When I started my first business, the primary goal was simply to generate a job — any job. Landing a commission that lasted a full week was considered a huge victory.
There was nothing like the feeling of generating work that people would actually pay me to do. As I stumbled through my small projects, completing each of them one at a time, I found a rhythm with which I was quite comfortable. But I was having a hard time paying the bills.
Although doing one job at a time allowed my to give my full attention to the client, I was losing valuable production in between the various static tasks that are a normal part of the fabrication process, such as glue-ups. At the time, I only had one bench and it was located behind the table saw. Whenever things were glued up, not only was that project on hold, I couldn’t even use the saw to do something else since the clamps were in the way. To help alleviate these poorly managed bottlenecks, I rearranged my process so glue-ups would occur at the end of the workday. Although this did help, I knew there had to be a better way.
Throughout those metamorphosis years I quickly learned that it was not enough to just have jobs lined up one after another. Cash flow was scant and I spent a good portion of my workday doing multiple setups for jobs that didn’t pay enough to justify the poor production flow. I needed a system in place that would allow me to stay focused on my main or current job and yet be able to work on other smaller jobs that could fill in the gaps when a roadblock occurred.
For years, I managed multiple jobs successfully and my calendar was filled two years in advance. But having that much work under contract was quite stressful. There were other factors that reshaped my business plan:
As a shop, we always felt behind. As quickly as we could finish projects, we had another in the pipeline and were constantly overextended.
I had to pass on several interesting and profitable opportunities because we could never squeeze anything new into an already-bloated schedule. Although clients agreed to wait, they never seemed happy by the time we finished.
Finally — and most importantly — although we were making more money, we were not necessarily more profitable.
The big four
Eventually a light bulb went off. It was primarily spurred by a sluggish economy that dried up our precious lead time like a fungus in wet wood. That lesson taught me there is far more to profitability than simply acquiring work. The secret lies in acquiring the right kind of work and learning how to effectively manage multiple jobs at once.
I’ve studied how large companies approach multiple workflow management. I’ve also developed relationships with many small and mid-sized businesses that have been quite successful in managing their work flow. The common thread is what I call the Mount Rushmore of multiple job management:
• Investing in the best management software
• Implementing a sound chain-of-command management style
• Upgrading technology in the shop through the purchase of equipment
• Hiring more and better bodies to do the work
For smaller shops, it’s important to develop good relationships with specialty fabricators, installers and material suppliers. They will make or break your schedule and it all starts with open lines of communication. Prompt payment and loyalty certainly helps.
In addition, it’s important to find out all of the services your suppliers provide. For instance, I recently learned my panel supplier will precut to size. On a large-scale job, this will save hours of shop and installation time, freeing labor for another project.
Taking on multiple jobs boils down to good management. Never underestimate the importance of having a standardized system that fits your business model. Take the time on the front end to clearly outline not just your business goals as it pertains to job acquisition, but how you plan to manage them.
In other words, it’s not simply a matter of buying better tools or hiring more employees, it’s understanding how to track the many puzzle pieces of a job and how to make them all go together seamlessly and without undue force.
This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue.