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How to train your mowing crew

ROBIN WESTMILLER | Landscape Maintenance
My mother always said, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.” This worked fine when she was a  homemaker, but once she started her own business, Mom soon realized that the only thing she was doing right by  following her motto was making herself frustrated and completely exhausted at the end of the day. It didn’t take her long to  adopt a new philosophy: If you want something done right, you have to train others to do it the right way and trust that they will follow  your example.

As a landscape professional, you may have had years of experience, and hours operating a mower to where you could practically mow a lawn in your sleep, but that might not be and usually isn’t the case with the person you just hired. Since you don’t have the ability to clone yourself, the next best thing is to make sure that each person on your crew is well trained to do the job—with the same precision and expertise as you would, if you were doing the job yourself.

Like a pyramid, a good training structure begins from the top and works its way down. The top tiers are the trainers: your foremen, field operation managers, or supervisors who have previously worked as crewmen and have risen to levels of leadership to where they are now responsible for training others.

“The best training happens when you can get your foreman to really understand his role as a leader,” says John Mohns of Benchmark, Poway, California. “If you can get him to sit down and mentor his crewmembers, he’ll learn pretty fast who can work well on his own and who needs to have a bit more training. In our business, time is money, so it’s up to the trainer to communicate with the crew the importance of how training will enable them to use their time more efficiently on the job,” Mohns says.

With a predominately Hispanic work force, trainers also need to have a solid understanding of the different work ethic. Many times, crewmen just want to get out on the jobsite and start working, not sit around in a conference room watching a DVD video or talking about how to do things. In these cases, it will be up to the foreman to communicate with the crew the importance of attending training meetings, not only to ensure that the work is done properly, but to ensure the safety of the individual operating the equipment. Having an untrained crewman working out in the field is probably just as dangerous as jumping into the deep end of a pool, not knowing how to swim.

“Proper training for a zero-turn mower starts even before the operator sets foot on the deck,” says Tim Cromley, sales and marketing manager of Walker Manufacturing Company, Fort Collins, Colorado. “Training should actually begin from the moment you enter a dealership. It’s there that you first become aware of how the mower operates and the safety features it has to offer, long before the seat is occupied.”

Training methods vary from one landscape company to another. The size of your crew and the number of training personnel you have will determine what works best for your company. Some train their crews in groups, some train one-on-one, some train out in the field; others have their managers train people in their offices…and some do a combination of all of these.

In some cases, crewmen may feel uncomfortable communicating one-on-one. They may feel intimidated, and afraid to ask questions.

While in a group setting, once someone asks a question, others feel a bit more at ease to ask another question. Sometimes, equipment manufacturers will visit landscape businesses with a demo unit, and go through an entire mower endto-end with 15 or 20 people at a time. That way, they have the opportunity to become familiar with a new mower, especially if it’s a new design. So once it’s purchased, there’s a lot less time needed to train the operator, leaving more time for him to work in the field.

Another time-saving training method is to have potential new employees watch a training video and take an exam before they’re hired. In some cases, employees can even take the DVD home, complete the exam, return with the results and start to work immediately.

“It’s much easier to test a potential new crew member for 15 or 20 minutes before hiring him than go through all the paperwork after you’ve hired him, only to find out within a few days that he really isn’t qualified to do the job,” says Jay Murray, president, LS Training Systems, San Diego, California. “After they view the DVD, the supervisor can go through the check list, and have that potential new employee demonstrate that he totally understands it. If he doesn’t, you have a chance to either correct him, make him re-watch the training video, or send him out the door.”

All mower manufacturers supply instruction manuals and materials for their machines. A number of them have online safety tips, which are easily read online or can be downloaded and printed in either English or Spanish. However, neither watching videos nor reading text can really take the place of actual hands-on experience—training and testing that many landscape companies are now insisting their employees go through even before they’re allowed to operate any powered machine.

Howard Mees, vice president of ValleyCrest, Calabasas, California, says his company has its own certification training program in which trainees can’t even touch a piece of equipment until they’ve taken and passed a series of operational courses and are certified to use them.

