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
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.
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.
Leads Should Know the Budget
Q. How aware is the lead carpenter of the budget?
A. I believe that the lead carpenter should be fully aware of
the budget for the job he’s on. After all, you are
asking the lead to manage the job to make a profit. He
can’t do that if he doesn’t know where costs
stop and profit begins.
For example, say a lead is ordering fascia trim. He may want
to order what’s needed, plus some, just in case.
Properly trained, however, the lead will consult his budget and
understand the need to order precisely and use every piece. If
he’s planning the framing, he can look at the budget
and see if it will allow for a third man or if he can make do
with two until the third carpenter is really critical. If your
lead doesn’t know the budget, that means someone else
is making all those calls, and that will cost you extra time
Be aware that you can’t simply hand the lead the
budget and expect him to use it well. Training the lead to
think in terms of the budget is an ongoing process and a
critical part of this system.
Training the Competition?
Q. How do you protect yourself from lead carpenters who leave
the company and take your clients and leads?
A. The fact is, workers in this business tend to move around a
lot, and it’s possible that one of your lead
carpenters will someday become a competitor. Still, the
important question to ask is not “How do I protect
myself?”, but “Is this employee more valuable
to me trained or left in the dark?” You’re
better off training him and giving him good reasons to stay,
like a positive company culture and fair pay.
Some companies have their employees sign noncompete clauses
when they hire them. These are typically in force during
employment and for a year after. I would recommend consulting
with a lawyer before taking this step.
Getting Clients to Trust
Q. As we adopt this approach, how do I get my existing clients
to start deferring to the lead carpenter instead of relating
exclusively to me?
A. The preconstruction conference is the key to
“passing the baton” of command. At the
meeting, the salesman — often the owner —
tells the client that it’s time to turn the project
over to production and from then on the client should go to the
lead carpenter with questions. Then turn the meeting over to
production. In some companies there may be both a production
manager and a lead carpenter, but in most companies,
“production” will be just the lead carpenter.
And although it’s important for the contractor to step
back at this point, it’s equally important to let the
client know you’re still available if really
The next step is to not allow the client to draw you back in.
Even after the baton-passing, it’s likely that the
clients will call you. Stay involved, but turn the questions
back to the lead when it’s his domain. For example, if
a client calls and wants to know why a clause in the contract
is so vague, that’s your concern. But if the client
has a question about the schedule, or wants to know why a wall
was moved over, that should be handled by the lead. Simply say,
“Have you asked Bob about that?” and
you’ll have deferred to the lead very easily. It will
take only a few times before most clients turn to the lead for
all such questions.
Inevitably, you’ll encounter a few clients who
won’t allow you to step out. Handle this tactfully but
come to an agreement — in writing if necessary
— about what each person’s role will
Handing Off the Punch List
Q. How do I know when to move a lead carpenter on to the next
job? On the one hand, there’s pickup work to be done
that the lead is familiar with. On the other, I’d
rather have him start a new job and bring in a less skilled
person do the pickup work. How should I handle this?
A. In theory, the lead carpenter should stay until every
little detail is resolved and the client is completely
satisfied. In practice, this rarely happens.
Here’s a common scenario. Suppose all that remains on
the current job are items for subs to complete —
perhaps the installation of a dishwasher that had been
back-ordered, or a paint touch-up list to take care of. But
your next job, once it starts, will require all of the
lead’s time and attention, not just a part of the
By planning ahead, you can successfully manage both job
phases. Have the lead begin laying the groundwork for the next
job while he is finishing the details on the first. In the
remodeling company where I used to work, we developed a
job-completion policy whereby the lead began final punch-out
three weeks before the actual completion date. During this
period the lead would meet with the client every week to go
over all outstanding tasks. Meanwhile, we would bring in a
competent carpenter or helper to work with the lead so that all
the details of the job would be transferred and we could be
certain that everything would be neatly tied up. There is a
cost to this transfer of information, but we found that it was
worth it, as one job ended satisfactorily while the next one
Making the Transition
Q. I know that switching to the lead carpenter system will
help me grow and maintain quality. But I’m pretty sure
that none of my carpenters want to have that much
responsibility. Do I need to start over and hire all new
A. The transition to the lead carpenter system can be
complicated if you have employees already on board who balk at
the idea of change. There are several steps you can take.
First, be sure you clearly outline what you expect a lead
carpenter to do and then properly train the individuals to help
them move into the lead position. Point out that, in many
cases, the workload will not change substantially right away.
Rather, there will be a gradual increase in workload —
and even then it will not be oppressive. Paperwork may seem
overwhelming for some potential lead carpenters. But in
actuality, the paperwork associated with a single job rarely
takes more than 10 to 15 minutes a day. Help the leads
Second, figure out if one of your carpenters wants to try out
the lead role for a while. Pick the carpenter who seems most
interested and ask him to give it a try. If it works for him,
he may be able to influence another to join in.
Last, you could hire a new carpenter as a lead and use the
others as second carpenters. They’ll either stay right
where they are, content with their earnings, or leave to look
for work elsewhere — or maybe they’ll see the
benefits and join in. However it goes, you’re better
Tim Faller, president of Field Training
Services, in Westerly, R.I., is a former remodeler and the
author of The Lead Carpenter Handbook, from which this article