Sunday, 25 September 2011

Job Closeout

Job Closeout
Finishing on schedule and within budget demands careful planning at the start by Stephen Mead

Like a bad dream, a prybar tumbled from the mantel in slow motion, shattering the Italian marble hearth below. This is exactly how a good job goes bad.
Blame it on poor communication. My company had been doing a large interior wood-working project. We were almost finished and anxiously looked forward to our next job, when the owner asked us to build a fireplace mantel. After sketching a few ideas on the wood subfloor, we agreed on a design and a price.
A week later, just as the second coat of varnish had begun to harden, the owner returned to inspect the project. With a look of horror on her face she told me that it was much too large. I started to motion toward our original sketch, but realized that it had vanished beneath the marble hearth that had been set the day before. We argued, but in the interest of a peaceful settlement, I agreed to change the size of the mantel. In my haste to make the change I guess I was careless: the prybar fell, and the nightmare began.
The tile setter informed me that it would take six weeks to get a new marble hearth. Weeks stretched out into months, however, and three months later a frustrated contractor— myself—received final payment less drywall, paint and marble repairs from an equally frustrated owner. There's an old saying among builders that all jobs reach 90% completion and then stay there forever. This job seemed to prove it. Why is it so hard to finish?
Starting out right—As builders, we focus most of our attention on getting and managing the work. As a result, we give too little thought to the final stages of the job. This lack of planning costs us dearly. We spend countless hours either correcting work that should have been done right the first time, or modifying designs that weren't quite right, or waiting months for light fixtures that we thought we'd get right away. This excruciating process of trying to finish is called "job closeout."
The firm that I work for recently studied job closeout. We discovered that we spend 20% of a typical project's overhead on the final 5% of the work. A marketing survey also showed us that our inability to finish jobs promptly affected our clients' perceptions of us. They likened a contractor who spends too much time onthejobtoachildwhowon'tleavehome.In other words, our poor performance at job close-out was costing us money and references. We discussed the problem with clients, subcon- tractors, accountants, architects, engineers—even our spouses—and concluded that the real trick to finishing on time is getting started properly. That means scheduling intelligently and taking time to educate clients and sub-contractors about the job schedule and the building process. It also means actively managing quality at all stages and controlling the final punch list (a list of items to be corrected or completed before the job is considered complete). The big payoff comes at the end because the more time you spend up front, the easier it is to finish.

There's an old saying among builders that all
jobs reach 90% completion and then stay there forever.

Setting and managing schedules—It is said that time expands to meet a task. If you're given four weeks to complete a project requiring two weeks of work, you'll generally finish in four weeks. Most of us put things off until we're forced to meet a deadline, and that's why scheduling is so important.
Scheduling involves estimating the time needed for various tasks and then setting realistic deadlines. On large commercial projects, several employees do nothing but keep track of the job schedule. But good scheduling is as important for the small builder as for the large one, because the efficient use of time can mean the difference between profit and loss. We make scheduling part of our standard job start-up checklist.
The start-up checklist. This simple form can be adapted to fit a particular job or builder. Organizing routine tasks leaves the builder free to focus on the more complicated aspects of a project.

JOB START-UP CHECKLIST                      


1. Set up project directory 
2. Set up files 
3. Project schedule
4. Job buyout 
5. Write subcontracts/purchase order 
6. Accounting budget 
7. Order long lead items 
8. Job meeting
9. Temporary utilities/telephone
10. Trash hauling/dumpster 
11. Job sign 
12. Change order system
13. Requisitions

