Managing Multiple Projects

Shop owners share methods for keeping multipe jobs on track while saving your own sanity. November 10, 2005

I am wondering how other woodworkers manage when they have multiple projects of various sizes on the go? I have hired a helper and it has increased production, but he needs training for a few months before I can leave him alone. There used to be a nice linear flow to my business - one job at a time - but I lost lots of good projects due to long waiting periods (3-4 months average). I don't like losing any good business, but maybe this is a flawed strategy. Keeping track of everything is becoming harder.

Presently we're building and installing a bar with a home theatre centre, starting a face frame kitchen, midway through four living room small tables, and numerous annoying little wall shelves, organizers and tabletops. I would like to stop installing, but I doubt that will attract business. I would also like to stop the small stuff with lots of delivering/installing involved. They were my bread and butter at one time. Now the big built-ins and all shop-built furniture are better paying.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor F:
Here is a list of things I would suggest thinking about.
1. Stretch lead times.
2. Start saying no to little projects.
3. Hire better help.
4. Sub out to other shops.
5. All of the above.

From contributor J:
That can be stressful to say the least. The best thing that I can suggest is to get a firm idea of how much you can accomplish in one day. Until you get an idea of how long it takes you to build a kitchen or AV cabinet or whatever, you will continue to be frustrated. Deadlines have a way of sneaking up on us. After you determine what a reasonable output you can expect from yourself and your employee, then you need to determine what other resources will be required (equipment, time and materials). I know this probably sounds redundant, but again, only after you have done some real self-examination, should you begin scheduling work. After all, you shouldn't really put anyone into the schedule unless you have a pretty good idea how long it is going to take to complete the project.

Personally, I use a couple of tools. The first is a day planner. Its pretty basic. The second is composition notebook. I use this kind of like a catch all. If I have a project to begin, I write down everything that I can think of that pertains to that project. For one, it gets the details out of my head and onto paper. No schedules here, just facts and assumptions. Once I get the details worked out onto paper, I move to a scheduling program. Personally, I use Microsoft Project. It fits my needs well. I can assign tasks and resources, and immediately see any conflicts. Only after I work out the details, do I print a 3 month schedule out for my day planner. I try to keep my day planner real clean and simple to avoid confusion. The downside to all of this is that it takes time and discipline to set up a program that will work. The upside is that I can track past projects to estimate jobs and predict performance, and last but not least I keep my head clear.

From contributor P:
How to cope? You need the Copemaster, they talked about it on the architectural forum look under coping. Cope and organize in that order. Part of organizing is getting other people to do the work.

From contributor H:
Ive been where you are. The first thing I would recommend is to raise your prices a lot. This will slow the number of jobs you are getting in. It won't stop them, but don't worry as it will let a few folks walk away. When they find out everyone elses lead time they'll be back if they like your work. When you get that job at the higher price you can now afford better or more help. If youre working late go home at the first sign of a mistake, its better than staying and getting the job done.

A 3 month wait is not out of line for a busy 2 man shop that produces good work. Lastly, this will sound wrong, but take a week off and go away. It sounds to me like you are on the edge of burnout. Everyone will live and it will all be there when you get back. And you will be refreshed and renewed enough to deal with it.

From contributor K:
I would suggest making cut lists for all of your jobs. If you have a program like KCDW it helps. The trick is to introduce more then one project at a time to the shop. If you have cut lists you can organize the jobs so that you can do similar ones together.

What I do is cut for two or three jobs at one time. This doesn't take that much longer then if you are cutting one job. Number all of your parts and separate them. After you have all the frame material cut, your helper can assemble them while you cut the carcass material. Drawings with dimensions will help your helper to better understand what he is building and it will tell him how your rails and styles go on each frame. While you are assembling the carcass he can be sanding frames or he can put the carcass together and you could cut and assemble drawers or doors.

After a while he will be assembling full cabinets and you will always be supplying new jobs. Right now I have 3 jobs being built in my shop - 1 small and 2 medium. The small job was built while I ripped and assembled the first medium. While that was being stained, I ripped for the third. I will have all of them done and it will only have taken about 3 weeks from start to finish.

