After years of trial and error (mostly error), I've become a
firm believer in management by meetings. Whether I like it or
not, my primary job as company owner is overseeing meetings. To
be effective, I need to make sure that each one adds value to
the company. That requires a clear agenda; in the case of
regularly scheduled meetings, it's a repeating agenda.
Of all my regular meetings, perhaps the most important is my
weekly get-together with my production manager. I view this as
an opportunity to keep tabs on the company by asking questions
— a very specific set of carefully thought-out questions
that explore the health of both the business as a whole and of
each project. In this article, I'll explain the detailed agenda
we use for this meeting.
Stage I: Get the Overview
By using a series of forms and checklists that we've developed
over time, we can methodically run through the status and
progress of all our jobs — those in the final phases,
those in early phases, and those planned for the future. We
start our meeting by reviewing reports compiled by the
production manager and end by asking questions about that
Review the job-site-visit report. We
have a written form for this report, though my production
manager rarely needs to use it. Instead, she gives me a verbal
rundown of each of her job-site visits over the past weeks and
lets me know how each project is shaping up from a more
subjective point of view.
Review the job-cost report for each
project. We perform this review with our
bookkeeper and estimator. The two-page report — one
summary sheet, one detail report — lets us know how we're
doing on each job in terms of estimated vs. actual costs.
The summary sheet uses a formula that extrapolates from the
percent-completion calculations to give us an anticipated total
for the overall job.
Our goal is to be within 2 percent of estimated cost; jobs that
veer beyond 2 percent warrant more conversation (and,
potentially, intervention by the production manager) than jobs
within the targeted range.
Review the schedule update for each project.
Next, for each project we look at the initial schedule on which
the substantial-completion date and payment-draw schedule were
based and compare it with where we actually are.
This allows us to see if we need to rearrange staffing to beef
up a job that's behind schedule, postpone the start date of
that lead carpenter's next project, or take other actions to
accommodate or re-energize a job that's behind schedule.
Review our production hand-off process
grid. Over time, we've identified a handful of
critical milestones in the design-to-production hand-off
process: the lead carpenter and subcontractor orientation
meeting, the construction-document review meeting, the contract
signing, the job-launch meeting, and a few others. These steps
are crucial to proper setup of a project — if we follow
them carefully, we can be confident a project is positioned for
We track the steps with a grid (see example below).
For a successful outcome, every job must
pass a series of critical milestones; this checklist, filled
out by the author's production manager, monitors the
Across the top are the milestones, in chronological order, and
in a column on the left are the job names. As each milestone is
completed, we check the appropriate box to the right of the job
name. We can tell at a glance what the next milestone is for a
particular job and whether it's time to schedule it. More
important, we know if we're at risk of skipping an essential
step and undermining the entire process.
Review small-jobs hand-off forms.
We've always had a hard time fitting small jobs into the
schedule. Typically, these are jobs we do not as part of our
core business but to maintain past client loyalty. Poorly
handled, they are a nuisance for the crew and a liability for
the company (a small job handled badly does nothing to
Small jobs done for past clients can take
more time than they're worth unless approached systematically.
This form gathers in one place all the information needed to
complete the job.
The root cause of the problem had been my inability to hand off
the project in an organized fashion, which ended up meaning I
was the de facto production manager for small jobs because I
was the only one with all the necessary information.
We now have a one-page form, easily integrated into an e-mail,
on which we've listed all the information required to complete
a small job (see example on page 62). The rule is that if
there's no small-job form for the task, it doesn't exist as far
as production is concerned. So the production manager and I
make sure at our weekly meetings that I've provided sufficient
information for production to complete the small jobs that past
clients have asked us to do.
Review job closeout worksheets for each job in
closeout phase. It came as a rude shock to me to
realize that closing out a project properly is as much work as
launching one properly. We've developed a one-page worksheet of
all the essential closeout steps, which — if carefully
followed — improves our chances of wrapping up a project
with a bang rather than a whimper.
