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10 Steps to Success

(With Jesper Cook)

Our company, Millworks By Design, is one of the largest high-end trim companies in the Los Angeles, CA area. We started our company in 2007 with the resolve to run it differently than the other outfits in the area. We saw opportunity in the lack of professionalism and organization one finds in some of the other companies around us.

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Our plan was to build a company that was efficient in all aspects, not just carpentry. We wanted every encounter with our staff to be an enjoyable experience, from the initial estimating and RFI submittals to invoicing and the final punch-out process. It was our vision to not only produce high-quality finish carpentry packages, but also clear, professional, paperwork, and excellent customer service.

It has been three years now, and while we have learned many hard lessons, endured a shoddy economy, and generally feel battle-hardened and worn, our vision has remained unchanged. We’ve learned a few things: mainly that we don’t know much, but also that the most important asset this company has is the people who work here. That is why we realize that promoting and nurturing a great “company culture” is so vitally important to seeing our vision become reality.

One thing we have learned about company culture is that it must be constantly communicated. If we expect our people to uphold a certain set of values, we need to make sure that they know exactly what is expected. We have tried many different methods of communicating our expectations to our employees, and would like to share one example with you.

In order to properly introduce this particular method, we have to set the context by telling you two things about our company:

1. Part of our payroll and estimating system requires our field carpenters to keep very accurate time sheets. Every single item on a project has been assigned a unique cost code that must be referenced on the carpenter’s time sheets. To ensure accuracy, we require that each carpenter carry a clipboard with his timesheet, and that he hang it on a wall close to his work area. This makes it easy for the foreman to check his crew’s timesheets to verify that the hours worked are being logged with the correct cost code. (We frequently have projects with over five hundred cost codes, so double-checking the timesheets is very important.)

2. When we hire a new employee, there is a lot of paperwork, part of which is a four page, categorized, written policy, titled “MBD Production Staff Policy,” for the new hire to read through. Its purpose is to clearly define our expectations for our field-based staff regarding things like client relations, productivity, jobsite behavior, material handling, safety, tools and supplies. The document is complete, and very effective in communicating expectations, but the reality is that it just isn’t read very often.

Recently one of my foremen, Jesper Cook, recognized the need for two things: A uniform clipboard with a company logo, and a “Cliff’s Notes” version of the Production Staff Policy that was placed where it would be read frequently.

First, we summarized the Production Staff Policy into ten key points that could fit on ONE page. We now call this condensed policy the “10 Steps to Success at MBD.” Second, we found some clear clipboards that are designed to receive an inserted form. Instead of printing custom clipboards, we were able insert an MBD logo on one side, and our “10 Steps” document on the other. Now each man on the crew has a company-issued, professional looking clipboard, that contains a clear reminder of our company’s expectations for our production staff.

As a side note, experience has taught us to never do something permanent—like having clipboards custom-printed—until we have all the bugs and edits worked out. We like to implement new ideas quickly, so that we can measure their success, or find out if they don’t work. Finding ways to implement ideas cheaply and without much commitment allows us to scrap the idea if it doesn’t work as planned. The idea with the clipboard is in the testing stage now. If we feel that it is an effective tool for our crews, we will invest in custom-made clipboards with our logo and our “10 Steps” permanently printed.




Before starting any new task, fully understand the scope by obtaining and studying all relevant data, including the work order, plans, drawing, etc.


Set up all necessary tools, equipment, and materials before staring the task, and keep them as close to the work area as possible.


Keep shims, supplies and tools neatly organized and separated by type. Maintain a dedicated plan table at all times.


Predict potential issues and take action before it’s too late.


Have all necessary tools and equipment at hand before starting any work.


Use layout sticks and story poles. Make sure all dimensions work out before installing any millwork.


Run hoses and cords neatly and out of walkways. Maintain walkways, tool stations, and work areas clear of debris.


Minimize wasted effort due to double-handling materials, or making unnecessary trips to work stations.


Own up to your mistakes, and learn from them. Never blame your tools or someone else for a mistake only you could have prevented.


Work hard to complete tasks within the allocated time. Have a sense of urgency and look for ways to get more done in less time.

