by Michael Stone
Many contractors believing that building "quality" helps them sell more jobs and make more money.
But how do you define quality? Who sets the standard? To my knowledge, the only quality standard for construction is the NAHB Residential Construction Performance Guidelines manual. It is the only manual available to set quality standards in our industry. Even those standards, however, have lots of room for improvement. Some of the items listed in the manual as minimum acceptable standards would not be acceptable in our home by either my wife or myself.
There is no real definition of quality in our business because it is nearly impossible to define the term. If we can't do it, how can our customers possibly be expected to recognize the difference?
When contractor advertises "top quality", the customer's expectation is far different than the contractors. The word perfection comes to mind. When the contractor says the job is done, the customer trots out a laundry list of items they think need to be fixed, torn out or replaced. This is one of the major reasons homeowners refuse to make final payments to contractors. No one can agree on the quality standard.
Remember this: If your customer knew the difference between a top quality job and just a quality job, you would not be necessary. They could and probably would do the job themselves.
Almost any other contractor can build a given job as well as you can. That is reality. None of us like to admit there may be other companies that are capable of building a job just as well or as pretty as we can, but the truth of the matter is, most can. So the issue of top quality is a mute point.
To prevent problems with customers, your contract needs to be written specifically for work to be done on the given job. It should be very clear to the customer what is to be done, when, and to what degree of "quality". Defining quality in your contract will help you define it for your work, as well.
Then, look at your own standards. You contract to do a major kitchen remodel for $96,379. You estimate it will take two of your guys, five and a half days each to set the cabinets. When the time cards come in, you find they have spent eight days on the cabinets.
When you ask your lead guy why the job took longer than the estimated time, he says, "you wanted a top quality job." That's when you remember you were there while the guys were installing the cabinets and you had them go back and do two or three things over, each time emphasizing top quality. One of those items took three hours alone.
Is it necessary, or is it fussing?
Imagine a guy who drives a brand new, candy apple red Corvette. He gives it a quick wash on Saturday morning, starting at 7:00 am, planning to drive to the local beanery at 9:30 am for breakfast with a friend. At 10:45 am he is still in the driveway fussing about another smudge spot on window, a nick in the door, a dirt spot under the front bumper. The smudge/nick/dirt really exist, but when is enough enough?
If you or your crew spend more time than the job estimate, the money to pay that overage comes out of your profit. If the profit is not enough to pay for the overage, an overhead expense will go unpaid while you pay the employees working on your jobs. You know where it goes from there.
So how do you prevent this problem from happening? First, the owner of the company needs to define what are acceptable building standards for the company and the type of jobs they build. An example for remodeling would be that all windows and doors should be set with screws only. No nails allowed. Those that have been in remodeling a while already know the value of that standard.
You need a clear time schedule for each individual job and work to be done. When you estimate a job, you should be able to generate the time allowed for each phase of the job. Then when you start building, you tell your people, "you have 12 hours for two people to set the cabinets", "28 hours for three people to frame the new addition", or "45 minutes to set each door". Put a limit on each phase of the job. When the limit is reached, they stop. No more fussing, adjusting, tinkering. The individual or crew stops and moves on to the next phase of the job.
You must be careful here when you first implement this approach to getting your jobs built. You will get buckets and baskets of BS giving reasons that a job cannot be built in the time estimated. Assuming your time estimate is accurate and the job can be done in the time estimated, you need to:
1) Tell them that they can finish that portion of the job on their own time. Their option is to go home. You will have to find someone else to finish the job.
2) Sub that work out.
3) Adjust your estimates for length of time on various phases of your jobs to get in line with the speed of your crew.
There are some other options, but if your people won't produce, option 2 is the best answer.
But be fair. Your guys, regardless of the training you give them or the harrassment that you bestow on them, can only work so fast. If you doubt that, put your tool belt on for a couple of days and then come back and we can discuss time issues on your estimate sheet. You must be realistic in your estimate and also be realistic in what you expect of your employees. Given fair compensation and a pat on the back for a job well done, most employees will give you their best effort on any job.
Finally, your time frame for the work to be done should take into account the local area standards or the local building codes. When your work reaches that level, it is time to quit fussing and move on.
Build a good job, build what you tell the folks you are going to build and build what is in the contract. Then stop. If you do not, you lose money.
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Jace Patterson replied on 04/21/11:
I agree 100% about needing to stop when you reach a time limit, but the reason customers complain is that the job that's being done has had too many corners cut. I've seen this numerous times. They get angry that they have paid hard earned money to have to go back over everything to do finish work or pay more money to someone else to do it for them. As far as the definition of quality goes, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to tell the difference in excellent, par, and sub par. Most contractors and the especially their employees only care about getting the job done, getting paid, and moving on, which is understandable. The problem is that they overlook too many final details. The solution to that problem is to have a person come in that takes pride in their work and pays attention to detail. That person should be in charge fixing any visual flaws and making sure everything looks good and works properly. They should also take notes on everything they have to fix or finish and who did it, so that the contractor can make sure it's done right the first time in the future. I have done this for several years and I am amazed at the things contractors overlook or just don't care about. Customers put their trust in contractors and it is your responsibility to make the customer happy if you want more jobs in the future. People will pay more for an excellent job.