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By Michael A. Velez, Managing Director of Castellan Systems

Let me start by giving a little background of myself. I've been in IT for over 40 years; I started managing projects in the mid-1980s and have worked for some very large organisations in that time like BHP Steel, BHP Information Technology, CSC Australia (today DXC Technology), ING Australia (today OnePath) and Pillar Administration (today Mercer Administration Services).

Now, this article has come a little out of left field and I need to state that I've never worked in the industry discussed within this article; my experience has been on the order side as a customer. So much so, that we've building (at the time of publishing) an application to assist people working in that industry.

So what is the industry? Well, not so much an industry, as it covers multiple trades, but a service area. It's in effect any small contractor making their living by effectively selling their time. So these people are earning their income by charging, mostly, for hours work rather than goods sold, as a merchant would do. They are delivering a service over a period of time, rather than selling goods where the interaction usually ends when the customer walks out with the purchased good.

Over the last few years, my wife and I have undertaken quite a few renovations in our home. By "undertaken" I don't mean we've done them, I mean we've hired people to do them. Our experiences have been mixed; In my case, as a project management professional, they have been fairly frustrating. I'll explain that.

So who I'm I talking about?

Here in Australia, someone working performing a particular trade (and by that we usually refer to the "blue collar" trades), we call them tradies. Usually these tradies begin their working life, after completing their training, working for someone else. Many of them end up setting themselves, at some point, as independent contractors so they can be their own boss. Some may even undertake some business management training in order to run their own business. Some may grow this business and hire other tradies; or after developing working relationships with other tradies, accept large jobs and sub-contract some of the work.

There is nothing wrong with that, in fact that's basically what I did initially when I set up Castellan Systems; except that my "trade" was IT and Project Management and I worked from home sitting in from of my computer rather than going to other people's homes.

But when a tradie goes on their own, they do so because of their trade skills and not their business skills. I haven't heard of too many accountants, project managers or CEOs that always wanted to run their own business and start their own electrical or plumbing business. When I wanted to start my own business, it was in software development which is where my skillset lay. So these tradies know everything about the technical skills specific to their field, but not so much about managing a business or managing the work orders they undertake for their customers.

So while they may be able to fully understand, diagnose, design and perform the work, they may lack the skillsets to coordinate the delivery of the service(s) contracted. This all gets even more complicated if they hire additional staff or engage sub-contractors.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that all such independent contractors are poor at coordinating the delivery of their services. Some just have an innate knowledge of how to do it; others undertake some training. But a large portion need some assistance.

Tradies need to understand that they are in fact working on projects and therefore they need to manage each work order as a project. Their main form of income comes from selling their time and the time of any employees they may have. So if you bid for some job and obtain approval, you are actually acting as a bid manager who becomes a project manager once the work has started. They may perform technical tasks as well, but they are ultimately responsible for the execution of that project.


So why this article?

I guess the best way to answer this question is with an example and the perfect example is our kitchen renovation.

My wife had wanted to renovate the kitchen for many years and I even put some money aside for it. But she never got around to initiating it. So one day I told her to either do it or I'll invest the money. So that got her going. She decided to engage a local company and we met with the manager. In those discussions we told him that we wanted his business to undertake ALL of the work; basically we were hiring him as the prime contractor. He indicated that was fine; he had all the connections. The only condition he stipulated was that we deal directly with the tiler, which he would engage, and that we purchased the tiles. That's was fine with us, especially when the tiler turned out to be the nephew of a guy I went to school with.

Kitchen Reno

So we received a quote from this kitchen renovation company covering:

The tiler provided us with his separate quote and we purchased the tiles.

Finally, after much enquiring, I received some sort of timeline for the company's office manager for the work. On day one it had:

I've never renovated a kitchen before, but this didn't look right to my project manager brain. So I called her. I told her that there was no point delivering the appliances and the cabinets before they were needed because I didn't have space to store that all, and I wouldn't even let them unload the truck(s).

I then asked her how she could conceivably see that the old kitchen could be removed and the new floor laid all in one day? Her answer was that she thought that the tiler may had come earlier and remove the old floor and lay the new one. Hopefully you can now imagine the look on my face.

I told her that that could only had worked if the new kitchen had exactly the same footprint; it didn't. I asked her if she had looked at the plans that they had drawn up? They said that we were tiling wall to wall, the footprint was different and we were removing a small portion of a wall, which would require tiling where the wall had been. I asked her if she had talked to the tiler, who they had engaged. He had told me that he required 4 days once the old kitchen had been removed. Of course the answer to both those questions was "no".

