"Small and smart" is the guiding principle of Criner
Construction Co. — but during the 30 years I've been in
business, staying smart has been the taller order. There are
two parts to this challenge. The first is keeping up with new
technologies, products, and code requirements. The second
— and more difficult — is keeping my crew working
from the same playbook. Each of my four lead carpenters comes
from a different construction background. While that gives us a
lot of great experience to draw from, having products installed
in four different ways can cause headaches — in
everything from estimating to warranty work.
The best way to address this problem, we eventually decided,
was to create our own company "best practice" manual — a
set of procedures for installing all the parts of a home, from
doors and windows to roofing and siding, that everyone would
follow and that could be revised as needed to keep up with the
latest thinking. The manual would also outline critical
business procedures, like the steps involved in starting or
finishing a job.
We had been talking about this project for some time when JLC
published its Field Guide to Residential Construction. It was
just the motivation we needed. Although I liked JLC's
systematic approach, some of the advice didn't fit how we build
in our climate, using our particular building materials and
according to our local code. So we decided to use the Field
Guide as the starting point for developing our own
We began the project by tackling the two areas that had caused
us problems or led to callbacks: window installation and roof
flashing. A year later we had a half-dozen sections completed;
within months we were reaping tangible benefits. We call our
manual The Criner Way: A Manual of Best Practice for Criner
Construction Co. It's a work in progress, a three-ring binder
that we add to a section at a time.
Best Not Always Easy to
Writing a manual is like any project — it needs a project
manager. I gave that responsibility to our designer, Ben
Rooker, because he's comfortable in both the field and the
office, and with research and writing. His general approach is
to write a draft, submit it to our field crews for review, and
then rewrite it according to their feedback.
For each section, he starts by gathering input from our lead
carpenters, the JLC Field Guide, Web sites, trade journals, and
manufacturers' literature. For example, he used Pella's
installation instructions as the basis for the
window-installation section, but supplemented it with JLC's
advice to place a bevel on the sill of the rough opening. Once
the first draft is complete, he and I meet with our production
manager, carpenters, and helpers. We review the draft procedure
line by line, then open the floor for discussion. Some of these
exchanges can get quite lively, for the simple reason that
there is little agreement in the industry about best
Take door sills, for instance. The JLC Field Guide might call
for a metal pan or Z-flashing, while a trade-journal article
may advise a one-piece rubber flashing. One door manufacturer
might call for a two-piece rubber flashing, whereas another may
not specify anything at all. We have to decide which
combination of methods gives us the best result without voiding
the warranty. These issues can take time to iron out.
Show and Tell
They can also require a bit of show and tell. That was the case
with window flashing, which in addition to shedding water must
prevent wicking, capillary suction, and vapor pressure. Because
every lead carpenter seemed to have a different idea about how
best to flash a window, we decided to mock up a small wall
section and install a window that had been lying around the
shop. We spent a couple of hours trying different flashing
methods before settling on one that everyone agreed to use.
Giving all of our carpenters a hand in the outcome creates a
great sense of buy-in.
When we first started the manual, we had special meetings to
review each section. These became difficult to schedule, so now
we include a 15-minute best-practice discussion at our weekly
shop meeting. We hold it at the beginning of the session, when
there's plenty of energy; but we stick to the time limit to
keep the overall meeting from running too long. Developing
standard procedures using this approach takes a bit longer, but
the discipline of short weekly discussions has made best
practice a part of our company's DNA.
Ben takes notes at these meetings, and when we do come to
agreement on a procedure, he writes it up to reflect the
company's best judgment as a whole. Then we distribute final
copies to all the field employees, who keep them in their
binders. Every employee gets a manual.
For the manual's window-flashing section, the author's crew
mocked up an installation in the shop and tried different
procedures until everyone agreed on which one to
We haven't been doing this long enough to calculate its effects
on the bottom line, but we have noticed a reduction in
callbacks. We've seen other improvements too.
Our regular best-practice discussions have helped build a
culture of progress and learning. There's less resistance to
new materials and methods, and our carpenters are more willing
to ask each other for help solving problems.
The detailed procedures described in the manual spell out
exactly how common tasks should be done.
The discussions educate our helpers, who someday may become our
leads. As part of our discussion on moisture, for instance, we
posted signs in the meeting room explaining how moisture moves
through a building assembly. Although a lot has been written on
this topic, most of what we read refers to heating or cooling
climates. Because we build in Virginia — a mixed climate
where things are a little more complicated —
clarification was needed.
Not surprisingly, having procedures in place has made us more
efficient. We spend less times debating solutions in the field.
Our estimating is more accurate and our work more consistent.
Writing specifications is easier because we know exactly how
things will be done; when a customer asks a question about
window installation, everyone in the company now gives the same
answer. And if we do have a problem down the line, we won't be
guessing at how something was installed.
We've also clarified our quality expectations. For example, we
couldn't get prebent step flashing as large as the JLC Field
Guide recommends, but we were using a self-adhering rubber
membrane behind the step flashing, as advised by both the guide
and the shingle manufacturer. Ultimately we decided that the
smaller flashing along with the rubber membrane was
These discussions have also helped us identify what products we
use most and therefore need to stock in the shop. We now keep
supplies of Great Stuff Pro Window & Door Foam and OSI
Pro-Series Quad Sealant on hand. We got our supplier to stock
the Grace Vycor we use so we no longer have to special-order
it. And we've identified specialty tools we needed to buy, such
as a pair of DeWalt shears for fiber-cement siding.
We're even starting to think ahead. I've read articles about
flashing windows in a wall with a rain screen, but we still
need to address how this is done in our mixed climate and
coastal location. So we're talking about how to deal with that
problem before we encounter it; this should prevent callbacks
for leaky windows — or worse, rotten walls.
A company doesn't necessarily have to go through the effort of
writing a manual to get these benefits. The key is to establish
the habit of regularly discussing best practice. Just a quick
conversation about one section of the Field Guide at every
company meeting can be enough to force you and your staff to
think through installation issues, and to establish the
importance of best practice as a company value.
There's no doubt in my mind that — regardless of their
impact on the company's bottom line — our best-practice
discussions are helping us close the gap between advances in
the industry and our own production process. In other words,
they're helping us stay small and smart.
Robert Criner is owner and president of
Criner Construction Co. in Yorktown, Va.