(Photos by Boots Cadby)


30 Responses to “10 Steps to Success”

  1. Philip Herzegovitch

    The more I live, the more I see so many facets of my life repeating themselves. Much of what the guys here in this article are espousing, I have experienced and practiced in another career as an automobile technician. From 1984 to 2000. These are all examples of metrics. Without them, you are only guessing what you have made and where you are going. While in the dealership circuit, it was all about documentation and time flags. Every repair order had to have the 3 C’s ( complaint, cause and correction) all time had to be accounted for and communication was a very important skill. When I moved into management, I used what I learned to bring a bodyshop back from the edge and into profitability. Tracking every minute, job-costing every vehicle repair and using that data to tweak my systems and get the guys working for me to realize the impact they have on the bottom line.
    I am very glad to see folks using the same types of systems in the Trades. A friend of, and I lament on how we could make an impact on this industry. He is also from the auto business originally. A parts dept. manager. So, when we see inefficiencies that could easily be remedied, it irks us to no end.
    Thanks for a great article. Short, sweet and no fluff, just the facts m’am.


    • Gary Katz

      I agree! Short and sweet and to the point.
      Dan, Thanks for a great story. There’s a lot more to success than good craftsmanship, especially if you want to work on large-scale high-end jobs. Managing people isn’t about telling them what to do, it’s about helping them learn how to distinguish what needs to be done…and developing a system that will engage your employees. I can’t wait for Part 2.

    • MattsAllure

      I am all about efficiency. No, I am not a salesman for this, but if you’re keeping track of cost codes, become more efficient by getting away from the paper and make your guys go to something easier like a key punch system. There are many on the market. Here at Allure we use Exaktime and we have six clocks, one on each job. I have an older system utilizing a Palm, but the newer systems are bluetooth and internet capable. Slick system and it has saved me so much more than ever invested. However, hourly guys always need to be managed, and this is the biggest thing that everyone balks about is tracking their time.

  2. Ben

    I enjoyed the article, but have a problem with #10.

    A sense of urgency is how people lose fingers, and worse.

    • John R Graybill

      Hopefully they have Saw Stop brand bench saws. Switching out a cartridge and installing a new blade is much faster than the ER room, micro surgery etc.. Or #10 just means what it implies; no one gets paid untill the work is in place today. Get it done, stay a little latter to finish. It’s just carpentry.

      • Matt Follett

        I agree John. There is always a balance between the time we’d like to spend & the time we are alotted. Urgency (in my mind) means a sense of purpose. Not hurried to the point of silly or, God forbid, harmful mistakes. If you have a solid plan of attack & a way to implement it, you should be able to move more efficiently (or ‘quickly’) than the next guy.

        • Dan Parish

          Matt – You nailed it on the head. Thats why this is #10 out of 10. If you have done all the previous points, you should be able to work quickly and efficiently. We find that they guys who have that “sense of urgency” get the most accomplished and are also the most focused. The last thing we want is someone turning a 1 day task into a 2 day task because they are dragging their feet!

          • Gary Katz

            I can’t think of a better word than ‘urgency’ to describe the attitude employees should share and practice on a jobsite. Look it up in a thesaurus: “acute, pressing, critical, serious, grave, intense, crying, burning, compelling, extreme, exigent, high-priority, top-priority.” Don’t read something into the word that’s not there, like ‘dangerous’.

            Let’s not kid ourselves. Working and succeeding in construction has always been competitive and demanding. While some professionals are able to live in a more romanticized world of simple craftmanship, most of us are pressed simultaneously by technical and time challenges, especially in high-end work. I’m always excited to see ‘systems’ developed by innovative employers, whether they are installation or management programs, because both are an urgent necessity for survival and success.

          • Ray Menard

            I agree with Dan’s comment above, how one step naturally contributes to the success of the next but I also agree with Ben that a sense of “urgency” can be misinterpreted to mean – hurry up & get it done. Safety & care must be a key component of corporate culture & the team leaders in the field must know that their supervisors support as well as encourage that wearing proper safety equipment & allowing time to be spent spent making safety jigs or setting up ladders & staging properly is time well spent. (Admittedly, the jig issue may be a more important consideration in a shop setting.)

