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How to Fix Inefficiency Problems

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When you’re busting your butt in a challenging economy to run your business—and even trying to grow it—few things are as frustrating as wasted time and effort. Each is a giant sucking sound on your company’s bottom line, but avoiding inefficiency seems like avoiding a winter cold. You try and try, but you still get whacked.

Inefficiency feels inevitable. Who can’t relate to this situation? A landscape contractor is awarded a job; he expects his crew of four to do it in a day. The crew gets to the site in the morning and goes to work.

Then, something happens over another project the contractor is doing.

The contractor realizes that he needs to get the second job done sooner than he thought, because the client is complaining about the time it’s taking. Around mid-day, he sends his supervisor to the first job to gather half the crew and move them to the second project. Work continues at the first job, but with manpower cut in half. A job budgeted for a day now takes two or three days.

It makes you want to gnash your teeth.

According to Dan Foley, at the Brickman Group office in South Walpole, Massachusetts, most time management

inefficiencies are fixable. Foley has identified seven areas of waste in the landscape business. He even has an industry-friendly acronym to help them remember:

MOWED IT!

“Landscape contractors’ actual work,” Foley maintains, “is any activity that physically changes the appearance of the property in accordance with the customer’s expectations, needs, and desires. Everything else is waste.”

Foley ticks off his seven categories of MOWED IT waste. Motion. Overproduction. Waiting. Extra processing. Defects. Inventory. Transportation.

Foley is clear that because some waste is necessary, like payroll and compliance, your goal with necessary waste is to streamline it.

Unnecessary waste, though, is a black hole of time, money and energy. It offers no value to the customer and doesn’t help your business. An example of unnecessary waste and inefficiency is a work crew stuck in traffic congestion because no one has a real-time app like WAZE on their Smartphone. Your goal with unnecessary waste is to eliminate it.

Foley caught the efficiency bug after a week of training at the Ariens Company, the Wisconsin lawnmower manufacturer that adopted many of Toyota’s “lean management” (in Japanese, kaizen, meaning “improvement”) practices. Foley applied those principles to his landscape business, eliminating waste (muda, in Japanese) with fabulous results.

“There’s no sense driving everyone to the service parking lot at the far end of the property when work needs to be done at the entrance. Unload near the entrance, and have one person drive the truck to the far end.”

The MOWED IT formula is how he focuses his efforts. You can almost hear him say, “Write MOWED IT on your office wall.”

Motion – making every movement count

You’ve seen it time and again. The guy on a mower, running out of gas at the far end of a big complex, who has to return to the truck to refuel and then retrace his steps back to where he started. Wasted time, wasted motion.

Foley advises crew chiefs and managers to battle inefficient motion by paying attention to the flow of work, whether it’s a complex installation of a series of artificial pools, or simply cutting a lawn. “In general, big work comes first, then smaller work. Then, plan ahead for the flow of work at a particular site to eliminate inefficiency.” The category of ‘flow of work’ includes fueling mowers.

Another simple tip Foley offers is to drop off workers with their gear before parking a vehicle. “There’s no sense driving everyone to the service parking lot at the far end of the property when work needs to be done at the entrance. Unload near the entrance, and have one person drive the truck to the far end.”

It’s possible to eliminate whole categories of inefficient motion, like

unloading open-air trailers at the end of the workday in order to stow equipment in a locked shed. Todd Bloom, president of Mitsubishi Fuso Truck of America, observes that an enclosed truck, or even a simple locked cage trailer, makes this task go away. It’s one capital investment that pays efficiency dividends.

Overproduction – too many people!

For Toyota or Ariens, overproduction means making more cars than the market needs. For your labor-intensive landscaping business, overproduction means sending too many workers to a job. Too much labor is as inefficient as not enough labor. There are transportation headaches, crews tend to work more slowly with more people on hand, and it’s possible the crew will do even more than the customer ordered in an effort to keep busy.

Send as many people as you need to get the job done. Don’t send more.

Waiting – time doing nothing

Whether waiting for a truck to be fueled, waiting to get instructions on what to do next, or waiting in traffic, waiting is a waste.

Jeff Lavigne, who operates Giant Landscaping in Manchester, New Hampshire, with partner Tim Boyle, attacked the problem of waiting by improving management. “My partner and I didn’t have responsibilities clearly divided,” he admits. “Now, Tim focuses on paperwork and I focus on running our crews. They stand around a lot less, now.”

Some of the worst time inefficiency is at the start of the day.

