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I suck as a Deck Project Manager

Posted by Kathi Chenoweth on June 11, 2008

I recently posted about my deck building recruiting process. Well, we signed on the dotted line, got the building permit and homeowner’s association approval…and then…we were ready to start the project.

Except. Well, when are we starting, guys? There is no project plan! “Mark”, the account manager said that “Mike” the project manager would be calling me, then “Mark” would follow-up to make sure we talked. OK so I waited. No call from Mike or Mark.


I called the office. Next I got a call from “Joe” who is apparently not “Mike” but will be our project manager. He discussed his timeline. And said “weather permitting you should have a deck by Memorial Day”. This was really exciting, but puzzling, as Memorial Day was about three days after Joe’s planned start date. And the timeline included about three days for the concrete to set before starting to build. (It turns out Joe has no idea when Memorial Day is).

Joe promised to come and dig the holes on Tuesday. Didn’t show. Didn’t call. This is where I stepped in and became the project manager of the project manager. I waited until Thursday and then called the office. He got a little annoyed at this. I think that makes him look bad to his boss.

Every time I called Joe, he was just “on his way” to my house. I may not be good at deck project management but I’m sure psychic about it.

So on Thursday, Joe promised to be there “by 11:00”. I was speaking to him at 10:54. He was an hour away. And he had an “hour or two” of work to finish up at his current site. I questioned him a bit on this and he said “Oh, right, so I’ll be there by noon then”. The math still doesn’t quite work but I figure this is a bigger issue than I can solve today. When he wasn’t at my house by 2:00, I called him again. A stranger answered his phone. Told me that Joe was on his way to my house! (really, I’m so psychic it’s amazing). I said “Oh he is? He left his phone behind?” Stranger: “uh…yeah…”

When Joe wasn’t at my house by 4:00, I was worried. I couldn’t call him. After all — he left his phone back at the other site! 😉 So I had to call the office and get him in trouble again. He arrived at 4:30. He dug the holes and said he’d be back on Friday to pour the concrete. Friday came and went with no Joe.

The following Monday was Memorial Day (Hmmm, where’s my deck?). It was on this day that we noticed Joe had cut two pipes for the sprinkler system causing sort of a geyser effect from the post holes. I called the irrigation guys to repair it. Now, remember, I know nothing about the deck building process so I figure the deck guys (if/when they show) can “work around this”.

Deck guys show on Tuesday. I explain the sprinkler issue; it will be repaired tomorrow morning. No, they can’t “work around” it. The concrete goes in those holes, all the way to the top of the hole. Oh, to the TOP? Hmmmm. So I sent them away.

Well, the real project manager (Joe), called and chewed me out for this. This is when we stopped being friends, I guess you could say. We had words.

They poured the concrete on Thursday. It needs to set for three days. So we should be ready to start by Monday, right? So far so good…Joe had his “guys” put in the foundation on Monday. But now they needed Joe to do the intricate cuts. I made lots of calls and got lots of excuses and he finally showed up that Thursday to do it. I can’t figure if this is Joe punishing me for our ‘disagreement’ or just another example of his poor scheduling abilities. Because of course I called him that day and said “I was just wondering…” and he cut me off and said “I’m ALMOST at your HOUSE!” (my psychic abilities are starting to get eerie now).

They worked half day Thursday and said they would easily finish by Friday. I thought this odd. It seemed like they had a ton more work to do, but what do I know? At 11am they told us they’d be done by 1:30 at the latest. Yet it turns out they had about seven more hours of work to do. How do they misjudge the work that is sitting right in front of them by that much? And I’m sure some poor woman has been calling them all day asking when they are digging her post holes and they are telling her “we’ll be there in an hour…”

So in the end, our deck was finished around 8pm on Friday. The only remaining issue is the pile of lumber they left in our yard. I called today to see if they wanted it. “Oh yes! The guys were planning to come pick that up today.” Again, I am psychic!

