27.5.08

Home Improvement – just another kind of outsourcing...

I do most of my own home improvement projects. I enjoy the occasional carpentry project, and god knows I can use the exercise.

But periodically I'll outsource a big project to a contractor. One such job I outsourced recently was the installation of new granite counter tops in my kitchen. Moving granite is a job for large burly men with monosyllabic names. I am too frail, and my name has too many syllables for me to take on that job myself. So my wife and I found a local kitchen design store that had a good reputation. We had worked with them before on a small job sourcing new cabinet doors, so they were known to us. Without a lot of scrutiny, without reference checks, and without anything but their boilerplate contract we signed up to have them remove our old counter tops and sink, get rid of all the old junk, and reinstall a new sink and a new granite counter top.

We expected the whole process to take about 10 days start to finish, and we expected the results to be a lovely long-lasting and beautiful addition to our home.

We are 21 days into the process, and we still do not have granite counter tops that meet our expectation. We are at a point where we regret both the vendor we selected for the process and indeed the decision to outsource the installation to begin with.

In short, I have never installed granite counter tops before and I think I could do a better job. It's that bad.

So I thought that decomposing the chain of events that got me to this level of dissatisfaction would be an interesting test for my outsourcing best practices. Here are the problems that we've encountered along the way:

  • The sink, a double-bowl with two holes, arrived with only one "drain" unit (the other one was missing, and during the first install they tried to foist a cheap generic unit off on us).
  • The hole they drilled in the granite for the sink had a little inset over part of the sink, that we did not expect.
  • The hole they drilled in the granite for the faucet was not centered to the sink.
  • The counters, when initially installed, were not centered to the window, as we had discussed with the "layout" guy.
  • The first installation had excessive "ledges" in the seam between each of the three pieces of granite.
  • The first installation did not fit against the wall, leaving big gaps.
  • The second installation (they came back, uninstalled everything, and tried again) still had excessive ledges in the seams, though it was a slightly better job than the first try.
  • The second installation left us with a piece of granite counter top that dropped almost 1/2 inch over a 36 inch run. (That is, it ran down hill from the seam, resulting in more of a peaked roof than a flat counter top.)
  • The second installation including installation of two pieces of granite (both smaller than the main run) that were about 1/8 inch thicker than the main piece (enough to be visible from any angle).
  • The second installation arrived cut wrong, and had to be hand-cut on the installers tailgate in my front yard. This (in my opinion) resulted in a bad fit in one corner, that will leave a gap between the counters and the wall.
  • In each case, the installers did not "walk me through" the installation with any care. They pointed to the seams, asked me if they were OK, and bolted for their truck.
  • During each installation they showed up without all the tools they needed for the job.
  • In one case, they borrowed a tool, then (inadvertently or not) stole it from me when they packed up their tools and left.

Let's presume that was a mistake, and they they'll bring the tool back. Either way, reading this list, I'd be hard pressed to describe these guys as "professional."

Let's talk about best practices for managing outsourced technology providers, and see whether what I recommend and teach would have helped my wife and me avoid this fiasco:

  • SLA-driven contracts: Well, right now, we're probably obliged to pay these guys. The contract states "balance due on delivery". We contend that they have not delivered, they probably contend that they have, since there is an 800 pound hunk of granite sitting on top of our cabinets, masquerading as a counter top. A better contract would have defined acceptance criteria and a service level sign off process, so they would know what they had to "get through" before we paid them.
  • Full and detailed specifications: The contract we put in place did not have spec terms in it. There was a verbal discussion of "it will look like this", but that was between the sales force (effectively the general contractor for the job) and us. The supplier (a sub-contractor) was not present for that conversation, and apparently contends that "suck" is par for the course and within spec. It would have been better to spell out exactly what our expectations were:
    • There shall be no ledges in a seam that would case a flat-bottomed glass to wobble back and forth.
    • Counter tops shall be the same height throughout, to a tolerance of 1/32 of an inch.
    • Counter tops shall be level throughout.
    • Counter tops shall fit snug against all walls they touch, within 1/32 of an inch throughout.
    • Counter tops shall be centered to this scribe mark exactly.
    • Distinct specifications about where we wanted the seams.
      (This all would have helped tremendously.)
  • Communication plan: There have been some "triangulation" problems between me, my wife, the kitchen design company, and the granite installer on this project. We should have had one designated point of contact on each side of the project.
  • Roles and responsibilities: At times, the installer was trying to work directly through us, as if we were GC on the job, and as if we had contracted directly with them, which we didn't. It was not clear that the GC added any value, until we pressed them on this and they "stepped up". They should have taken on more responsibility, since we're the ones who wrote THEM the check (or at least the check for the deposit). We should have defined that our responsibility consisted of writing the check, and signing off on the acceptance criteria, period.
  • Contractual protection for recourse: We should have had terms defined that would lay out what we expected in the event that the installation failed to meet our expectations. At this point, we'd like them to get a new granite installer, but that's going to be a tough argument to have with them because they've probably already paid their sub contractor, even though the job was botched.
  • Selection of sub-contractors: I'm adamant about this in my sourcing contracts -- no sub-contractors without approval. We should have put a term in that defined our rights to reject a supplier. Oh well...

Now, if we had done all this, it's highly likely that they would have politely asked us to take our business elsewhere. Maybe. It's a lot to have to go through for a counter top. Ideally, you'd like the vendor you select to be competent, and for things to go smoothly. But when I read my complaints above, about basic levels of professionalism and competence not always being "business as usual" it sounds a lot like the complaints I hear when outsourced product development goes badly...

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