“You’re basically doing two jobs at once: training your crew and working a landscape,” Mees says. “We put a green safety vest on a new employee so that the experienced crew, who are wearing orange vests, can keep an eye on the new guys. If the new hires have a question, they can ask one of the crewmen wearing orange.”

The first part of ValleyCrest’s certification training program is a pre-start check, to make sure that the new hires have a basic understanding of where the controls are on the mowers, such as the throttle, choke, and the blade clutch, and all the intricate parts of mowers.

After the trainee passes the prestart check, he’s allowed to get into the seat, where he goes through the stages of actually turning on the mower. This check will include basic operations of the mower, such as making certain the handles are in the correct position for starting, that the hand brake is on and getting comfortable with the handling

of the machine.

The next section of the course is the fuel. This part covers not only knowing where the fuel tanks are, but understanding the type of fuel that’s used—whether it’s gasoline or diesel. If it’s a propane-powered unit, there are special instructions on handling the tanks. Operators are also instructed on how to identify small problems before they become major ones, which is especially important once the crewman is out in the field alone.

“We had a crewman’s mower burn up while he was working a job, because he didn’t understand what was causing a certain noise coming from the engine,” said Mohns. “It was low on oil, but because this particular operator wasn’t familiar with the sound, he just ignored it. This doesn’t happen with proper training prior to having him work a job.”

After going through Valley-Crest’s initial training, the crewman is sent through a 30 to 45 minute drivethrough with a safety officer, whose job is to check and score the new operator. Much like taking a driving test or passing a check-ride if you’re a pilot, the crewman isn’t allowed to “fly solo” until he successfully scores a passing grade.

Having passed the operational side of the mower, the next part is the actual mowing process.

Depending on the size of the business, the training of mowing a lawn can be performed in the yard on a practice field, but it’s usually done right on the site of the first job, where the trainer goes through all of the steps with the crew member. Again, safety is the major issue, so even before the operator hops on the deck, a site inspection is performed to check for potential hazards. These include rocks or pebbles, and hidden obstacles like pipes that might be broken in the ground, which could cause problems with control.

Another safety issue when operating a riding mower is measuring the degree of a slope on a property before driving the mower over the grass. “Most of the equipment manufacturers talk about 15degree slopes, so we talk about how to measure slopes and make certain the crews understand the dangers of mowers overturning if they ride them on a slope that is 15 degrees or greater,” Mees said.

When mowing a lawn, it’s not enough to know the basic mechanics or safety issues in the operation of the mower, they must also understand the intricacies in the actual mowing itself. This makes certain that the lawns are healthy and beautifully manicured.

Operators also need to be instructed on mowing patterns, and even how to stay on a straight line. Mowing patterns have to be alternated to avoid rutting up the turf and to give the landscape that perfect plush carpet appearance. This is accomplished by changing the mowing patterns, cross-cutting in one direction one week, and in a different direction the next week. According to Mees, the hardest part of driving the mower is going in a straight line.

“ When you see those perfect lines, like on a baseball field, they’re that way because of training. There’s no string line or laser beam to guide the operator, and some are better at it than others. We have to go through this in the training, because we want to emphasize that that finished look is what the client is also looking at and expects.”

Your clients not only expect professionalism in the finished landscape, but also in the way your crew performs their work. They’re not only working far away from your direct supervision, but they are also representing you and your company. They’re driving your trucks and wearing uniforms with your company’s logo prominently displayed. How well they do on their job reflects not only on their expertise and professionalism, but on yours as well.

While it may be a simple matter of training crews to perform a job, it is also necessary to train them to feel good about the job that they do.

“The other area of training is creating a sense of pride in your work,” says Mohns. “Of course, our crews need to be productive and efficient, but they also need to have a passion for the work they do, which is to beautify the environment. I also think companies can provide more acknowledgements and recognition. Positive reinforcement is a much better training technique than yelling and criticizing everything they do.”

“The time it takes to train an employee is a great deal less than the time it will take you to correct their mistakes,” says Mohns. “Not to mention the money you’ll lose by having to replace or repair plant material because the crewman didn’t have the proper training to use the mower in the first place.”

By properly training your crews, you might not have done the job yourself, but you can rest assured that it is done right every time.

 
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