            Sounds like Jesper’s company is not “driving” their crews & I suspect that safety is a key component of their work culture. Still is adds a lot to have it written that safety is a priority. I have been ‘driven” by bosses & have walked off those jobs as soon as I could. Having been a boss myself I have pushed for productivity too, but my crews had read & heard from me often enough about “safety first” that they could always back me off a bit when my ‘urgency” was at the expense of their well being. Rule # 11 may not be necessary but a “stay safe” clause is always appropriate.

  3. Dezri Dean

    One thing we have learned about company culture is that it must be constantly communicated. (kind of like making sure you tell your wife you love her?)
    (MBD Production Staff Policy)?
    All of this is indicative of people NOT doing the right thing!
    Whether working for an employer OR “myself”, I NEVER skipped these things!(self employed)
    All of these things were understood even while unstated! Another indicator of the sorry state of things today!
    Just one more reason I am NOT interested in being an employer!
    “10 Steps to Success at “?”.”
    Another way to say – Success! period!!!
    I am Not saying that I did not have my clipboard with it’s checklist of items – as a reminder! I never had to get that picky because some things are part and parcel of the JOB! Do it RIGHT! First time every time!

    • Gary Katz

      You’re right! Some contractors/carpenters don’t want to be employers, they want to stay small. That’s a choice. But not everyone has the same ambition. There are many people I know who are excited by big over-the-top jobs with day-to-day challenges, where developing systems that increase productivity and teamwork are as fulfilling as making a beautiful mantelpiece. Managing people and initiating a shared sense of esprit de corps (or any team attitude) is critical when you’re running multiple large-scale jobs, even with a small crew of ten to fifteen carpenters, but especially if you’re working forty or fifty carpenters–and what an astounding challenge.

  4. Dezri Dean

    Personal Moderation!
    I have had one instance where an employer told me that she “believed I believed I was doing a good job – but she believed I was NOT”
    (She knew nothing about HOW to do the job, nor had she consulted the customer!)

  5. Kreg mcmahon

    Very good article and really enjOyed it thanks for taking the time and would love a part 2

    Also where do you get the clip boards with sleeves they would be great also for putting the sketch or other ideas in. Thanks!

  6. Greg Burnet

    Nice article, guys. I agree with Kreg that a part II would be welcome.

    This piece particularly struck a chord with me since my company has been working diligently over the past year to develop & implement standardized systems & procedures for all of our operations. We’ve found the insight we’ve gained while developing the systems to be almost as valuable (perhaps even more so) than the procedures themselves. I’m curious whether you had a similar experience?

    I’m also curious how you handle employee buy-in to your systems? We’ve identified this to be an area that we need to pay particular attention to. Our experience has been that it often takes a fair amount of training (& re-training in some cases) to get our processes to stick.

    Finally, would you care to comment on how you developed your systems? Frankly, I’ve found it to be an overwhelming task & one that demands a lot of time. When we started our processes, I hoped we’d have them outlined, scripted, & implemented within a year. That was unrealistic to say the least. We’re now heading into year 2 & expect to be at it well into year 3, even with the help of a a part time systems specialist we’ve hired. Are you developing your systems with the input or assistance of anyone outside your organization?

    Thanks for an excellent piece.

  7. David Tuttle

    Thanks for the article. Having run bigger shops, it takes management to be behind it 100%. Jesper himself could get his crew to run well but if management’s not behind making visible changes when carpenters have to fill out 50 point time card. I’ve been in the “intuitive” run shop… and I’ve been in the “micro-managed” shop.

    The micro managed style was after the data to penalize the employees and to fill out the expensive computer program (which they never got to work). In the intuitive shop the owner would walk around and talk to the guys, if he was in-house when a late night was needed he would personally ask and then have the foreman make sure the key guys were able to stay late.

    If your system was implemented in the micro managed shop there would be no better production, in the intuitive shop if someone in the office was working the numbers making viable changed that shop could have taken over the world (well, improved profits and production at least).

    Well I think thats about my $2.00 worth.