So taking my suggestions, she talked to the tiler and revised her timeline; I could see there may be a few issues, but since I had never renovated a kitchen before, I took a wait and see attitude. I did tell her that she would find me the worse customer that she would probably have dealt with as I managed projects for a living.

So the work began; the old kitchen was removed. The tiler came to remove the old tiles and prepare the base; he had to lay a thicker concrete base in areas as the floor wasn't completely levelled. So he requested an extra day for the concrete to dry. He talked to the office manager and the timeline was adjusted; there was a slack day there anyway she told me.

The cabinets and appliances were delivered on the same day, after the tiling was ready to walk on. The electrician and plumber came to begin the installation and the installer began putting in the new cabinets. The next day the installer finished putting in the cabinets and the electrician, plumber and plasterer completed their work. But the installer couldn't finish until the benchtops were installed. That happened two days later and we then were just waiting on the installer to come and complete his work; he had told us it wouldn't take too long as it was a matter of 1 hour's work. We waited for 12 days; as the cooktop had not been properly seated, we couldn't use it. So we had this nice new kitchen but couldn't use it for the sake of 1 hour's work! The fridge had also not been installed, the electrician said it wasn't his job to move it; so it ended up seating in our lounge room, unused, for 2 weeks.

I kept calling the office manager about getting the installer back and while she was very apologetic, I got no satisfaction. It seemed that the slack day in the original timeline was to cover for the installer if he couldn't complete the work in the time allocated; but that wasn't verbalised and when it was taken up by the tiler, nothing was done to add another slack day for any installation overrun. As the installer was a sub-contractor, he had taken on other work to begin after his planned completion in our kitchen. Finally I called him directly and had to embarrass him into coming and completing the work.

Another thing happened; while the kitchen company had given me a quote covering all but the tiling work, I started getting invoices directly from each sub-contractor: the electrician, the plumber, the stonemasons and the installer. My question was: why not from the kitchen company? So, as a project manager, I ask for a meeting with them; a sort of post-implementation review.

The owner told me that the invoicing was done that way because customers sometime ask the guys to do some extra jobs, while they were there, that are not part of the scope. My reply was simple but it seemed to completely throw him into confusion. I told him that I hired him and he hired them; as far as I was concerned, they were his employees. I had had no contractual contact with them and therefore had no pricing agreement with them. So they should be invoicing him and he would then invoice me, as per our contract; if the customer asked them to do additional work, as far as he is concerned, that's between them and the customer and they should invoice the customer directly for that additional work if they wished to get paid for it.

What finally shocked the company owner and left him speechless was when I told him that they renovate kitchens and not simply manufactured kitchen cabinets and installed them. That in fact he was running projects with him, or his office manager, as the project manager. That a project had 3 dimensions: Scope, Schedule & Costs. That success of a project is essentially measured by the success of delivering those 3 dimensions; usually reported/measured using the standard "traffic light" system: green, amber and red. But that if any of those dimensions was red, then the whole project was red.

So for my kitchen renovation:

  • Costs: as per quote, therefore green.
  • Scope: 2 small things were not done; the plasterer said that he couldn't fixed a small hole in the ceiling where the wall was removed (I ended up fixing with a bit of Masonite) and a chip on the architrave of the pantry that had been broken during the removal of the old doors wasn't fixed during that long awaited 1 hour of final work; I would have had to wait again for who knows how long for the installer, so I fixed it myself as I had the painters coming the following week. So it was amber.
  • Schedule: I told him that the work could easily had been completed in 3 weeks; their timeline allowed for about 4 weeks; it took 5 weeks. Therefore there was a 25% schedule overrun and in the PM world anything more that 20% made it red.
Kitchen Reno

Therefore the whole project was RED. The office manager didn't look up from her computer during the whole meeting; I think she knew what was coming.

Don't get me wrong, we're very happy with the end result; it just should not had been such haphazard. Our other renovations have not been as dramatic as this one, but there been issues enough to suggest to me that people working in service areas need more that the technical skills to do their work; they need a little project management. Sort of PM Lite, for sake of a name.

So what do I mean by PM Lite?

