I was reminded recently of Stephen Covey's principle of "Begin with the end in mind". If you're clear on how you want your project to end up, you set up systems from the beginning to accomplish it. This supports high quality from the beginning and reduces the tendency to be reactive.
Having systems in place overcomes some problems presented by delegation – any time we have to communicate information to another person, and often when they have to communicate the same to another person, things get lost in translation. The more layers of communication between the client and the laborer/craftsman, the greater possibility for things to go wrong.
I acknowledge that I myself can be unorganized and reactive, and this whole blog post comes from problems I have seen in the field and how I have attempted to overcome them. Knowing my faults and working with other small contractors and experiencing some of these same problems, I'm convinced that focusing on how your projects can begin with the end in mind can help you get rid of a few problems.
I do want to acknowledge that taking too much time during the bidding process on “beginning with the end in mind” can be a waste of time and money, so you need to decide for yourself when it becomes important to take your bid scope of work and flesh it out into a full scope of work to hand over to someone else. Is it when you have a signed contract in hand? Is it when you have a set of drawings to turn in for permit? Is it when you receive the permit back from the municipality?
Knowing when the best time for taking your bid and turning it into a fully fleshed-out scope of work can impact the subcontractors you attract, your pricing from suppliers, and even your schedule. The more concrete information given out leads to reduced risk, and balancing risk impacts pricing. It can be very difficult when we quote a project for a client to know what level of finishes they want, so you usually figure on an allowance. Subcontractors are doing the much the same with contractors until they get to know you better. The better you explain your expectations, the tighter the quotes you receive will become.
What you need, at minimum:
Excel is my favorite software ever (because I’m a nerd), and there are lots of free versions and ways to collaborate with your team online, but printing out to paper is great, too. Do you want a simple folder or a multi-segment folder so you can stay ultra-organized? Or do you want a binder with lots of pictures and tabs? I personally advocate for a paper version because I’ve spent far too long trying to get a signal to update or find something online, and not every person on site has access to a computer or smart phone. I would keep a folder for myself with the customer and sub information for easy access for communication, and pictures, quantities, drawings, etc. in a binder onsite. I wouldn’t keep pricing on site, but I would keep information about where items should be picked up if they won’t be delivered.
How far along do you allow changes and what is your policy for handling them? Small builders are normally very customer-friendly, allowing changes all along the way. Large builders who deal in volume often set limits in order to reduce mix-ups. One company I worked for only allowed structural changes to the day the contract was signed, and changes to the finishes up until the first day of drywall. Another builder was much more flexible with structural changes, and there were often mix-ups. Mix-ups are too costly when you’re small. Working it out ahead of time how you’ll handle it, and whether you’ll even allow it after a certain point is cheap. Don't forget to incorporate who is responsible and how you will update information onsite. Do you do it all electronically and expect subs to bring the correct information to site? Or with the PM/Superintendent update the information binder/permit box on site?
Additionally, having a system in place to handle requests for clarification and updates is important. If there’s a problem in the field and you don’t have time for someone to meet to look directly at the issue, you need a way to collect as much information – either drawings or pictures or just an explanation, track the question until it is answered, and make sure the question is answered completely.
I’m working with a website developer to create a very simple RFI website that a company can attach to their own website that anyone with a smart phone could use to send requests for more information. The RFI can be send to one or multiple email addresses to make questions easier to answer when you can’t keep someone on site. The goal is for you to plug your personal link for this little webpage into your page, or email it to your subs to let them use it directly from their phones, and, with just a few answers, you can begin receiving pictures and comments to your email to be easily tracked and answered quickly. There will be a record of the questions, and you will be able to track whether the question got answered in a timely manner.
And if you don’t currently have a website, I can suggest a very affordable 1 page website to get you on the web. It’s important to have a small presence online, even if it’s just so that someone can Google your company and see more than just your Yellow pages or Manta information. You may want to use social media, like Facebook or Google+ to post pictures of your latest projects, because those are free, and you can provide a link from your website to Facebook. (Google+ will be prioritized on Google.com over Facebook, even if FB is more popular, but FB might be prioritized on Bing).
You shouldn’t have to take time from building your business or your client’s project just to learn everything about SEO and programming and everything else out there. www.tiny-websites.com can help you set up a simple, informative website so you look like a professional.
I've been reading Simon Sinek's "Start With Why" this week, and it prompted me to start a discussion.
Our WHY isn't "I am doing this to feed my family" or "I need autonomy and freedom", or "I want to build my nest egg with my own 2 hands". In this case, your WHY needs to talk about your client's needs, and how you service them.
Apple's dominance in the electronics market stems from their WHY of a desire "to challenge the status quo and empower the individual." Dell built computers and tried to get into the mp3 market, but their WHAT didn't convince people that their products were any good.
Southwest Airlines entered a crowded Texas market in 1970's, but their WHY was to be "the champion of the common man". They did so well at that, when the airline industry tanked after 9/11/01, their clients SENT THEM MONEY to keep them afloat. Meanwhile, every other airline was leaking like a sieve.
Starting with a WHY in your communication and policies helps potential clients understand how you are different and why they want to work with you. If you are working, day in and day out, from your WHAT - 'We do x,y, and z, can I give you a quote?", how does your client understand that your quote for x, y, and z is 10% higher than your competitor's because your employees are higher quality, you thought of everything in your quote and your competitor forgot $500 worth of something (which will cost them a lot more $ and frustration in the end)?
Don't complete on price - it's a downward spiral. Compete on service and quality, and communicate it by starting with your WHY and then your WHAT and HOW.
Need help tweaking your idea? Or even finding it? Maybe you exist because you needed work and you saw an under-served market. Maybe this is all you've ever done and you're good at it. You might not have started your business because of any burning WHY, but that doesn't mean you can't find it now. Let's grab a coffee or a beer and see if we can find one.
I help small contractors work smarter, not harder, in "pint size" ways. Let me pour over the drawings and ask a lot of questions to set up your estimate. Let me use those same questions and parameters to set up a schedule for your subs and your clients. Let me help you write proposals that sell your professionalism and I'll follow up to see what the client thinks.
You spend your time focused on what you do well, and let me help do the stuff you don't enjoy, so you can spend your time enjoying your small business, not drowning in it.
Please, take a minute to read this: The Myth of Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone
"Hard work doesn’t equal success anymore. Maybe it never did, but that’s another topic.
So what does? Doing something that matters.
Changing human lives in some small but significant way. Really giving, affirming, improving life."
It's hard to look at our day-to-day work on homes or office fit-outs and think that we're changing the world and doing something that matters. But if we do it with intention and put our heart into the work, our work CAN matter to someone.
How do you feel your vocation matters? Is it just to your family? Is it to the local community?
You started your business because your skills fill a need. But sometimes running a business requires skills we don't always have.
That pretty much mirrors construction - we hire out the electricians and plumbers so we can focus on framing. But the decision to hire out managing parts of our business can be hard. Well, maybe hiring out a bookkeeper is pretty easy when tax time comes around . . .
Your business will flourish when you can focus on what you do best. Delegate the rest.
Here's a good way to ensure you find the right fit:
1) List what you don't like to do or what you aren't good at doing: Scheduling
2) Expand on specific tasks that you don't want to do. Look at it like a scope of work - be specific, imagine where it begins and how it finishes:
Listing every item that has to get done.
Figuring out how long each item takes.
Figuring out who handles what.
Creating the visual schedule.
Committing to the dates your schedule shows you.
If you sort of know how long something is going to take and can probably verbally tell someone, and believe you can use the schedule to stay on track and please your customers, let's talk. Let's try it once and see how it works for you.