So the experience has me reflecting on my project management skills. It certainly wasn’t smooth, and I’m sure Joe pretty much never wants to see me again. Luckily we won’t be building decks together in the future.

I’m wondering what I could have done better. It strikes me that it’s hard managing a process that you know nothing about. I’ve only previously managed consultants, which is a job that I know how to do. Managing people with talents and skills and responsibilities that are entirely different from your own – that’s hard!

Should I have praised the wood-cutting skills instead of criticizing the communication skills? And is wood-cutting even a skill? I mean, I can’t do it but would he be insulted if I praised something that easy? Maybe “You guys picked out some really nice boards at the lumber yard. Thanks for taking such care in selecting them?” Or “thanks– you really poured that concrete fast” (but how fast is fast?) Or “thanks so much for cleaning up most of the stray nails last night”? I wonder if I would’ve had better results, that way? Problem is I have no way of distinguishing what’s “average” and what’s “exceptional” in their work process.


Or maybe because I knew it was a short-term project I didn’t really care about nurturing my relationship with Joe and instead just kept calling his boss and getting him in trouble to suit my own purposes? In which case maybe I’m just a jerk with no empathy? Hopefully Joe doesn’t pass the word on to the painters because that’s the next contractor I need to hire….

So….What are some tips for managing people with skills and talents different from those with which you are familiar? How do you praise them if you don’t know what’s “good”? How do you get them to do the job well if you don’t know how to do that job? And do you know any good house painters in Northwest Indiana?

7 Responses to “I suck as a Deck Project Manager”

  1. Floyd said

    Two words to live by in dealing with construction guys: “milestone payments”. Pay an increment when the material is purchased, another when the holes are dug, another when the concrete dries, another when the deck is done, and the last after clean-up and inspection. If your contractor won’t accept a milestone payment arrangement, find another contractor. Learned this lesson the hard way many years ago.

  2. Tim said

    Ah the joys of project management and contractors. We just got a quote on a new kitchen, nothing fancy bit of remodeling. 6 months to complete! If they are anything like your deck contractor we are going to be w/o a kitchen for the next year!

  3. Ken Klaus said

    Wow – that was painful. I’m going to move “not dealing with contractors” way up on the list for why I’m still living in an apartment, just below the half million dollar price tag for a house in the Bay area! =) Enjoy the deck, you’ve earned it! -Ken

  4. Meg Bear said

    couple points
    1) I think you have proven to be an excellent deck project manager — it’s just a much harder job then one might expect
    2) I think that you and Gretchen could have some fun discussions as she is also doing a yard construction project
    3) My neighbor says it best. House projects are like childbirth. They are REALLY hard when you are doing them but after you are so happy with the results.
    4) on the real topic of managing competencies you don’t have yourself, I have a lot of thoughts but I will think on them some more and post a blog on that. I am living evidence of having no clue how people do what they do on my team…

  5. I think one way to manage such cases is to ask for their plans on how the individual will meet a deliverable or goal and the time required to have it done. Unfortunately, the difference between doing that with a building contractor and an employee/consultant is that the contractor won’t stand for your “butting in” and will become very beligerent, whereas an employee can’t refuse. 😉

    But seriously, you don’t need to know how to develop a function, program, tables, etc. to manage a team but you should know when a task calls for one or the other. I would never accept “oh, I wrote some code to do that” as an acceptable response.

    This was a wonderful story and a great tie-in to managing different skill sets. Anyone can relate to it and you make some valid points.

  6. I have found that having everything in writing, including the timeline of the job and payment schedule, has worked for me. Always leave a fair amount of your payment due at the end of the job.

    Also I know people who have used a penalty clause in their contract. If the job is not finished by a certain date, the contractor forfeits part of his remaining payment.

  7. Project management is always tricky.. its like you have to adjust the dials on everything every day to make sure every thing is going right. And when things go right; it feels like something is going wrong. lol

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