Should Your Shop Install Your Work?

What kind of work does your shop do? Are you building work that's very difficult to install? Could the "average Joe" general contractor deal with putting in your work? Could he or she make it look as good as it did when it was on your shop floor?

The answers to these questions may well determine whether or not your company gets involved in installing the work you build.

If, for example, you're doing tract home work, and all of your kitchen or bathroom cabinets are very similar, maybe you don't need to think about having too much involvement in the job site end of things.
Or, perhaps you can put out a good, detailed set of installation instructions that accompany your product and hope that whoever has the thankless task of actually assembling, hanging and adjusting your work may actually read those directions.

Or, maybe your shop is involved in commercial work, and there's a good, experienced contractor on site who has a team of experienced finish carpenters people who can manage the field work for you.
Remember, though, whatever the case, it's the installers who end up making your work look either crisp or sloppy!

A different breed
Installation work is really a different business, and very dissimilar to shop work. It involves a special type of employee, one with a different mindset. More importantly, the working environment is completely unlike that of your shop.

You've probably seen it yourself: You walk onto a job, and there's a spaghetti junction of extension cords to greet you. The oversized plumber is lying in your sink cabinet, his Channel-locks grinding away at the back of your carcass. The electrician is standing on the plastic laminate countertop, adjusting the recessed lights, while the superintendent is asking you why things are taking so long to get finished.
In other words, it's total chaos, compared to your organized, orderly shop.

The type of employee who can function well in this installation environment is often very different than a shop worker. We've found, at least at our shop, that the kind of person who excels at installation is often someone who's more adaptable than the typical shop worker. A good installer can roll with the punches; he can deal with a wall that's an inch out of plumb, or something similar that was missed when the job was measured. The even-tempered installer can also work alongside a painter who insists on putting up a step ladder two feet away from where the installer is trying to scribe a walnut end-panel that's eight feet high.

Throughout the years we've been in the cabinet business, we've found that it's rare that the two personality types shop worker and field installer are the same. As a result, you may be asking for trouble by making your shop people work in the field. They may be very uncomfortable without the security blanket of the shop around them their bench, the tool cabinet, certain other employees, and so on.

By the same token, your field people may not be able to work in the shop all that well. They may want to work faster, more sloppily, and just get the work finished up and looking good on the outside.

A field staff
We've found that a crackerjack installer is a rare bird and this is the main obstacle to creating a field crew of installers.

Not only is it hard to find good people, it takes a long time to train people in the field. There are, after all, so many variables on the job site. Because of this, solid experience really only comes after a good five years of doing installation on a daily basis.'

All of these factors may motivate you to keep your installers in the field, busy all the time, instead of having them come in and out of the shop, bouncing between field and bench. I don't recommend the latter scenario. Quite apart from the difference in skills and approaches to the work that I noted earlier, there's the unpaid down-time of mobilizing, tear-down and clean-up.

Then there's the equipment issue. The installer probably needs both a truck and a full complement of good tools. Is your shop prepared to finance that, or would you expect the individual installer to foot the bill? Either way, it'll cost you by buying the tools yourself, or by paying the employee more so he can purchase the chop saw, compressor, nail gun, etc.

Then there's the whole "managing" part of installation. How do you do that without actually being there yourself to watch what's going on? While it's relatively easy to keep an eye on things in the shop, it's a totally different thing to stay in touch with the job site. Here, your installer or your team of field people have to be on top of things. There has to be a lot of unsupervised motivation and that's usually possible only if you have a key person in charge of your field work.

You'll need to pay this installer well, probably more than your shop people. It's not uncommon to find field people making up to 25% more in wages than their counterparts inside the shop and this, of course, can cause friction.

Not only do you have to pay more, but somehow you have to make money out of this work, too! Be sure to price it high if you can.

Other issues
Many shops find installation difficult to estimate. Again, there are many variables, some of which you may have no control over: changing schedules; the job site not being ready; access issues; other subcontractors in the way and on and on.

Hand-overs giving the job from the shop to the field are also critical. Many shops insist on the foreman, project manager and installer sitting down to discuss areas of concern prior to going out and beginning to install the work.

When you're actually installing your work, suddenly you're responsible for a lot more including how the final product really turns out. It's totally your thing now, and the risks are higher. Do you really want all that?

In the final analysis, though, installing your work can be an excellent way of really controlling the way your product looks and the way it functions. It can also be a great exercise in public relations, especially if your installers take pride in what they do. You can fix problems on the fly sometimes without your customer ever knowing those problems existed in the first place.