, Taylor Watson Construction, St. Louis
It's really a process, not a package,” says Scott Watson of his sales-to-production system. “We don't estimate a job and throw it to production and have them try to put it together and land on their feet as best as possible.”
Watson logs $2.5 million in volume (jobs fit in the $50,000-to-$100,000 range) with 25 employees. He rarely visits jobsites. He sells, working with an outside architect, hired by the homeowner, and one of three sales estimators to develop plans and budgets. The preliminary budget leads to selections and working with subcontractors and suppliers. After the customer approves the prelim, Watson develops specs and documentation for his production manager and lead carpenters.
Prior to preconstruction meetings, jobs are scheduled and lead carpenters selected. Everyone meets to review the job, and the lead is given several weeks to digest the package. At the preconstruction meeting, the lead gets one set of documents, the homeowner another, and one is kept in the office.
Watson says he and his estimator try to write idiot-proof specs. Problems only arise if the estimator overlooks something or the sub doesn't cover the scope of his work.
Watson knows of too many contractors who rush to production. “We just don't go there,” he says. The job and documentation must be set up properly. “The customer may want to start sooner, but I say, too bad, we can't do it. I tell them we need to go through this to have a successful project.”