I'm not talking about having tradies getting PM certifications or having to use something like PRINCE2; I'm talking about putting some targeted PM processes in place to better service their customers. Would I recommend that kitchen company to any of my friends? Well the answer is no; the quality of their work is very good but the experience during the renovation is so bad that you wouldn't want to put yourself through it.


As I said, tradies need to understand that they are in fact working on projects and therefore they need to manage each work order as a project. They are selling their time and the time of any employees they may have. They may also sell some goods, but this is more as a result of former. When they are quoting for a job, they are acting as a bid manager and not, say, and electrician or plumber. When they obtain approval and start work, they are acting as a project manager as well as performing their technical tasks.

Let's define what a project is. A project is a temporary endeavour designed to produce a unique product, service or result with a defined beginning and end (usually time-constrained, and often constrained by funding or staffing) undertaken to meet unique goals and objectives, typically to bring about beneficial change or added value.

There are three constraints or dimensions faced in every project: Scope, Time, and Cost. They are a part of every project and though they can be limiting, when properly managed they should not affect a successful project outcome. These are often characterised in the Project Management Triangle, shown on the left.

So, a project is about delivering a Scope (What), within in a Timeframe or Schedule (When) for a specified Cost (How Much) to a required level of Quality. Sounds familiar?


The planning would be to ensure that a realistic costing and timeline is prepared where the relationship or dependency of tasks is identified. The end result should not only be a realistic quote but also an input into the scheduling process.

If they are going to be multiple people working on the job and especially if there are sub-contractors involved, it would be highly recommended that this be done in the form of a meeting. These days there is little excuse for not holding it; if you can't all come together in the same room, you could use Zoom, Microsoft Teams or any other such tool.

You may then have to finalise the costing and timeline, but the planning meeting should had given you all of the information.

The end result for the customer is a quote to which the tradie will work. In other words for the customer, certainty.



The planning meeting would have produced input that should assist in preparing a realistic timeline or schedule. Some basic scheduling techniques should be understood:

  • The difference between estimated work hours and elapsed time. Just because something has been estimated to take 5 hours, it doesn't mean that it will be completed in 1 day. There may be considerations as to why it needs to be spread over multiple days.
  • Dependencies to other tasks; some tasks can't be worked on until other have been done. In the example of my kitchen, the tiling could be done until the old kitchen was removed.
  • You need to consider staff availability and workload; not just on this work order but across all the work you have in your books. If one of your team members is working on something for another customer, they can't be working for you. And if they can only work a certain number of hours per day.

The end result should be a realistic and achievable timeline or schedule to which I, as the customer, am going to hold you to it.

The end result for the customer is, once again certainty.

Kick-off Meeting

Obviously, this meeting is not required if the tradie is working on their own; but some sort of kick-off is required. I personally would recommend that if a tradie is working on their own, they still have some sort of sit-down, prior to starting work, to ensure that they have everything in place in order to be able to start work.

A kick-off meeting is a good idea to ensure that the whole team are on the same page. This is an extremely good idea if there are multiple people involved and essential if any of them are subcontractors. As I've already said, these days there is little excuse for not holding a meeting.


Cost Management

Cost Management

This is quite simple: if you quote it, you invoice it. Just because you're using sub-contractors, it shouldn't matter to your customer. As far as they are concerned, they are your employees. You engage them; you allocate the work to them; they are your employees.

As I said earlier, if the customer asked your sub-contractor to do additional work, outside your scope, that's between them and the customer and they should invoice the customer directly for that additional work if they wished to get paid for it.

Your customer will expect that you will do everything within your power to stick to the quoted costs; and if there is a chance of any variation from these, that you inform them ASAP. It is always preferable to tell the customer of any variations in costs prior to them occurring than after. I know people say that it's easier to ask for forgiveness that for permission, but that's not applicable here. Surprises can be extremely damaging.

Resource Management

This covers various areas; resources could be staff, equipment or materials. I've sort of covered staff earlier under Scheduling; but once work has commenced, you need to monitor their progress and deal with delays or absenteeism for whatever reason.

Equipment should be a no brainer; if you don't have the equipment, why are you undertaking the work in the first place? I'm not suggesting that you need to have every piece of equipment that could potentially be used. But if you undertake work that requires something that you don't own, hire, borrow or whatever before you start work. That's called planning.

Materials are interesting. No one expects that as a tradie you'll have in your inventory every possible item that you may use for any job. But you should have what can be considered stock standard and be on top of the other so you can start work.

