Defining the Foreman's Job in Your Shop

"We'll take care of it." These are words a shop owner needs to hear from a good foreman.

It happened last month to us. We had just had a sink base cabinet run returned to us. The owner had changed his mind about the sink and wanted a bigger one. Sound familiar? Our foreman took it in stride and, by the end of the week, had managed, somehow, to re-build the entire run.

The foreman's job, and how he does it, is a key part of your success as a shop. Following are some of the skills to look out for.

Running the Shop
Even if you operate a one-person shop, producing the work on time is often one of your biggest challenges. As you grow past a five-man operation, you'll usually end up having a right-hand person on the floor to help. This is essentially your foreman. It's the person you turn to help with getting the harder parts of the work done, probably the employee you leave in charge when you have to make a lumber run, or (even) when you grab that long weekend.

Understanding what has to be done, and in what order, is part of how successful you are as a shop, and the foreman is at the center of all of this. It's a foreman's job to organize what gets done when, and to keep an eye on what's being fabricated.

The weekly and on-going monthly schedules are crucial to how your foreman does his job. I would suggest weekly, regular sit-down meetings to go over the changing workload picture. A visual schedule board with pushpins can really help here, as can computerized scheduling programs.

You may want to keep your foreman involved with purchasing and inventory. Even if someone else is actually ordering what's needed for a job, you may want to pass that information through the foreman. This way, he'll be intimately connected with what materials are needed, when they're supposed to arrive, for which job, etc. It may give him a better understanding of how to schedule the work, and what delays may lurk ahead.

If your foreman is having trouble with deciding what needs to be done when in order to get the work out on time, you may want to encourage him to start making to-do lists of the different parts of projects that need to be completed. If he can assign approximate labor times, perhaps even specific people, to that list, so much the better.

Your foreman is usually the person who can build things better than everyone else. He has a keen eye for quality, he can make a flatter door than anyone, put perfect jigs and templates together, and so on.

But, you need to note how he is on making sure that other people in the shop follow his lead. One skill a good foreman needs is the ability to teach others his craft. Teaching may take up valuable production time, but in the long run, it's worth it.

No matter what level of quality you and your shop decide to produce, it has to be consistent.

If you build tract home cabinets, your foreman needs to make sure that the crew is not sanding the face frames with 400 grit sandpaper, yet there still must be minimal scratches. By the same token, if your shop is known for its furniture-grade work, your foreman must insist on absolutely no scratches.

If your foreman is truly able to motivate your staff, like a good coach in any team sport, your shop will be a winner. Being fair and firm are usually the key ways in which this works, so if you see those qualities in one of your employees, perhaps he's a potential foreman.

Being Responsible
The list of duties a good foreman may take on is a long one, and can be overwhelming if you're not careful. It's important, though, that your chosen person is able to juggle tasks and time well.

In the past, some shops had their foreman doing stock billing or cut-listing. Not only did he have to run the shop, but he had to figure out how to build the work, too. This method is fading out, not only because people with this skill are harder and harder to find, but also because many shops are trying to produce cut-lists before the work hits the shop floor. This can free up the foreman to concentrate on supervising the work.

At our shop, the foreman is very active with our employees. He's a big part of hiring and reviewing. He's the person who usually will screen a potential employee over the phone, and will conduct the first interview. He'll write up the annual review, recommend pay increases and put together reprimands. We've found that it's a good idea to have some kind of ongoing reporting back to the owner or management as to employees' progress and performance, and our foreman usually does that on a monthly basis.

Many shops have the foreman be responsible for equipment maintenance. Even if the foreman delegates this task to someone else, he should be the one who oversees it. The machinery in our industry is becoming more complex, more efficient, more automatic and, of course, computer dependent. Keeping the equipment in good working order is central to our success. You may want to have your foreman put together a written maintenance plan so that things can be checked off as they are done on a regular basis.

Taking care of tools and equipment is very much a part of your safety program, and here, too, your foreman must play a large role. He's the person who has to oversee that all your employees work in a safe manner. Regular safety meetings can help here. It's also very important to make sure each and every new employee is trained on each piece of equipment he or she is allowed to use.

Clean up is not just part of working safely, it's also a way that your shop can be efficient, too. Here, your foreman should take the lead in deciding how the shop gets cleaned up whether it's daily, by everyone, or whether you can afford to hire a special clean-up person.

All in all, your foreman is the person who is truly the key player in your shop. He needs to get that work out your roll-up door, while you as the owner go out and find more projects for the shop to build.