While they are being sprayed I will rip the next job which is a piece of furniture that will have a TV lift mechanism, a wall unit, and an office. All three are for the same client. I should have them done within 2 weeks because I will do them all at the same time.

Schedule all of your phone calls for first thing or last thing, try to schedule appointments in the evening or on a certain day every week. (Wednesday could have 3 appointments; the rest of the week is open). If you are anything like me you will try to hog all of the difficult or fun pieces. This takes the learning away from the help and slows the rest of production down. Pass it off and just stay alert. (I will not take my own advice. I would rather make less money and do the work I like to do).

Get a system that works in the shop. Keep the shop clean and organized. Set one day a week where your helper has to clean and reorganize. It is a time disaster for you to have to keep looking for tools.

From contributor J:
This is a problem that all shops have no matter how efficient or well tooled they are. The bigger you are the more work you need to do the more work you need to bid. You don't have control of when the jobs come in. You also have those clients that you have to take care of, like the builder that you do 5 houses a year for, but just has one vanity that he needs built. The way big shops deal with this is by subbing work. I know this because I do work for these shops all the time.

Recently I got 3 phone calls during the day and 2 of them were from the same shop. We as cabinetmakers can really benefit by working together. They will keep their customer happy, I will get a job that I don't have to do the drawing or the field measuring for, and I will also not have to bid. I also like the suggestion of raising you prices. That way you can afford to hire good help.

From contributor R:
I have a similar problem. I try to spend mornings organizing. I know it sounds like a lot of wasted time, but I order materials, hardware, doors and drawers, return phone calls, make cut lists for the shop, design and bid new jobs, meet sales people. On Mondays I try to organize the work for the coming week. You need time to organize or you will have a mess, go bald or gray or go nuts.

I outsource all my sheet goods cutting. I e-mail a file to a guy with a CNC, pick up the phone and have the sheets delivered to him. In about 3 - 7 days I accept delivery of the boxes ready to assemble (he edgebands also). This has really helped the volume. I also buy doors and drawers. There is way too much time and space needed to build my own. Our shop is about 2700 square feet and I have 2 employees. I do all the finishing and they do everything else.

From contributor N:
1. Are you doing cost accounting (costing)? This will show you which type(s) of jobs you want to keep and which to raise prices or raise them more. I'm not discounting the advice to raise prices across the board. You may find some of these jobs aren't making you money and by getting rid of them you'll end up with the same income for less work. Also, I've found that really knowing my numbers helps me stick to my guns when the less than profitable/desirable jobs come in.

2. Also, I would suggest hiring a secretary for a couple days a weeks and start turning office things over to her.

From contributor P:
To the original questioner: If you have more work than you can handle you have to hire someone. If the work requires skilled people you have to hire skilled people. You can try all the time stretching, price raising, and efficiency tricks you want, but the fact is you can only do so much then you have to hire people. If the new hire doesn't help move them in and out fast until you find someone who actually carries their weight.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor D:
I particularly like the response of Contributor F, who said "Here is a list of things I would suggest thinking about."

1. Stretch lead times.
2. Start saying no to little projects.
3. Hire better help. "
4. Sub out to other shops.
5. All of the above.

These are right on accurate, and are probably the things that will give you the biggest payback.

It needs to be remembered that every project is a triangle. On one side is time, on the second is cost, and on the third is features/quality. All three are related - if you change one, you effect the other two. I can save time and use cheaper materials, but my quality will suffer. I can use expensive materials, but these cost more, and generally require specialized installation, therefore more time. These are big considerations in your planning stage.

One tip we use in the computer industry is the idea of reusability. Reuse and recycle are huge in computer software development, and can have applications in all industries.

The biggest reuse is your metrics:
- Estimate Time vs. Actual Time
- Estimate Cost vs. Actual Cost
- History with suppliers and subs - how accurate have they been in the past on deliverables?

Analysis of past projects is one of the surest ways to improve future projects - do you see patterns emerging? An example would be all of your estimates seem to be about 20% below the actual budget. Next time, inflate your estimate 20% - bet you come in closer to budget.

The other big trick, especially when juggling multiple projects is standardization. As mentioned, if possible, do all the cutting for several jobs at once. This saves time, and the more standardized your designs are (common construction for carcasses, for example) be more efficient with your production.