  8. Dixon Peer

    Seems to me you’re asking an awful lot of the crews to fill out time sheets with possibly five hundred (!) cost codes. When do they have time to work? I appreciate the need for accurate job cost accounting, but five hundred cost codes on a job? I don’t think many carpenters are going to keep that system going in an accurate fashion for more than about the first couple of hours.

  9. Dan Parish

    Wow…Quite a variety of comments! I can see that we may need to put together a follow up article that explains the cost code system and our philosophy of management a little better. We certainly don’t want our guys to feel micro managed, in fact we want all of our employees to feel free to express their creativity and also bring good ideas to the table.
    However, that has to be balanced with the practical side of managing 15 – 20 jobs at a time with 150 – 500 line items in each contract! Not only managing our existing work but being able to harness the data we produce daily to help our estimator and engineers create clean, accurate and realistic estimates and scopes of work.

    Greg – Glad to hear that it hasn’t been easy breezy for you in your efforts to put a training program/standard pratices together. We have also been pecking away at it for several years…It seems difficult to balance working on that and working on stuff that pays the bills and payroll!

    Dan Parish

  10. Rich

    Good article. Again the word “urgency” can be misunderstood. If being accurate, neat and no call back, the goal has been reached.

  11. Marty

    Would like to see more details on the cost code system you use. 500 codes sounds like a lot, but maybe it has some good reason to be that way. Looking forward to it.

  12. Bill Bartlett

    This is all well and good and I concurr…I just wish the material manufacturers and suppliers would have the same sense of pride and craftsmanhhip. A lot of material these days is garbage. God forbid you want some clear vertical frain fir or quarter sawn hardwood! It’s out there as long as you have lots of lead time and cash!

  13. J.E. Thiessen

    I like that article a lot. Jobsite efficiency, predictability, and clear communication is important from a profitability perspective, but also from a customer satisfaction point of view. Are there clear start and end dates? Are there clear (and clearly demonstrated) milestones? Does the crew work in a focused, purposeful way? 500 cost codes sounds pretty crazed to me, but if it helps with getting the list done, then so be it.

    For a future article, I’d be interested to know how this system manages projects that have gone off track for one reason or another.


  14. Dixon Peer

    Bless you my son, if you can get all those people to accurately fill out their times sheets with five hundred cost codes to choose from. My experience with job cost accounting and my employees, when I had any, was that there was a lot of “re-constructing” of time cards at the end of the pay week. I’m sure I wasn’t getting terribly accurate accounting of the time they spent at different tasks that were supposed to be on their cards. If anyone can make their crew keep accurate records for them, I’d like to know how they do it.

  15. Jeff Jackson

    I once worked at a business where for years the shop was a fairly loosely run organization and where the workers could be counted on to do their jobs correctly and quickly.The shop began hiring less ambitious,lower paid workers and sure enough over the course of several years the production slipped and the workmanship as well.The management countered by micro-managing and pretty quickly drove most of their best workers away and leaving them with the nimrods who don’t mind being shoved around as long as there was a paycheck at the end of the week.I decided then,there would never be another time in my life where I would be willing to work for micro-managers.A guy needs to feel like he is more than a part of the machinery.A Good worker welcomes responsibility for his job and performs it without a foreman breathing down his back.

  16. Jim Baldwin

    Good article and great points to be sure but… I really hate paperwork. I am however a fairly good craftsman and self-motivated (I earn my pay). I think I might resent filling out your production forms or reports but would certainly do it if it were part of the job. You would be paying me however to scribble notes instead of cutting wood.

    Every capable and worthwhile “company employee” is first an individual and will have a style all his own. Some guys are very meticulous and bit slow, while others are quick but can sometimes let their hands get ahead of their head. The trick for any good foreman is to know his crew and assign the right man for the right job.

    I think you might consider assigning the paperwork and job assessment forms to a Foreman and let the full/time carpenters cut wood. A good foreman will brief and debrief every guy everyday anyway (day in and day out) and a good foreman will earn his pay as well as the respect of his crew.

    As an LA based firm,I am sure you also hire your fair share of (legal) Hispanics. These guys are often good craftsmen but can be a bit weak on their English. I am wondering what they make of your job-sheet reports?