Foley eliminated this by creating a formal operations center for his crews. “When crews arrive, they check in at the operations center. Each crew has a bulletin board, listing work for the day, equipment needed, where they’re heading, how to get there, et cetera. They ar rive, check the board, and off they go.”

At Bolinbrook Land Design, in Nashville, Tennessee, owner Stuart Coile battles waiting with both cross-training and careful specialization. “My mower guys can trim, my trimmers know how to do beds, and the bed people can mow. It keeps everyone active. At the same time, I’ve got a designated sprayer who’s great at it. No one else has to worry about his job.”

Labor crews aren’t the only ones who waste time waiting. Foley tells what happened two years ago, when he looked at his company’s payroll system. “It was a mess. We had a seven-step process, with various people waiting around for each step. We streamlined the system, so it now saves twenty-four administrative hours a week.”

Transportation waste happens all the time. Routes are poorly chosen. Underpowered vehicles carry too-heavy loads. Overpowered trucks do jobs a pickup could handle. Drivers don’t fuel up in advance.

Also on the payroll side, Lavigne proclaims that his most important time-management innovation ever is putting many laborers on salary instead of hourly pay.

“I do it with a lot of crew members who may never have been on salary before,” Lavigne says. “Obviously, payroll is easier when I don’t have to go through time sheets. People work more hours in the spring, very few

in the winter, and get the same paycheck. Year-round salaries up here in snow country helps retain good workers. I don’t know why everyone doesn’t do this.”

Extra processing – when it’s not done right the first time The right shrubs in the wrong place. The wrong trees trimmed. A new drainage system that doesn’t eliminate standing pools of water. A poorly programmed central controller—all call for a costly do-over.

“We’re human. Mistakes happen,” Foley acknowledges. “The key is to learn from these mistakes and institute appropriate countermeasures.”

Sometimes work is fine, but unnecessary. “There’s software which is supposed to save time but actually works against you,” Foley warns. “Just because you can run an Excel spreadsheet on a subject doesn’t mean you should. If the spreadsheet doesn’t get looked at, don’t do it.”

Extra processing waste is closely related to… Defects – when it doesn’t work the first time Machine breakdowns. Poor choices of materials. All are costly; all require costly fixes or do-overs. All are also avoidable with foresight, maintenance and training.

Inventory – getting there with the right gear You know that a crew arriving with fifteen bags of fertilizer when it should be arriving with fifteen bags of mulch, is just as bad as a crew arriving with an empty pickup. In both cases, that crew is going to have to come back for the right supplies.

Foley’s operations center, with its separate bulletin boards for each crew, is designed to reduce inventory problems. “There can still be loading problems,” he concedes. “But if there’s a loading foul-up, at least we can identify why it happened, and fix it.”

Bolingbrook’s Coile not only double-checks his trucks for the right mowers, trimmers, and sprayers, but always makes sure that his crews go out with just a little more of the supplies than they think they’ll need.

“It may seem stupid, and sometimes it is stupid, but if I think they’ll be planting ten flats of petunias, I’ll make sure my guys go out with fourteen,” he declares. “They may bring back the flats at quitting time, but it’s a whole lot better than having a crew make an extra trip to Home Depot or go back the next day.”

Transportation – point A to point B Transportation waste happens all the time. Routes are poorly chosen. Underpowered vehicles carry tooheavy loads. Overpowered trucks do jobs a pickup could handle. Drivers don’t fuel up in advance.

Jed Taylor, who co-owns Columbia Turf & Landscape in Columbia, Missouri, tracks all travel person-hours and makes sure that his fleet of pickups carries extra gas cans. “We’re always looking to see that our vehicles are being driven efficiently, and watch our costs of operation,” he says. “Sometimes a smaller vehicle is better.”

Making MOWED IT changes aren’t always easy. You may face pushback from staff who think you’re looking to fire people. The fact is, once you’re running as lean as possible, you may in fact make staffing adjustments.

“Are we more ruthless in hiring and firing?” Foley asks. “Yes. But at the same time, our business has grown to where I can employ even more people.”

The best way to implement MOWED IT change is to make change a team effort.

“We celebrate new ideas, and I don’t care where they come from,” Foley declares. “They can come from management, from a guy who pushes a mower, or from a payroll clerk.

I love to let people look at areas outside their regular responsibilities. Fresh eyes are a good way to find waste and inefficiency.”

Foley repeats his mantra: “Land scape contractors’ actual work is any activity that physically changes the appearance of the property in accordance with the customer’s expectations, needs and desires. Everything else is waste.”

When you spot waste, you want to be able to say, “I MOWED IT.”

Maybe you actually should write it on your office wall.

 
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