Review overall schedule grid for crew and for
company. The production manager uses this
week-by-week grid — which extends about three months into
the future — to make sure that all employees are
accounted for and all jobs are adequately staffed.
Reviewing it helps me manage my sales efforts: I know whether I
need to push a little harder on closing some contracts because
the schedule is opening up, or back off on start dates if it
looks like we're overcommitting.
Prepare for upcoming production employee
evaluations. I have been relatively weak with
regard to crew evaluations over the years. We now have a
regular annual schedule of evaluations. Having this item on our
meeting agenda reminds us when we have an evaluation coming up
and prompts us to prepare for it.
Stage II: Questions
Once we've gathered and discussed the above information, we are
able to ask — and accurately answer — the following
questions. This exercise forces us to step back and think about
how we're really doing as a company. Most of these
questions are self-explanatory; for a few I've added some notes
to clarify the purpose of the question.
• Are we overcommitted right now?
• Will we be overcommitted any time soon?
• Will any subcontractors be overcommitted in the next few
• Will any lead-carpenter transitions from one job to the
next be too tight or haphazard?
• Have any small jobs or warranty issues lingered too long
and so risk losing us credibility with a client?
• Do we have the right process for handing off jobs from
design to production?
We ask this question periodically because even if we are
adhering diligently to our process, we may still be making
major mistakes. If so, the problem is not with implementation
but with the process itself.
For example, it was by stepping back and asking "Do we have the
right process?" that we figured out we needed to add the
small-jobs form review to our weekly meeting agenda. The small
jobs were causing more scheduling headaches than the big jobs,
not just proportionately but in absolute terms.
• Are we enforcing the process?
One glance at the design-to-production hand-off grid tells us
the answer to this question. If it's "no," we're forewarned
that we're overextended and need to step back and regain
control before moving ahead.
• Do we have the right crew?
• Are crew members holding to schedule and budget?
• Is quality high?
• Is client satisfaction high, as measured by customer
surveys and client exit interviews?
• How's job-site morale?
• Are we making the most of our crews?
• Is everyone doing his/her job?
We ask this last question to red-flag any looming personnel
issues. Asking the question doesn't make it any easier to fix
the annoying little problems — like getting folks to
submit weekly reports without a reminder — but it sure
keeps us from avoiding the big issues that can be solved only
by firing someone.
• Is everyone advancing along a career path, or does
someone seem to be stagnating?
Personal growth consistently shows up as a major employee
motivator — more important than wages, in many cases. By
asking this question, we're able to tailor training efforts to
help employees get over hurdles they might be facing, or give
them opportunities that otherwise may not have occurred to
• Do we have the right subs and suppliers?
• Quality issues?
• Reliability issues?
• Any attitude problems, or is there a good sense of
teamwork among the subs?
A Worthwhile Investment
I won't claim that we go through every item on the agenda
Sometimes we're simply too busy, so we hit just the high
points by phone, which typically means reviewing the reports
and not asking the questions. If the reports are good, there
are fewer questions to ask.
But to give the list short shrift two weeks in a row would in
itself be a big red flag, and we don't let this happen.
Another red flag is glossing over a question — which
usually happens because we don't really know the answer. It
takes discipline to pause at that point and tackle the issue
head-on, to get through the discomfort and find out what the
problem really is.
In the end, this process of managing by meeting has proved to
be a very good investment of time and energy. It's a
high-leverage effort: A one-hour conversation can yield
benefits that save weeks of time and thousands of dollars in
In fact, with this system in place, production management at
our 18-employee company is a part-time job; our production
manager typically runs a project in addition to her
production-management duties. She prefers it that way because
it gives her a chance to do the carpentry she loves while still
creating a reliable career in higher-level management.
Most remarkable of all, our meetings — guided by this
comprehensive (but surprisingly quickly covered) agenda —
have evolved into something I actually look forward to each
Paul Eldrenkamp owns Byggmeister, a custom remodeling
firm in Newton, Mass.