    I am also not sure about your phrase “sense of urgency”… sounds to much like “emergency” to me or maybe a trip to the “Urgent Care Clinic”. How about a posted sign saying…

    “Work Safe, Stay focused, Get-er done!”

    Anyway, I respectfully submit that if you can write an article entitled “Ten Steps To Success” ten or twenty years from now (instead of three) you will have my full and undivided attention.

    And please pay no attention to any sarcasm here, it’s just my style.

    • Dan Parish

      Hey Jim..And everyone…
      I appreciate your comments. To be a little more clear here is how the whole cost code thing works:

      1. When a job is signed up, it goes through an engineering process where the scope of work is itemized, shop drawings are generated, material lists generated and scheduled, RFI’s are sent out and cost codes are set up.

      2. This package is handed off to a foreman.

      3. The foreman assigns daily tasks to his crew and gives the codes for each task. Sometimes each rooms scope of work with the cost codes and material list is posted is posted in each room on a 11 x 17 board.

      4. The time sheets are super simple, were all the guys have to input is the job#, Cost or Task Code, and room name. There is a comments section but that is reserved only for comments that need to make it into the job reports. We are not interested in written descriptions of what each guy did.

      5. The guys keep their clipboards where they are working. Sometimes hanging on their benches, sometimes on the wall. The foreman check the codes from time to time during the day and sign off on the codes at the end of each day.

      6. A previous weeks time is usually entered into our system by Tues of the following week and the foreman can recieve their job reports by the end of the week. The job reports show how much time has been spent on each task, as well as how much time is left.

      7. At the end of a job, we have a complete report showing exactly how much time went into each line item, as well as “General Conditions” items like supervision, material handling, staging, etc…This data is then used to refine our estimating system so that we can quickly estimate large millwork projects and have CONFIDENCE in our numbers.

      Thanks for all the various comments!’


  17. Roger Gadd

    I wish you the best of luck but from my experience you will have a very tough job ahead of you. A couple of times over the years I have worked for very detailed people who have wanted to be at the cutting edge of efficiency and time management. In both instances the owners were really nice people and that they had a burning desire to be the very best in their business. One of the problems was that the labour pool was not big enough to be able to get enough of the right people that would fit into their mould. From my perspective (and maybe only mine) the labour pool would never be big enough.
    The turn-over was huge. Even though most of us tried, and i really tried, to fill out the forms and do things the required way, there were a number of employees that didn’t or couldn’t do what was expected. Unless everyone is doing it, the outcome becomes skewed and therefor not reliable. I even gave training sessions after hours, to boost productivity but very few people ever came. I even supplied supper at my own expense!
    Of course no system ever stays the same. We had binders of procedures which constantly changed which would make even the Pope swear. Just when you thought you had most forms being filled out properly a new improved tweeked version came out.
    Frustrated employees are not happy employees and not happy employees quit. Hence the labour pool problem.
    I came to realize decades ago that the raison d’etre for employers is completely different than for employees.
    Anyways, that is my experience and I hope you have better luck at it.


  18. Scott Burt

    Good article. We are looking at all these same issues, trying to achieve better definition within the crew. Instead of “urgency”, I would say “diligence of purpose” and the reality that work habits create efficiency.

  19. Doug

    Dom Portwood: Hi, Peter. What’s happening? We need to talk about your TPS reports.
    Peter Gibbons: Yeah. The coversheet. I know, I know. Uh, Bill talked to me about it.
    Dom Portwood: Yeah. Did you get that memo?
    Peter Gibbons: Yeah. I got the memo. And I understand the policy. And the problem is just that I forgot the one time. And I’ve already taken care of it so it’s not even really a problem anymore.
    Dom Portwood: Ah! Yeah. It’s just we’re putting new coversheets on all the TPS reports before they go out now. So if you could go ahead and try to remember to do that from now on, that’d be great. All right!

    Have you ever asked your carpenter employees what they really think about TPS rep… I mean time sheets and cost codes and adherence to their use?!

  20. Lee Reiners

    My only difference would be to add a new number one: safety. I think #7 alludes to it by keeping the work area clean. Even in my day job in an office, safety is the first topic in any meeting. Great philosophy and summary.


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