For Ted Brown, president of Traditional Concepts Inc., the oral tradition wasn’t an option. TCI puts everything down on paper, not because its procedures are perfect, but because having them written down provides a system for improvement. The operations manual at TCI is considered a benchmark quality practice by the NAHB Research Center and was instrumental in helping win the company a 2000 National Remodeling Quality Award.
PR: What’s the benefit of having an operations manual?
BROWN: Historically, this industry has operated under the oral tradition. [At TCI] -- when it involves performance evaluation, creating the job description, documenting how different positions in different departments interface -- we’re making the transition to a written tradition. [We want] to be able to drive a stake into the ground and say, "This is the way it is today." We’ll commit things to paper that we know are incomplete or even incorrect, but it allows us to start there and move to get it to the point it needs to be.
[The main benefit is that] the company’s not dependent upon any one person to stay open, which provides some level of job security to everyone that works here. We always talk about the "hit by a truck" strategy. If you get hit by a truck, can another lead carpenter pick up your field file and finish the job? It’s security that you offer to the client. If we start the job, we’ll finish it. If the principal gets hit by a truck, we can finish the job.
PR: What does the manual include?
BROWN: It’s evolutionary, [starting with] the things that need to be consistent and institutionalized. You start with that, and you work your way down.
Part of the genesis for the company had to do with the writing down and recording of information. The first step when we launched TCI in 1985 was to work as hard as we could to clearly define what the client was getting, what it was going to cost and what was the scope of the project. That was driven by our specification. From the specification evolved purchase orders describing the scope of the work to individual subcontractors and suppliers to eliminate overlap and eliminate gaps. That evolved into job descriptions, [which] evolved into operational procedures, including how design documents are created, what the steps are from field measuring to preliminary design, from design development to construction documents.
PR: How does such documentation help you achieve your customer satisfaction goal?
BROWN: One of the first places we started was a lead carpenter field handbook. That was the direct link and interface with the clients. [We] set up what the expectations were of their job performance, showing consistency from one lead carpenter to another lead carpenter to the next. We recently hired a fellow, and he said, "It’s really strange. I’m on one job and I’m on the next job, and I hear the same words and phrases being used from one lead carpenter to the next." That’s an attempt to figure out what works and then apply it across the board to leverage that information.
PR: How detailed is the manual?
BROWN: It’s very detailed, especially the accounting component. The sales component is very detailed, too. The lead carpenter component is very detailed. [If] the client says, "That’s not what I had in mind. This is wrong," how does someone respond to that? Let’s respond the correct way, and the correct way’s not only just words: it’s attitude, demeanor, body language, tone. We teach them to respond in a way where you’re not calling into question [the client’s] judgment or recollection. It’s a deferral of the issue. "Mrs. Jones, that’s a really good point. Let’s check the spec and see what that says." That response is the response a lead carpenter would give because through the whole design process the client is told that we commit everything to the specification. At the pre-construction meeting, it’s said again, "If you see anything in there that’s not correct or you don’t understand, let’s get that addressed right away." If there’s an issue that comes up, the lead carpenter doesn’t have to be the bad guy. If it’s in [the specs] or isn’t in there, it doesn’t get into he said, she said.
PR: How did you write the manual?
BROWN: Everyone produced an outline as to what their job encompassed. Then that outline is completed with a little more narrative, then you explode those outline headings to give more substance. For example, the sales process is very rigorously documented. There are different parts in accounting that are heavily documented. When it comes to production management, it’s all outlined but not fleshed out yet.
PR: How does the operation manual fit into your overall strategy for growth?
BROWN: The next step, and we have not gotten there, is to break them down into modules for training. If a float carpenter aspires to be a lead carpenter, [these] are the things that they need to know. [We’ll] develop some curriculum to make sure they’re proficient in all of these activities and the skill set to allow them to be a lead carpenter.
As we [grow, we’re] needing depth in the various departments. [We’re] making our hires strategic hires, so we’re not just filling a slot for today but [asking], "Does this person have the ability or desire to move up?" The issue [that many small-business owners] are dealing with is they keep getting stretched thinner and thinner. They are unable to hire the person to do part of their job, and they just keep dialing it up. [They] say, "We can’t find the people." I say the people are out there, but they are very happily employed or handsomely compensated. To get that person, you have to grow your own.
PR: Once you have the training component, [TCI] should be self-perpetuating.
BROWN: You’re dialing up the organization to another level where you almost need a human resource director, someone in charge of training. It [becomes] an investment in your company.
The big goal is that I can be as involved [in the company] as I want to be, not that I have to be. In the bigger picture, I want to get the company to the point where it’s not dependent upon me.