We all make mistakes—that's for sure. I've had some big ones in my career, and it's not a matter of if you make mistakes as a contractor—it's a matter of when. The best carpenters I know will admit they make mistakes; I see this as a sign of maturity in their craft. And those mature craftsmen and women will tell you it's not all about not making mistakes, but about learning the skill of what to do with them when you do!

That's what this blog is all about—learning from your mistakes and the mistakes of others. Using your mistakes to implement, say, a new protocol in your business management system or sales technique not only protects you from making the same mistake twice, but it also means you're learning to make your business and life better.

A chain reaction

In general, mistakes are rarely only one particular person's fault. More likely, a mistake is the result of several people or circumstances, timed just so to create a bad or unexpected result. But even with stringent protocol and redundancy systems, mistakes can happen. Even with a good business system, proper expectations, experienced personnel, and verification protocol, all it takes is for one or two people to miss a step, and presto!: Major problem.

The main thing to remember about contracting is that it's about liability management. It's about making sure your system, contracts, and communications set clear expectations for your employees, subcontractors, suppliers, and clients.

Let me share a quick story before I get to my list of top 10 common contracting mistakes.

Who was at fault?

I was doing a kitchen remodel for a wonderful lady who wanted her kitchen cabinets at a finished height of 34" off the floor. That seemed fair enough at the time, and I didn't think much of it. But it turns out the expectation in her mind was 34" from the floor—and of course, as most of you know, floors are rarely level and usually have a slope to them. When I'm hanging cabinets, I set them from the high spot on the floor and level them from there. This means that the distance from the floor to the top of the counter is variable. If the high spot is at the back of the cabinet, by the time the floor slopes to the face of the counter, it could be a ¼" lower. That puts the countertops at 34 ¼". And with the floors sloping away from there, the cabinets just get higher in relation to the floor. This is very normal, but because there wasn't anything in my contract explaining the differential, it became an issue.

If the story ended there, we probably would have been okay. It just so happened, though, that when the architect and owner were at my cabinet supplier to verify designs and specifications, the supplier sent them an email with the updated specifications. The problem is that I never received an email, but got verification from the owner to go ahead and order the cabinets. So I did and promptly installed them when they arrived.

We didn't notice the cabinet finish height until we were finished with the project. They were a full ¾" too high because the supplier assumed we changed our countertops from 1 ¼" (which was in the original contract) to ¾" after his meeting with the owner and the architect.

The perfect storm

So here was the perfect storm: a set of unclear expectations, a severe slope in the floor, incorrect cabinet height, assumptions by my supplier, and my own distraction from a usually meticulous protocol. The result: cabinets that were 1 ¼" too high!

Can you figure out what went wrong? Was any one person at fault? This is an example of several things going wrong to create a bad result. In my estimation, everyone in the story shares a certain amount of responsibility.

I do have a clause in my contract that says any results of communications between the owner and my "agents" or suppliers that change the contract without my written consent makes the owner responsible. But in the end I decided to remove the counters, lower the cabinets, and install new countertops. It felt like the right thing to do, but it cost me more than $10,000, countless sleepless nights, and a whole lot of stress—most unfortunately, it distracted me from other projects.

In the end, the client gave me a hug and said "thank you," the architect told me how much he appreciated my follow through, I got a good dose of humility, and I changed some of my verification protocol. I know I'm a better contractor and person for this experience.

My top ten contracting mistakes (in no particular order):

Mistake 1: Not creating clear communication protocol. When you've got owners' decisions, subcontractor scheduling, and ordering of supplies to contend with, establishing clear lines of communication is the only way to keep a project on schedule.

Mistake 2: Not creating clear, understandable expectations. Expectations can protect you as much as, if not more than, your contract. You cannot simply assume everyone is on the same page.

Mistake 3: Treating your subcontractors like they are not a part of your team. Trying to control them with money or not letting them know the schedule has changed will create disorder and distrust.

Mistake 4: Only showing up to the jobsite to collect money. You've got to be a constant presence on a jobsite. This is good not only for worker and client morale—it's the right thing to do.

Mistake 5: Paying subcontractors and suppliers late or not at all. This is unacceptable—end of story.

Mistake 6: Letting your projects get dirty and disorganized. A tidy jobsite is an efficient job site.

Mistake 7: Not establishing and keeping a clear schedule. This is a must-do, and you've got to share it often with everyone involved with your project.

Mistake 8: Underbidding your projects. When you don't spend the time necessary to properly bid a project, you're setting yourself up for disaster. This goes back to expectations and even more importantly, about how to run your business.

Mistake 9: A lack of understanding your true business costs. If you don't know how to roll your true business costs into your bid, you will constantly underbid. The consequences of underbidding are tremendous, and they can lead to litigation.

Mistake 10: A lack of understanding quality. A good contractor lives and dies by quality. If you don't know how to maintain quality control, you're doing yourself and your clients a disservice.

Chat with me below about some of your biggest on-the-job mistakes—and how you've learned from them!