9 Project Management Tips for Retrofitters

David Etzler | May 14, '20

Project Management Tips for Retrofitters

Think about a successful project.

The clients are on board, everything is delivered when it is supposed to be, communication is smooth, and progress is tracked. There are no surprises, and the job is completed on time and within budget.

That’s the dream.

But that doesn’t always happen. Projects can go awry, with materials, labor, costs and the client relationship flying out of control. Fortunately, one of the best ways to prevent a project from going off the rails is by practicing great project management.

The most important element to project management is that very first day. That’s where the tone is set for the entire project. By taking the time to look everything over and make sure everything is in place, you can prevent nasty surprises from popping up later and throwing you off course.

Here’s what a typical first day looks like on one of my projects:

  • On the first day, I make it out to the job site to introduce the customer, or plant manager, or main point of contact to the crews, to make sure everybody knows each other.
  • From there, we do a site walkthrough and discuss the project to see if anything has changed or if the scope is still the same. It’s much easier to do this in person than over the phone or through email, because everybody’s there and you can make sure everybody is on the same page.
  • I’ll make sure everybody knows what they need to do and that all the materials are there, and once I leave the site, I’ll check in by phone later in the day to make sure everything has kicked off smoothly.
  • If any adjustments are needed, we talk to the customer, make the adjustments, and keep moving forward.

Have there been challenges? Of course. Sometimes you run into unforeseen situations that even the best preparation couldn’t have prevented — a new fixture might have a mounting system that doesn’t work with the building’s existing framing, so then you have to figure out how to make it work.

Most obstacles, however, can be prevented with thorough preparation. For example, 99% of the building could be a normal universal voltage, but one section in the warehouse is 480 volts. If you were not thorough in your initial inspection and didn’t account for that, you now have a problem: You have to get transformers and possibly postpone the project.

The less diligent your project management, the greater the odds of running into these situations, and the downstream impact can be considerable: Labor charges increase, time and travel costs increase, and delays happen. And even if you can reassign crews to work on some other part of the project, it’s still an added headache that likely could have been prevented.

Project Management Top Tips

Here are the top ways you can help make your project run smoothly, on time, and within budget. They fall into three general categories:

  • Preparation
  • Communication
  • Knowledge

Let’s look at each one.


Know your customer: It’s important to know who the decision-maker is. That person may not always be your main point of contact. Developing relationships beforehand with the key players in the customer relationship sets the stage for success.

Know the site: Get involved in the site audit, do site visits beforehand, make sure you (and key members of your crew) take as many photos as possible from multiple angles. The better you know the site and what the job entails, the more accurate you can be with your quote and with the expectations you set with the customer. Plus, there’s less risk of being blindsided partway through the job and having to course-correct.

Prep your checklist: There are plenty of small steps you can take at the beginning of a project that save you headaches later on, and a good checklist helps you remember those steps. On mine, I typically run through items like:

  • Look at the facility audit to make sure before and after measures match.
  • If you are removing or adding fixtures, find the locations so that everybody knows where they go. Photometrics won’t tell you what fixtures are currently in place.
  • Have the cut sheets of your product to know the voltage, output, and what lumen factor you’re going to get, so you have that information easily to hand.
  • Open panels. All of the panels. Figure out their controls – is it on a time clock? Are high bays individually censored? If it’s on a grid, how does the grid work? Will it work with the new lighting?
  • How are things grouped? In rows or in sections? Go around and flip the switches to get as much detail as you can about how it all works.


Be the first and last touch: Establish the relationship with the customer early on, and when the project is finished, make sure to circle back with them to ensure everything is wrapped up well. If the customer’s last touch is the crew leaving, and possibly not cleaning up after themselves, that hurts your reputation. Touch base with the customer at the end to see if there are any lingering problems you can solve before sending your invoice.

Don’t just tell, show: This is where all those photos you took come into play. Generating before and after pictures (or before and after video) is a great way to please the customer and show that expectations were met or even exceeded. For one strip center job we did, we took drone footage at night before we started the job and after we finished it. The difference in the lighting quality was dramatic and really wowed the client.

Explain, listen and trust: Your foreman, your contractor, your crew are all essential members of your team. Make sure that you’re not the only one with the full picture. Give them as much information as you have about the job, listen to their questions, and trust their recommendations. Creating a culture of transparency and fearless communication gets – and keeps – everybody on board and prevents those ugly situations where someone thought they understood the expectations, but in reality, did not.


Learn from your victories – and your mistakes: Having a process in place is only as good as how often you analyze it. After each job, look at what went well, what didn’t, and what steps in your project management processes contributed to (or detracted from) success.

Study up: A strong knowledge base is essential. When you look at a fixture, you should have a good grasp on the electrical behind it, the mounting, how the fixture is designed, what it can and cannot do, and what kind of modifications you can get away with.

Be flexible: A good project management process means controlling what you can and adjusting for what you cannot. No matter how well you prepare, the unexpected may happen. It is important to be able to think on your feet, be flexible about the plans, and focus on solving the problem.

Project managing a lighting retrofit requires you to juggle a thousand different balls at the same time, but by being methodical, communicating well, and making sure you have the knowledge to roll with the punches, you’re well on your way to a successful project that earns you happy clients and increased business opportunities.

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David Etzler

Written by David Etzler

As the President of SIB Lighting, David manages the firm’s strategy and growth, including strategic partnerships with property management firms and building owners all across the country. David is Lighting Certified (LC), earning the distinction from the National Council on Qualifications for the Lighting Professional (NCQLP). David came to SIB Lighting through the acquisition of his company, HOA Energy Advisors, in May of 2015.

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