Back in the late '80s, I had a conversation with my plumbing contractor while we worked side by side buttoning up a remodeling project that was nearing completion. I don't remember how the conversation turned to licensing exams, but the story my plumber told me about his test was unforgettable.

He told me that there was a question on the exam that went something like this: What work-related disease is a plumber most likely to contract in the course of his daily routine? The answer the licensing board was looking for was hepatitis, a serious and potentially deadly viral infection that poses a real hazard to anyone who handles waste piping.

For whatever reason -- maybe he was frustrated at the end of a long week, or maybe it was his impish sense of irony -- my plumber's answer was "insanity."

You laughed, didn't you? Everybody does. I tell this story fairly often to remodelers, and it always gets a laugh -- not just because it's unexpected but because there's a grain of truth in it. Most remodelers who hear this story recognize their own frustration with all of the obstacles their profession throws in their way -- everything from material shortages, price volatility, and scheduling conflicts to uncompromising customers, unreasonable regulations, and bad weather. It's enough to drive anyone crazy.

Same Old, Same Old

It makes us feel better to think that our problems come from outside us, that we are driven to distraction by forces beyond our control. But there's another definition for insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result. By this measure, most remodelers are certifiable.

Need some concrete evidence? Consider the typical remodeler, who doesn't start marketing until he realizes, as his current project nears completion, that there is nothing on the horizon. Blaming the national economy or the local economy or the weather or the competition, he starts calling around to drum up business. Eventually, he lands another job -- despite the economy, the weather, and the competition -- and immediately stops marketing until he realizes as that job is nearing completion that there is nothing on the horizon.

Remodelers are masters of doing the same thing and expecting a different result. How about repeatedly failing to document change orders but always being surprised when the homeowner balks at the extra charges. Or knowing there is no way in heaven to get the job completed by the homeowner's deadline but agreeing to the schedule anyway, then missing the completion date and being outraged that the owner withholds final payment. Or never asking for the customer's budget but complaining about wasting time on an estimate that comes in too high. Or repeatedly failing to pay subcontractors on time, then wondering why none can be found to price the next project.

Familiar Results

I think most people are guilty of this kind of behavior, regardless of their vocation, but remodelers seem to be more vulnerable than most. Maybe it's yet another aspect of the hands-on side of the business that doesn't translate well to the management side. We learn to standardize our construction practices because it's safer and more efficient. We stick with products we've used before because we know how well they work. We call on the same circle of subcontractors because we know what to expect from them.

But the line between consistency and stubbornness is a fine one. Systems and processes are essential to success in the remodeling business, but only when they produce the desired results. Nothing operates on autopilot, and we need to examine what we do and how we do it to see what's working and what's not.

Results won't change by themselves. To act as if they will is just plain crazy.