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Advantages of the Lead Carpenter Concept

The lead carpenter takes over the job at the pre-construction conference and runs the job from that point on. The lead carpenter comes to the job every morning and stays all day long, getting carpentry help only as needed, keeping the material flow going, scheduling subcontractors, and dealing with the customer.

Using the Lead Carpenter Concept, here's how the typical room addition goes now. Once the layout, footing and foundation is put in -- supervised by the lead carpenter -- then there may be two or three people including the lead carpenter doing the rough framing. The lead carpenter stays on alone to tidy up the framing, then moves outside to run the roofing, siding, cornice and trim while the electrical, mechanical and HVAC contractors come in -- under the lead carpenter's supervision -- to rough in the job and get their inspections done. Then the lead carpenter moves back inside and stays there, coordinating subcontractors as necessary, and doing most of the work himself until the job is completed. That one person is on the job every day all day, managing the project and doing the bulk of the carpentry work.

The advantages of the lead carpenter system are:

1. Total job control. No chance of the electrician showing up and asking the homeowner, "Hey, lady, what do I do now?" The lead carpenter is the project manager, always there to show subs what to do, direct delivery of materials, meet with building and other inspectors, and be responsible for the job.

2. Total job security. In the old days when someone was home most of the time, there was not much demand for a remodeling contractor to provide security. Now, one of the prime concerns of American home owners is home security. The lead carpenter being on the job every day from start to completion is a real positive element for customers.

3. Efficient materials handling. When the job is first set up, a complete material list -- almost down to the last nail -- must be developed, contracts negotiated with subcontractors and a complete task and labor breakdown for the carpenters done as well. The lead carpenter goes over the rough framing load, the trim list, the special order items, which supplier they are ordered from and the delivery schedule. Then the lead carpenter is responsible for staying ahead on materials and confirming timely and sufficient deliveries.

This totally eliminates the cost of a "gofer" at about $40,000 a year counting the cost of the truck. A well-organized lead carpenter always has something to do to keep busy and if materials are delivered a couple of hours late, the carpenter can still make the time productive.

4. No buck to pass. No trim carpenter calls the office and says, "I can't trim this out because it's framed wrong." One subcontractor can't just take advantage of being first on the job and do something that makes it easier for them but tougher for the other subs because the lead carpenter is there to direct the work. Most important, lead carpenters have a certain pride of ownership in the job -- they bring the family out and say, "Look, I'm building this addition or remodeling this kitchen."

5. Labor costs controlled. The lead carpenter must be given a labor budget and an incentive. For example, if the labor budget cost on a job is $4,000, go over it with the lead carpenter item by item, agree on whether it is reasonable and complete, and from that point on, the lead carpenter is responsible to stay within that budget. If the lead "beats" the labor budget, the savings are split (if that $4,000 labor budget comes in at $3,600 the company gets $200 and the lead carpenter gets $200).

The lead carpenter can get help on any task where they think it is more efficient to use two people on the job. Real experience is likely to be like the company in the Midwest that has nine lead carpenters and one helper -- and they can't keep the helper busy because the lead carpenters don't want to pay for it.

6. Responsibility for service work. Lead carpenters are paid on a rolling bonus system, usually paid quarterly, so there is always a balance in the labor budget. If there is a service call after a few months, and the company pays the carpenter or someone else to take care of it, that cost comes out of the carpenter's rolling bonus -- which was already paid on that job. Of course, most lead carpenters say, "Oh, I'll handle it on my way home." I know a company in Iowa that implemented the lead carpenter concept and in one year their service calls went down from 50 a year to five. And what really happens is that the carpenters do it right the first time.

A number of years ago I gave a seminar session on the lead carpenter concept with contractors for a sunroom company. One of the contractors said, "Oh, Walt, I couldn't possibly use the lead carpenter concept; these are heavy glass panels and I need two or three men to do it." Another contractor replied, "I don't know why not. I did over $400,000 total volume last year with only one carpenter". Then another contractor got up and said, "Oh, I couldn't use the lead carpenter, I do a fair amount of commercial jobs and they want me to put four or five people in there so I can get in and out of those jobs and not waste their time". A contractor got up on the front row and said, "Hey, please tell me, when you have four or five people there how many leaks and callbacks do you have about the sunrooms?" The light dawned -- when there is no single accountability, then service calls increase.

For years, remodeling contractors fought against the lead carpenter concept. People used to get up in HomeTech seminars and say we were nuts, it wouldn't work and what did we know about the remodeling business anyway? At that point, I always used to say, "I must admit, if I were a lead carpenter I'd want to have a helper. I'd want somebody to drive me to the job while I read the paper, go out and pick up my coffee, bring the tools in while I had my second cup of coffee before we started work in the morning and he'd talk to the customer, handle all the dirty work while I stood around and watched, and so on."

But about 4 or 5 years ago, the industry started to change and the lead carpenter approach started to become accepted. Fortunately, a number of the people who made the change were able to implement it properly and experienced tremendous gains in productivity. For example, one company in the Northeast that did $900,000 one year with 13 carpenter and helpers, turned to the lead carpenter concept and the next year did $1.2 million with 5 carpenters. Another company did $1.5 million with 15 field employees, and the next year did $1.5 million with 10.