Making a schedule forces you to build the job mentally and to solve problems early. To schedule successfully, you need to understand the project from start to finish. Separate each task, determine the time involved, and try to develop an understanding of how each part of the job relates to the others. Ask your subcontractors how long their work will take. If sub-contractors aren't available, you can use published estimating guides to estimate production rates. 
A good schedule lets everyone anticipate the future. We use a bar-chart schedule. The bar chart helps you decide when to order materials, and how to most effectively schedule manpower. It also makes potential scheduling conflicts easy to spot. 
To be effective, a schedule should be optimistic, yet realistic. Build extra time into your schedule for bad weather, delivery delays and inspection problems. Professional estimators call this "float," and it gives you flexibility in getting tasks completed. After estimating the total length of the job, subtract two weeks from it. Everyone will finish early, and you'll have two weeks to handle inspections, push stragglers and clean up.
After setting the final schedule, manage it aggressively. Make sure all deadlines are met. When sub-contractors fall behind, ask them to add more workers, or to work weekends. As a last resort you may have to bring in other sub-contractors to help complete the work (you may want to include a clause in your original contract that lets you charge the original sub for any extra expenses). The idea is to manage time so that it doesn't expand.
Educating the players—We've found that most jobs go much more smoothly  if our clients understand the construction process, so we hold a preconstruction meeting with clients and architect. Some clients know just enough to make them dangerous. For example, even though I've hung hundreds of doors, I had one client tell me I was doing it wrong—they had seen a brother-in-law do it differently. A pre-construction meeting lets you determine how much your clients know about the job and about construction. It also allows you to educate them about the problems you're likely to encounter. But keep in mind that most people don't speak the language of construction. For instance, most people won't know what you mean by "coping" a piece of trim; it's better to explain the process in simple, everyday language. The goal is understanding.
We typically start with the plans, taking our clients on a guided tour of the project. We "walk" them through each room, reviewing details, elevations and sections, and making final material choices (many jobs are delayed simply because the clients can't make up their minds). It's tedious and time-consuming, but it can head off many potential problems.
This is also a good time to review the clients' expectations. Few people seem to understand that there are different levels of craftsmanship, that painted wood trim doesn't demand as much care or time as stained architectural millwork. We use photos of our previous work, drawings, magazine photos and actual mock- ups (of trim or hardware, for instance) to show how things will look.
Clarifying expectations at the beginning will help minimize midstream design changes. Doing so is crucial, because even simple changes can have a profound effect on job completion. Changes not only raise costs; they can also lower quality. We've found that we get the best quality on the jobs with the fewest changes.
Tradespeople take pride in their work when they do it right the first time. When a client demands that something be taken apart and built differently, job morale can head downhill, dragging craftsmanship with it. We discourage change orders by charging aggressively for them, and by making it clear that the client must compensate us for overhead if excessive changes make the job run over schedule.
Finally, it's a good idea to spend time reviewing the job schedule with clients. Clarify which items, if any, they'll have to coordinate, and include these in the schedule. Permits and surveys are often handled by clients, as are utility fees and deposits. Beware of the client who lacks a sense of urgency. Set dead-lines together and strive to meet them.
The next step is to hold a final meeting with subcontractors. Again, review the job schedule and ask for delivery information on materials. We note this information in a project control log. This is simply a document that contains information on materials, such as what was ordered, when, and from whom. It's kept with the job schedule. The preconstruction meeting with the subcontractors is a good time to review policies on billing, change orders, punch-list items and payments. We require all subs who work with us to attend this meeting.
Defining and maintaining quality—A big part of getting finished is reducing repairs. This requires an ongoing quality control effort.
Each day our superintendents walk the job like detectives, checking and rechecking the work. We also try to anticipate problems before they occur. Will that outlet be in the way of the backsplash? Are the doors undercut properly and sealed to prevent warping? We pay particular attention to details, such as roof flashing, foundation waterproofing and drainage, backfill and compaction, that can cause big problems later on if not done right.
Before hiring new subcontractors, make sure that they meet your standards. Check their references, ask their suppliers if they pay their bills, and try to determine if they're eager to do a quality job. Remember, you are ultimately responsible for their work. Enforcing high standards early will improve the overall quality of the project and reduce repair and warranty problems.
Packaging the results—Finishing a construction project means tying up a lot of loose ends. To help with this process, we've developed a job closeout checklist (chart below). We also assemble all maintenance information, equipment warranties, guarantees and installation information. We package these and other important documents—including the names, addresses and phone numbers of all subcontractors used on the job—in a three- ring binder. During the final walk-through, we turn the binder over to the client, along with the rolled-up construction drawings. Our clients are impressed by such attention to detail and are much less likely to call us later with minor questions.

Tying up loose ends. 
A closeout checklist can make the end of a job much smoother. Note the amount of documentation delivered to the owner. 
This includes information on cleaning and maintaining appliances and materials.


Preliminary punch list 
Request to subs for owner documents 
Request to subs for final invoice 
Final inspections Certificate of Occupancy 
Documentation to owner
  Equipment warranties  
  Subcontractor list
  As-built drawings
  Outstanding change orders 
  Certificate of Occupancy Final release
Punch-list sign-off 
Subcontractor change orders 
Store job records 
Materials Equipment transfers 
Sub final release and lien waiver 
Job closeout report

Controlling the punch list—After the final walkthrough, there's still one hurdle: the punch list. This is a list of problems that must be corrected before the job is considered complete. Paint touch-up, hardware adjustments and final cleanup are standard punch-list items. It sounds simple enough, but a poorly managed punch list can turn into a builder's nightmare.
Part of the problem is human nature. Once subcontractors leave a job, they feel that their work is complete. Bringing them back to make repairs can be difficult, particularly if they did their work early in the project. To overcome this resistance, discuss the punch list with subs during the preconstruction meeting. Make it clear that they have a set period of time after receiving the punch list to make their corrections (two weeks works well for us), and that if they're unable to do so you'll hire someone else—and charge them accordingly.
Clients can also be a problem. Some clients see the punch list as their last chance to make changes or remedy design problems. For this reason, you'll need to set some standards early. Ask the clients to be specific about punch-list items, and keep changes separate. Don't allow general notes like "touch up paint as re-quired." Fixing something "as required" can take days, weeks, even years.
The gist of all this is that you need to control the punch list, rather than letting it control you. On most jobs, the client and architect assemble the punch list, then hand it over to the contractor. But we always insist on participating in the process. Many punch-list items are misunderstandings that can be easily resolved. For instance, one client complained that a wall had been built in the wrong place. We explained that we had to move the wall to clear a heating duct leading to the second floor. The problem never made it to the punch list. And because most punch-list problems are simply a matter of paint touch-up, cleaning or final adjustment, we try to include in the walk-through a painter, cleaner and carpenter in the punch-list party. This lets us solve many problems on the spot.
It's important that the punch list be written down and that it be understood by everyone. When the punch list is complete, a copy of it should go to each of your subcontractors. On larger jobs, we use stick-on circles, like the ones used in grocery stores, to show exactly where the punch-list items are. The circles help direct each trade to the problems they need to deal with.
A former boss of mine once said that the trick to finishing is to be both cop and psychologist—in short, to do anything necessary to get the job done. You may step on some toes in the process, but you'll have happier clients, a thicker wallet and fewer nightmares.

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