21 Business Lessons from the Building Trenches

This is a guest post from my friend Justin Self, a guy I’ve known in this business for some time. I met Justin way back when he was delivering lumber to one of my job sites. He came up to me and said he wanted to learn what I was doing.  You don’t have to tell me twice to talk about building, haha.  After a few conversations he was actually silly enough to let me hire him after college for his first job in building. He has since wisened up, gone on to work as a top project manager for one of the largest, most respected builders in this part of the country, and now is off on his own, building under his brand, Manna Custom.

Justin, like myself, has a passion for the business side of this business, and is a student of how he can apply productivity, leadership, and good strategy to his grown his company.

Here are a few of the top lessons Justin has learned and kindly shared with me and our Building Optimal Community.  We hope you enjoy them…

  1. Your first order responsibility is hiring. Then training. Then retaining. If you fail at this, your projects will suffer. So will your time management and quality of life. The people drive the numbers, not vice versa. Remember it’s still a people business…invest your time in your people.

  2. How can I have this conversation so I never have to have this conversation again? Why do you ask the plumber not to knock out blocking for the framer over and over again? What if you connected the framer and plumber? Gave them each other’s cell number and told them how it affects him? Let them communicate. Cabinet guy is waiting to install cabinets and you keep having to call the sheetrocker to figure out when it will be done? What if they were talking. Manage your lines of communication. There are only so many hours in the day.

  3. What would this situation look like if I got everything I wanted in this situation? People are shockingly receptive to specifics. IF you tell them and show them exactly (and I mean exactly) what you expect (or want)… 9 times out of 10, you’ll get just that. But it’s incumbent on you to communicate that.

  4. Automation. You can’t scale if you can’t automate. Find ways to hack what you do every day. Are you printing multiple plan sets for trades that get lost? Put it in a shared drive. Set your trades up to help themselves. They want to be successful as much or more than you do.

  5. Equity. Let trades own parts of the build. They’ll take better care of their work and you’ll reap the reward. Stop thinking of it as your build. You’re just a facilitator and organizer. My trim carpenter hated seeing his towel bars pull out of sheetrock. So I told him to go in at frame and block for himself. I paid him for that. But it was negligible compared to the cost of foregone call-backs. He loved it and owned it.

  6. “Penny wise and dollar foolish.” Don’t be that builder. Invest in systems and people that win you back time and quality, because…

  7. Time is your only asset. Really and truly. It’s all we’ve got. Money is just a function of time. If you made $0.50/hr but had a million years, you’d still be rich one day. Stop thinking about money and start thinking about time.

  8. 80/20. Another time thing. You can’t be in all places at all times. We’ve all seen the task grid—what’s important, urgent, etc…What if you spent 80% of your time doing things that were Significant (i.e., they have residual impact). Do those things, and delegate the others.

  9. ABC’s. Activate, behavior, and consequences. You activate the trade, they do a thing (behavior), what’s the consequence? IF they don’t get a “what the heck” for leaving the job site a mess, guess what they do next time you initiate them? Quick feedback loops. It’s ok to say, “hey, you did a great job on this. What I want you to work on next time is this…”

  10. “Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.” On average, I would spend 2-3 more weeks in frame stage than my cohort. Then we’d slingshot through all of our finishing stages and end up way, way ahead. Think about that. It’s about minimizing the amount of times you have to go backward.

  11. “Minimum effective dose.” What’s you’ve established a team and a system, what’s the minimum effective dose of your leadership required to maintenance the system? Is it babysitting every task? Or could you settle for taking a guy out to lunch every other job? It’s still about relationship and sincerity, but how can you spread your base and scale?

  12. What does it cost NOT to do. It’s just as important as what it cost to do something in some cases.

  13. Information A’s. Information should be available and accessible. And when I say accessible, I mean understandable. Everything laid out in a job book on site. Keys in a lockbox. Your people are empowered to do a good job.

  14. Draw things. Can’t stress this enough. Again, you’re a communicator. Make the information accessible. Not everyone speaks English. We had enormous success using the universal language—pictures.

  15. No isn’t mean. Let your customers know. Can you call every week at 10am? No.

  16. Extras. If you tell someone you are going to do something as an “extra”, it is no longer an extra. It’s an opportunity for disappointment. It is a losing proposition. You don’t get extra points for delivering, you just did what you said you would do. Conversely, get credit for what you did do—show and teach.

  17. Weaponize your people. Maybe you have a painter who’s better at business management than painting. Get him out of the field. Help him grow his business. He’ll thank you and you’ll have a star player. Find their strengths and help them capitalize on it. You both win.

  18. Meetings. This is a simple one, but we all have too many meetings…Start every meeting with a goal and a take-home. If there’s not an action item, why are you wasting your precious time? Protect your time. Read Deepwork. Batch things and phase your time. I’d never schedule meetings early on the morning because that’s when trades who had a cancellation are looking to fill their schedule back up.

  19. Do it now. Everything. Anything. If you can’t, delegate it. If you can, do. Or schedule it. Sometimes just scheduling the thing is “doing something”. Your notepad and “To-Do” List is your greatest tool as a builder, but if you’re not making it actionable every day, then you were just an observer. You’re a tourist, not a builder if you don’t do the thing and do it now.

  20. Leverage technology. Put things on a calendar with repeats and do it. Opt out if you want. But your time is cleared. Feeds back into automation.

  21. Do less so you can do more. This goes back to priorities and time management. If something keeps falling through the trades’ areas of responsibility, find someone who can pick up that task and own it. You don’t have time to do that if you’re a high level builder. You need to delegate well.


BTW, if you are looking to improve some of your company’s systems, head on over to the Building Optimal Shop to check out some of our swag to build a better business. Proceeds go to benefit, Exponencialistas, my non-profit investing in entrepreneurs transforming their communities in Latin America.

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