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For the past 15 years, I’ve been working with remodeling companies, providing training in the lead carpenter system. With this job-management approach, you put one person on a job, and that person works by himself as long as he is safe and productive. The premise is that efficiency drops as you assign additional crew members to the site.

In this article, I’ll address the most common questions I’ve been asked by company owners who are implementing their own lead carpenter system.

Paperwork vs. Production

Q. If the lead carpenter is spending time ordering materials, answering questions, and filling out paperwork, when does he have time for production?

A. First of all, the idea that paperwork is a waste of time has to be discarded by both the contractor and the lead carpenter. From my perspective, the person most qualified to accurately process job-site paperwork is the lead carpenter. Looked at this way, it’s not a waste but a profitable use of time.

Companies should evaluate how much paperwork they want the lead to be responsible for, and of course try to keep it to a minimum so there’s time for production. Also, consider who on your staff is best qualified to do paperwork accurately and what you’re willing to pay.

Time spent in production will vary, depending on how much paperwork you require and the size and complexity of each job. Large jobs require more management time: When a job’s volume reaches $400,000 to $500,000, the lead really becomes a project manager and can’t do significant production work. At that point it may be better to simply have a site manager who does no production.

Most of the companies around the country using lead carpenters are smaller-volume businesses. A survey I’ve conducted at my seminars indicates that lead carpenters in every region generally spend between 10 percent and 20 percent of their time in management and the rest in production. Bear in mind that this includes all of the management, not just the paperwork, which doesn’t need to — and shouldn’t — take very much time.

What Happens When the Work Slows Down?

Q. What about jobs where the lead carpenter has nothing to do after the subs come in?

A. It shouldn’t happen. The owner needs to train the leads to plan their work so they remain productive. This may mean saving the siding or roofing work until the subs are inside the addition, or having the leads do some of the work themselves that would normally be done by subs. It may mean doing some work out of sequence. In certain cases, you may start setting doors and running trim while the drywall finisher is still blocking and skimming. It may not be ideal, but it avoids idle time.

If this doesn’t work on every job, try to save warranty work from previous jobs. Or keep a running list of all the little jobs your clients have asked you to do but you couldn’t get to — a sort of client handyman service that helps fill in the gaps in your larger jobs. It’s still important for the lead to check in with the subs and clients on the current job at the beginning and end of the day, to maintain continuity.

Hiring a Lead

Q. What do you look for most in hiring, good people skills or good carpentry skills?

A. Both skills are critical, so I would interview with both in mind. If you have to settle for one over the other, go for the people and management skills, then train your lead in carpentry (assuming, of course, that he has a working knowledge of carpentry and some native skill.) If you must hire a novice carpenter, try to give him at least six months working with another lead before he goes out on his own jobs.

Floating Helpers

Q. Should I have fixed crews, or should workers float?

A. In the lead carpenter system, there are no crews. The leads are the crews, and the helpers, second carpenters, and laborers float among them as needed. This call is made by the lead, in coordination with the contractor or other office staff, such as the production manager.