On The Contrary: The Remodel Role Model

Shari Caudron has a new kitchen, a new appreciation for individual talents, and a new prescription for Valium.

August 9, 2002

Excuse me if I seem a little, um, unfocused. I’ve spent the last two months ensnared in the great American drama known as kitchen remodeling. Thanks. I appreciate that. But it hasn’t been that bad. Really. I like eating salad on my bed.

    More than 25 people have been involved in the design and installation of my new kitchen. This includes a designer, general contractor, two carpenters, a plumber, a small army of electricians with matching yellow wire-cutters, two concrete people, a roofer and his wife, two floor refinishers, a painter, a tiler, and three masons who’d spend 40 minutes putting a single brick in place, 20 minutes standing back and admiring the brick’s placement, and two hours at lunch, where, presumably, they celebrated their exquisite first-brick handiwork. Additionally, there were countless people who helped me acquire windows, light fixtures, appliances, Valium, sinks, door handles, and faucets. And Valium. And countertops. And Valium. Did I mention Valium?

    Watching these people work over the last nine weeks has provided valuable insight into the workings of effective teams. To begin with, my remodeling crew had two clearly defined objectives. The first was to remodel my kitchen according to a set of highly detailed plans. The second was to complete the project sometime before we colonize the Red Planet. As all the team books will tell you, objectives are necessary to give teams focus and direction.

    Secondly, each subcontractor on the team had a distinct responsibility. Never once did I hear an electrician argue with the plumber about who should position the waste lines. The painter did not think it would be fun, just this once, to install a window. The masons didn’t, well, do much of anything. But at least they weren’t in anyone’s way. Having distinct responsibilities allowed the crew to avoid turf battles, competition, jealousy, and back-stabbing. The guy who poured the concrete knew he was better at concrete than the guys who installed the cabinets, who knew they were better at carpentry than the guy who shingled the roof. And so it went. No overlaps. No conflict.

Team rah-rah is great, but let’s face it: we’re all more willing to contribute when our contributions are acknowledged.

    Watching the workers in action, I also realized there’s something the teamwork guides fail to reinforce, and that is how important it is to recognize individual talents and make each person feel like an indispensable part of the team. Team rah-rah is great, but let’s face it: we’re all more willing to contribute when our contributions are acknowledged.

    For example, at the start of my project there was some concern about whether we would be able to raise the kitchen ceiling. See, I live in a 1970s home similar to the one inhabited by Beaver Cleaver. At the time the house was built, it was fashionable to drop the kitchen ceiling a foot lower than the ceilings in the rest of the house, leading to a feeling of cooking inside a hobbit’s kitchen. (Frodo! Pass the butter!)

    The only way we could successfully raise the ceiling in our kitchen would be if the plumber could tuck the existing plumbing from the upstairs bathroom into the bay between the upstairs floor joists. Let me say that again: joists. I love the sound of that. It’s one of my new remodeling words. Other additions to my vocabulary are load-bearing, soffit, caissons, oops!, conduit, backorder, and delay.

    But I digress. I warned you that I’m unfocused.

    So the plumber comes over to my house, looks at the newly exposed pipes in the ceiling, and says: "No way."

    "No way?" ask the carpenters.

    "No way," the plumber says, crossing his arms. "There are too many pipes to tuck them any higher. You can’t raise this ceiling."

    "But you were able to hide the pipes in that house in Castle Rock."

    "That’s true."

    "And that house in Englewood."

    "True again." The plumber uncrosses his arms and squints sideways at the ceiling.

    The carpenters switch tactics. "If anyone can tuck those pipes up, it will be you," they tell him.

    "It won’t be easy," the plumber insists.

    "We know. We can call anybody for easy. We call you when we have more sophisticated challenges."

    "Oookaaaay," the plumber finally says. "But it won’t be easy."

    And it wasn’t. But thanks to the plumber’s extraordinary effort, our ceiling was raised, and now that I can stand fully upright in my kitchen, I’ll be forever grateful.

    And really, my being grateful was all that anyone on the remodeling team wanted. The carpenters wanted me to appreciate their problem-solving abilities and finesse with a table saw. The general contractor wanted me to recognize his talent for hiring the best subs and keeping them on schedule. The tiler wanted us to appreciate the fact that the kitchen wouldn’t be finished until the tile backsplash was put in and that if we failed to show proper deference, he might not show up at all. "You don’t want to upset the tile guy," the carpenters told me.

    None of these expectations were spoken, of course. But whenever I complimented a contractor on his work, you could sense the change in his demeanor. Suddenly, instead of merely informing me that a job was finished, he’d want to tell me, in great detail, how he’d finished the job, what challenges were involved, and why it took until 12:30 on Saturday night to finish laying the tile, but "gosh, it sure looks great, doesn’t it?"

    A team of 25 people working in lockstep was needed to bring my kitchen into the new century. But the team was effective because of 25 sets of individual talents. To reward the team without recognizing the individuals would be just plain wrong, and I’d probably still be waiting for the masons to get back from lunch. Simply put, when people aren’t being recognized for their contributions, they’ll find a way to let you know how important those contributions really are.

Other columns by Shari:

Workforce, August 2002, pp. 22-24 -- Subscribe Now!