“Margins in this industry get tighter and tighter,” says Jerome Quinn, CEO of Atlanta remodeling company Sawhorse Inc. “The only way to offer more value and stay competitive is to change practices. If you're not willing to change, you're not going to survive.” Indeed, Quinn's company could be the poster child for how a commitment to change and growth can keep a remodeling business healthy and profitable. The company's most recent change — a complex, enterprise-level scheduling system — was adopted with that approach in mind, and the move has made Sawhorse more efficient and poised for growth. And implementing the system has improved more than just the schedule.

Sawhorse is one of Atlanta's biggest remodelers, with 25 employees and a projected $6 million revenue from the 60 to 75 jobs it will complete this year. Its work includes renovation and restoration of some of the region's finest older homes.

The company recently abandoned its hierarchical organizational scheme in favor of three self-managed project teams. Each team includes project coordinators (PCs, the salespeople who work directly with clients), project managers (PMs, who manage the actual construction and are responsible for completing the job on time and within budget), and people from architecture, interior design, and carpentry. Quinn likens the structure to having “multiple small companies within the company,” and he says it's made the task of managing complex jobs easier.

The only problem initially was that the project teams found it difficult to coordinate their schedules with one another. For instance, PMs often found themselves scheduling the same electrician for the same day. And if weather delayed one job, the other teams' jobs had to adjust. If the company was to keep its jobs on track — not to mention keeping employees, subs, suppliers, and customers up-to-date — something had to give.

That something was a shared schedule for the entire company. Last year, Sawhorse began using Microsoft Office Enterprise Project Management Solution (EPM) to coordinate schedules between project teams. Although EPM is a complex program that takes time to master, Quinn says it was worth the investment, and that the rewards have gone beyond scheduling. The new system, for example, has helped his crews finish more projects ahead of schedule and with fewer punch-list items — something Sawhorse already prided itself on. And there's been an unexpected side benefit: Implementing the software led Sawhorse's staff to examine and fine-tune many of the company's business practices. As a result, not only did scheduling get easier, but the whole company became more efficient.

Getting With the Program EPM is complex enough that Quinn had to hire an IT consultant, Michael Steinberg of Project Assistants in Atlanta, to set it up and train his staff. Steinberg says he was able to train Sawhorse's PMs and PCs to use the program in about three days.

The company bought laptops for all PMs and put a wireless network in the office so people could move around and collaborate. And because PMs spend more than half their time in the field, Sawhorse created a virtual project network that would let them access the system remotely. Field personnel and people who don't manage schedules, including estimators and architects, can go online to indicate that they have completed a task. That information is then sent to the PM.

Getting all this to work smoothly took some ongoing support. Kesha Fussell, the company's team coordinator, wrote a series of instructions on the program's features and worked closely with Steinberg to provide one-on-one mentoring over the first few months.

On the Same Page Getting people trained in how to use EPM was the easy part. Before Sawhorse's project teams could begin synchronizing their schedules, they had to get their business practices in sync with the program. EPM requires that users organize a job into groups of hierarchical phases (“design” or “construction,” for example), each of which includes discrete tasks (such as “rough drawings” or “framing”). The PM then assigns someone to each task, sets dependencies (rules such as “you can't start insulating until the rough utilities have been inspected”), and estimates the time each phase will require. “The software crunches that all together, and, based on information you provided, it estimates when each task will start and finish and what the project will cost,” Steinberg says. A lot of the early work went into organizing this information into templates for different types of jobs.

Of course, this is what any good remodeler does when planning a job, but EPM forces you to think through the steps more closely. The real art lies in creating templates with just the right amount of detail. “If you get into too much detail,” Quinn says, “things become too complex and too hard to manage. On the other hand, if you're not detailed enough, parts of the job don't get done.”

The first template was too long, with tasks as small as a single phone call. So Quinn's staff began the work of whittling it down, and in doing so had to reconsider everything that happens on a job. This turned out to be one of the biggest unexpected benefits of implementing the program.

“We had to agree on best practices. We had to put processes in place to help everyone do what needed to be done,” Quinn says. “We didn't want to re-create the schedule for every job, so we got people together to discuss the templates.” For instance, there was a lot of discussion about the most appropriate time to do things during the schedule. They found that some tasks were more efficient if broken into two phases, or that doing a certain task earlier in the process could eliminate a step later. In other cases, they ended up grouping tasks. “Say you figured out that you make 10 calls over the course of a day. It may be more efficient to make those calls all at the same time.”

The common templates also required project teams to standardize their way of doing things. One best practice the staff agreed on concerned the pre-drywall walk-through with the client. Some PMs had been doing one; some hadn't. The new templates not only require a walk-through on every project, they also require that the PC be part of it. Quinn says: “The PC is the client's main contact with the company, so bringing him back into the loop at this point seems to put clients at ease.”

Steinberg cautions that EPM has certain quirks that can take some getting used to. One of these is the rules the program uses to make some calculations. “If you assign someone to maintain contact with a customer for the duration of a job, the software will assume that person will be on the phone with the customer that whole time,” he says. To keep it from doing so, you need to figure what percentage of that person's time is spent on different tasks. “The cultural change is that you need to think more precisely about the nature of the work you're doing.”