There have been at least two occasions during our renovations where the tradie didn't have a part available. The first time was a plumber who made a suggestion as to how something should be done; his exact words were, "I always recommend and prefer to do it this way." But when we accepted his suggestion, he needed to go to the nearest hardware shop to purchase some parts. If that was the way that he preferred to do it, why didn't he carry those part as stock? The second time was an electrician who didn't have the right fuse; this was a standard item and you would, once again, expect that he would have a few in stock in his truck.

Resource Management

Inventory Management

Inventory Management

As I said, no one expects that as a tradie you’ll have in your inventory every possible item that you may use for any job. But you should have what can be considered stock standard; that's your inventory.

For the "rare" items, you need to purchase them with sufficient lead time so that you have them available when you start work. The customer would expect that when they give you approval to start that you will do some preparation or planning. You've bid on the work and therefore can be justifiably expected to know what materials you're going to need. When we did our kitchen renovation, we told the owner during the design phase that we didn't want empty space above the overhead cabinets; that false-walls or bulkheads were going to be required. When the cabinets arrived, there was no material included to do these bulkheads. The installer had to call the workshop and pick up these materials before returning the next day. That, I believe, was another reason of our 12 days wait for that last 1 hour's work. If he had the materials on the first day, he could had installed them and then on the second day he would have had enough time to complete his work.

You need to be on top of your inventory when you accept a work order. Prior to starting work, you need to do some planning and that includes reviewing your inventory. You need to know the lead times to get materials you normally don't keep in stock. So the planning needs to occur with enough time prior to starting work to allow for these lead times.

I worked on some planning systems for a steelworks. Their planning on when each order had to be processed by each area of the works by starting at the end. They would look as to when it had to be delivered; they would then consider how long it took to be processed in the last area, which told them when it needed to be processed by the previous, or 2nd last, area while being mindful of the area's capacity.

This process was then repeated for each other process area until they reach the raw materials. Obviously, this is a far more complicated process than you would need, but the idea is the same. If you have a scheduled start date and some of the materials required are going to need 2 weeks for delivery, you need to place the order at least, if not more, 2 weeks prior to starting work. And that's when you should be doing your planning.

Asset Management

This is essentially the management of your equipment resources, as mentioned above. Here you keep track of each individual piece of equipment whether they be hand-tools, power-tools, large machinery or vehicles.

This is different from inventory management which is the process of tracking the movement of stock that a company stores and warehouses. Asset management is the process of tracking the equipment and supplies that a company uses to run its operations. It covers fixed assets such as equipment and property as well as intangible assets like intellectual property. Simply put, inventory and asset management both keep track of a company's assets. Inventory management, however, involves monitoring the flow of items for sale or needed for the manufacturing of goods.

Obviously selling of assets is important because they are a form of income. Junking them is also important because they represent a lost in capital.

Asset Management



This is a very important area and you shouldn't need any sort of project management training. You have to communicate with your customer constantly. If an issue arises, let them know ASAP, if not sooner. This is particularly important if it's bad news that will impact costs and/or schedule.

When we renovated our kitchen, the tiler, once he removed the old tiles, checked the level of the floor and told us that it wasn't level. He gave us 2 choices:

  1. Put an even layer of concrete, which will keep to the quoted costs and timeline. The only problem, the floor would not be level and the cabinets installed would need to cater for this.
  2. Put a layer of concrete that would level the floor. It would require more cement and probably more drying time. It would impact the costs and timeline but will make the cabinet installer's job much easier.

Of course, immediately I was concerned for the original timeline, as I feared that the office manager would not be able to adjust it without incurring a greater delay that it should be. I chose the 2nd option and took the risk to the timeline; when I got the tiler's invoice, I was ready for it being greater than the original quote and I knew already by how much it would be. No surprise there; but I didn't expect that 1 extra concrete drying day would turn into a 12 day delay; surprise there but it wasn't the tiler's fault.

A word of advice, while I do suggest you use technology, like Zoom, Microsoft Teams or any messaging app, these forms of communications are not a good form of documentation. Whether you've held a discussion with your customer (or vendors or sub-contractors) in person, on the phone, via text message or the like, always follow it up with an email if it involves any form of decision and/or agreement. This email should take the form of a confirmation email in order to ensure that all parties are of the same understanding; ask the customer, vendor or sub-contractor to acknowledge agreement. And most importantly, retain all these emails, both the ones you send and the ones you receive. I always adopt the maxim that no email sent or receive is not worthy of retention.

