Ted's Story

Just who is responsible when someone else drops the ball?

By Scott Sedam | July 31, 2000


Just who is responsible when someone else drops the ball?


You know Ted. He’s one of those 30-something superintendents. Good guy, learning the business. Not a rocket scientist, but we don’t need rocket scientists. We need sincere, hard-working people who show up every day, get the basics down pat, maintain a commitment to quality, and show grace under pressure and a continual willingness to learn. He wants to move up, to get ahead. He can see that project manager job on his horizon and then maybe a director or vice president of construction some day.

But today he is not looking ahead toward anything except what his wife will say when he finally does get home. It’s Saturday at 2:00. Ted is supposed to be at Ted Jr.’s Little League game. And not just because Ted Jr. is the star catcher, but because that’s where a dad should be. But Ted is busy banging his head against the trailer wall wondering what he’s going to do to make this homeowner happy. His goal was to be wrapped up today by noon. It’s Saturday, after all, and he already has put in 65 hours this week.

You see, yesterday the Langs walked and closed their new home -- their second -- a nice $250,000 two-story. Things went great until the very end of the walk, when Mr. Lang said, "Hey! Where’s my service door?"

Ted got a sick feeling in his stomach. The Langs had specified a garage service door as a $375 option. A very fair price, they felt. But here was the house with no service door to be seen. A quick call to the sales administrator in the office showed that, yep, it was right there on the contract. But this was the first Ted had heard of it. He knew his paperwork, and nothing on the job sheets said anything about a service door.

Now What?
He made the required offer that his company had a policy of closing no homes until they were completely finished and said that the builder would put the Langs up in a hotel. They declined, saying the moving van was arriving Saturday, and it’d be fine for now. They were nice, but clearly perturbed, and wondering about the company in which they had invested their life’s savings.

Ted resisted the urge to scream, "Why does this keep happening?"

Ted guessed he could have waited until Monday to start on this, but Mondays were like purgatory around there. He also had only 14 days to get this door business resolved. First, the president’s policy was "all items resolved in 14 days." Second, the customer satisfaction survey arrives in 30 days. And from experience Ted knew that if he did a really great job really quickly, customers often overlooked checking the boxes that make the home office go ballistic -- like "Closed with one or more major items missing or incomplete." Finally, it was embarrassing. The Langs paid for something they did not get. It was only right to fix it immediately.

So it’s Saturday afternoon, and Ted is working on his list. Let’s see. He’ll need a siding guy, of course, to cut the siding carefully so as not to inflict more damage. A flatwork man to put in the required stoop. A framer to build out the doorway. An insulation guy, this being an insulated garage. A drywall guy because, of course, it was also a drywalled garage. Then an electrician because there were wires going right through that space. Then, as luck would have it, he needed a plumber on the gas line for the same reason. Then the finish carpenter to do the molding and hang the door, which he had to order from the door company, along with the lock and hardware. And finally the lumber company, to get the framing lumber and molding.

Let’s see, that’s 10 people to be contacted, and Ted is sure he missed someone. This is going to cost at least $2,000. "What a waste," Ted sighs. He starts with phone calls and actually gets three of the 10. The rest get messages. That takes an hour. As a backup, he sends faxes to each subcontractor asking for a commitment next week. Some, he knows, will laugh. Everybody in town wants them yesterday. But Ted is determined to try, and the trying takes two hours.

He has been at it three hours and has roughed out a schedule. It won’t be easy, but the threat of losing his bonus drives him. He needs it. Yet he knows he can’t really win because now 10 of the people who should be building new houses will be working on a "finished one." Either way, someone gets mad.

The End of the Whip
On his way out, he stops by the Langs’ and explains what he has been doing to get their door installed. They seem nice about it. He thinks he has a chance to "beat the survey" this time. Driving toward the ballpark now, Ted wonders if the company is serious about all of this process improvement stuff it keeps writing on its Web site. The company talks a good game, but when it comes right down to it, their usual response is "blame the superintendents." Why can’t they manage their projects? But the superintendents want to "blame the salespeople." Why can’t they get their paperwork right? And the salespeople? They want to "blame the office staff." Why can’t they translate the contracts into correct job orders and POs?

But Ted has this one figured out. You see, it’s the boss’s fault. This whole mess started 18 months ago when the boss and his land guy bought this ground wrong in the first place. It was a quick deal -- price and terms. Nobody really asked what we would build on it. The market is hot! Let’s do more of the Brentwood product for empty nesters, or maybe the Marquis series for move-ups.

But zoning got complicated, and density became an issue. They went with the Venture series but have modified it four or five times already. No one was really happy with the sales pace, so people keep adding models, taking them away, changing elevations, specifications, options, pricing, etc. etc. Salespeople aren’t sure what they are selling, and superintendents aren’t sure what they are building. It’s a prescription for disaster. The margins are being eaten away.

And now, 18 months later, Ted is at the end of the whip, getting his sorry butt snapped back and forth across the horizon. Myriad seemingly small changes by management have compounded to result in so much complexity that no one can keep up on this project -- and little things such as service doors just get missed. All the while, there’s Ted, trying to do his best and knowing that next week, once again, he will hear the refrain, "What’s wrong with these superintendents?"

Ted pulls into the baseball parking lot just as his son is walking off the field. Ted Jr. runs to greet him. He shouts, "Guess what, Dad! We won, and I got two hits and threw out three guys stealing second!" From Ted Jr., he gets a hug and a smile. From his wife, he gets an icy stare.
"Sorry I didn’t make it, Teddy," he whispers in his son’s ear.
"That’s OK, Dad. Next week for sure, huh?"
"Yeah, Teddy, next week ... for sure."


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