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Business Advisor

Trade Contractor Management — Part 5

Use brainstorming sessions to create your own company checklists and nail down your specifications

To finalize your specifications, invite your subcontractors to a brainstorming session. [Photo: Justin Russell]
Image Credit: Justin Russell

The most time-intensive part of creating a trade contractor management program is creating your company’s specifications for each trade which, in turn, provide you with the information to include in your checklists. To get started, assemble any and all material you have that includes standard specifications. Plans and spec books from previous jobs, your own subcontracts, trade contractor management books and programs, and your own experience are good places to start.

Most architectural specifications are created more for legal than performance reasons, and, like most legal documents, are not particularly concise or easy to read. That doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t find some useful information in them. Review previous contracts with trade contractors, pulling out any good points. Finally, there are several books on the subject that can help get you started.

Regardless of what you can find, you will likely need to spend some serious time customizing your own lists to work effectively in your business.

List of lists

The first step is to figure out how many distinct trade contractor categories you have. In some cases you may have a single company working on multiple trades, but that may not always be the case, so you should identify categories of work by their construction sequence and create separate specifications for each.

As an example, you may often use the same subcontractor for framing, windows, siding, and exterior trim, and decks. Some projects may only include one or two of these categories, or you may sometimes use different contractors for them on a single job. If you combined all the specifications for these trades on a single checklist, then it would be difficult to separate out responsibility when multiple trades are on a project.

We ended up with a list of twenty-four individual checklists. It’s not likely that many companies will need the exact same set of lists, but here is ours, in alphabetical order:

• Bath Accessories

• Building Envelope

• Cabinet Installation

• Concrete Flat Work

• Countertops

• Decks

• Demolition

• Drywall

• Electrical

• Foundation

• Framing

• Garage Doors


• Insulation

• Interior Trim

• Masonry and Stucco

• Paint

• Plumbing

• Resilient Flooring

• Roofing

• Siding and Exterior Trim

• Site Work

• Shop Built Staircases

• Wood Flooring

These categories align closely with our estimating and budget categories. Project managers were provided with subcontract budgets for each category, simplifying the process for negotiating the work with each trade.


Once you have defined your trade categories, the real work starts. We scheduled meetings with all our field staff as well as some key trade contractors to create our specifications. We use a common corporate technique known as brainstorming. Everyone gets in the same room for a set period of time, say an hour or two, cell phones off, and a facilitator works a flip chart with a marker.

The key to brainstorming is that no ideas are censored. Everything is on the table at the beginning, and no one is allowed to criticize a suggestion. Some of the best ideas may sound foolish initially, and you don’t want to stifle any creative thinking.

Everyone has to contribute. One of the best ways to do this is go around the room and have each person give one idea, all of which are written on the flip chart. After a few rounds, then you open it up to everyone.

We came up with things such as how far out of level a run of cabinets is allowed to be (3/16” in 10’), how much lippage was allowed on ceramic tile floors (1/16” maximum), and clearance between siding and roof (1” or manufacturer’s recommended distance). I’m sure we left some things out, but we got in most of what we needed.

Invite your trade contractors to help

Probably the best thing we did was bring in trade contractors that did our best work to help us establish our specifications. We figured that if we liked a particular company’s work, then they could work with us to set goals that we liked and they could meet. We worked with framers, trim carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and others in a series of meetings to create our specs.

Once you have a big, long list of suggested specifications, you then need to narrow them down to a manageable list. In looking over your list, you’ll find that there are probably duplicates and some that are so similar they can be combined. Some will end up on the cutting room floor because they are wrong, inappropriate, or sometimes just silly.

Following the brainstorming meeting, one person, or a small group, need to take responsibility to edit the list and prepare a set of specs for the whole group to review. Sending out these lists, making sure everyone reviews and comments on them, and assembling the comments and suggestions into a final list of specs is a big job, one that can easily fall through the cracks if you don’t dedicate the time to work on it.

Time well spent

As I mentioned in the first post on this subject, it takes time and effort to create programs and specifications, but once you do it, they are the gift that keeps on giving, saving you time and energy forever.

I know that everyone is working hard just to keep up with their day-to-day work, but you should trust me on this. If when you take the time to put together effective systems in your business, it will, in the long run, save you time and money. It is always worth the effort to take some time to work on, instead of in, your business.

If you just can’t wait to get started on your own trade contractor management program, use this link to download the full set of checklists. The set includes 24 individual checklists for most standard residential construction trades in Excel format along with a suggested procedure. You can personalize and edit each page as you see fit.

One Comment

  1. Expert Member
    ARMANDO COBO | | #1

    Thank you
    Carl, I appreciate you sharing your insights, knowledge and work.

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