In fact, if the discussion in any way impacts on any of the dimensions of the Project Management Triangle (Scope, Cost, Time) you should actually issue a revised work order for your customer's approval; state in the email you send including this revised work order, that you will only proceed once you have their approval.

Monitoring & Status Reporting

But once you've completed you plan & timeline and the customer has given approval to proceed, you don't put it aside and forget about it; you need to monitor progress against this plan & timeline and report to the customer any issues. You've provided this timeline to the customer and are perfectly entitled to hold you to it; if issues arise, informing them immediately goes a long way in maintaining your standing with the customer.

We always said in the PM world that a schedule was obsolete as soon as it was published; nothing stands still. Things are always changing and the best laid plans can encounter difficulty.

Status reporting is also a critical process; you don't need to produce detailed status reports like I used to do as a project manager. But you need to keep your customer informed of progress, including issues and potential risks, as mentioned above. If you need them to make a decision, you need to ask for this as soon as you identify that such a decision is required.

Monitoring & Status Reporting

Simply talk to them. Make a point of catching up with them on a regular basis; especially if the timeline stretches over several weeks or months. Arrive early or stay behind after work is done for the day and have a quick chat. It's amazing how understanding customers can be if they feel that have been kept in the loop.

Also, if they feel the need to blow some steam, let them; be empathetic; understand how they feel. You don't need to agree with them, just understand why they may feel that way. I managed a portfolio of projects for an area in a steelworks for about 8 years. My contact in the business was a guy had had worked with when I first started work after university. I didn't always have good news for him and he needed to blow off a lot of steam. When he ran out of breath I would jump in and give him my plan forward; we would discuss it and get on with the job. Sometimes, expecting that I was prepared, he would ask me before, I jumped in, what we were going to do. We worked together for 7 years, delivered many projects with no failures. But the first project after he retired was another story…

Post-Implementation Meeting

Post-Implementation Meeting

I highly recommend meeting with your customers once you complete the work to get a picture as to their experience and how they feel about the quality of the work. You need to ensure that you delivered all that they asked for and that they feel that you did. You should also want to know their feeling about the whole experience of working with you.

If you used sub-contractors, it's also a good idea to meeting with them to review the experience as well. You may want to meeting with all team members at the same time, whether or not they were your employees or sub-contractors. The most important thing to remember is that this is a learning experience and not a witch-hunt; you're not trying to find someone to whom the blame will be attached. You're trying to find out what went wrong and what went right; and how you can do it better next time.

Remember, you learn more from your errors and failures than from your successes. If there were any issues, you should want to know about them so that you can ensure that they don't happen again. You can't stop every issue from ever occurring, but if you communicate promptly, you can minimise the impact or frustration.

In Conclusion

I'm not saying that every tradie I have engaged does all the things I've discussed above poorly. Some are fully aware of some of these processes and perform them quite well. Others perform them probably while not realising that that is what they are doing; it's sort of automatic mode for them. But I've yet to encounter a tradie that performs all of these processes, let alone, successfully.

Remember, no one expects you to be perfect; but they expect you to be professional. And this professionalism extends beyond the technical ability of performing the work. For the customer it's the whole experience what matters; they will remember the experience of working with you long after you complete the work. If the experience is bad, the quality of the work won't win you any prizes. The customer will only see it as the one positive out of the whole experience; but unfortunately not enough to make up for the bad experience.

So I as a customer will engage, and re-engage, a tradie that does these things I discuss above and gives me a good experience and not just a good deliverable. I re-engaged the tiler to do some more tiling because we were so happy with that experience.

You as a tradie will get repeat business and free advertising as past customers become your "sales team" through their recommendations to their friends. But at the same time as they can say good things about you, they can say bad things. In these days of social media and review websites their reach if far greater. Just keep in mind that a customer posting a bad review about your work is not considered libel by the courts. They are entitled to their opinion, as long as it's not considered a deliberate fabrication meant to cause damage.

So if you do these processes professionally, and most importantly, you'll get the thumbs up from your customers, and that's what it's all about.

This article was first published in in August 2022. Its author is Castellan Systems' Managing Director who has over 40 years' experience in the IT industry working for several large, multi-national corporations. He has worked as project, programme and portfolio manager.