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Train Your Mowing Crews

BILL PHAGAN | Landscape Maintenance

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I USED TO OWN A LANDSCAPE MAINTENANCE COMPANY THAT I SOLD to another company when I retired. Well, that didn’t last too long; I got bored and took a position as president of a landscape company. Along the way, I learned a lot about how to make more bottom-line profits.

As a consultant, I now share my knowledge with my clients. We typically spend a lot of time in the field observing the crews and how the work is performed. We have the tools to do the jobs efficiently and effectively, particularly in the area of maintenance. Mowers now have lots of safety stuff, mulching blades and systems for different cuts, bagging options, umbrellas, more attachments for other things and then some. We have our choice of gas or diesel engines, and floating decks. We can walk, ride or stand—velkies, sulkies, built-in diagnostics; they go fast or slow and even come with halogen lights if you want to work 24/7, and the list goes on. Guess I started my business too early! I could’ve used some of these innovations to help out in production and profits.

As owners and managers, we do our darndest to purchase or lease the very best equipment to make our crews more efficient, faster and productive. But the total plan can sometimes get lost in the shuffle when we send our employees out to do the work. I’d like to think I’ve seen it all, but something tells me I haven’t yet. So, with the growing season almost upon us, we may want to rethink our systems, procedures and mindsets about performing the work in an efficient and profitable manner.

Many companies, especially if they are running behind due to the weather, or are short on personnel, feel that if you send more people, you’ll get the job done quicker and catch up. I disagree. Too many people make the management of that job difficult at best; it really is false economy and simply takes more time to complete.

I was recently called in to consult with a landscape maintenance company that has 35 employees. They decided some time ago to have “teams”—mow teams, weed teams and detail teams. By operating this way, they needed more equipment and vehicles; it required more travel time and a lot of unnecessary expense. Another tidbit of information is that their labor was costing a whopping 70% of sales revenue!

And I should mention the 12-person weed crew. Wow! And of course, observing the “work” is like watching government road crews…one person working, five standing around collecting your profits. And guess what? None of the field supervisors are held accountable because, “That’s the other supervisor’s job.”

Owners are sometimes too busy and forget about the basics. It’s always good to review your business as objectively as you can, and maybe even bring in another person for a fresh look, or have meetings with your personnel for suggestions on improvements.

Another company was scheduling 10 employees to service a large apartment complex that takes about 60 man-hours to complete. They are on the job at 8 a.m. and out by 2 p.m. Their next job was a small condo complex that took only 15 hours to complete and yep, you guessed it…looked like a government road crew!

By now you can probably tell that this writer is not an advocate of special “teams” unless it’s football. Why? I’ve never seen them accomplish the objective. In my mind, it’s about professional and efficient completion and having everyone finish at the same time. Otherwise, people finish their task and end up standing around at the truck waiting for the others to finish their jobs. Haven’t you seen that?

Still another company provides services to a homeowner’s association (HOA). This is a large property with very upscale homes. They would start with a crew of nine—two mowing, three using string trimmers for weeding, two edging, two trimming.

This project could never work. The mowing crew would finish and start blowing off. At least, that was the idea. I think you can now see the problems here; who mows what? To what point does each person weed? Just imagine having nine people working on one 10,000- square-foot home—a costly disaster. And they did all the pruning once a month… more on this later. It was a fiasco, to say the least.

Do you ever wonder why, when you send the same number of people out to do the same number of jobs each day of the week, sometimes they’re back at 3 p.m. and sometimes at 7 p.m.? They’re doing the same jobs every week. What could they be doing out there?

It’s costing you a lot of profit dollars, and it’s definitely up to owners and management to begin to solve this high personnel expense.

Owners tell me their objective for grounds maintenance is to provide professional services on a consistent basis. That’s great thinking, but how are you planning it out? Some companies have evolved to using different teams because they see the inefficiencies in their current systems. The tons of weeds our customers complain about that nobody pulls or treats, the missed mowing, forgetting to blow off an area, etc., so just maybe, these problems are due to a lack of a systematic approach to getting the work done. If this is an issue with your company, what can you do about it?

First, let’s define what each crew or team does. Typically, a mowing team will mow, do the hard edging, using string trimmers for weeding, blow off and they’re gone. Detail crews usually do the weed control, soft edging, pruning and again, blowing off. And of course, depending on how the specifications of the agreement are written, they may end up doing every detail each time they come, but again, that varies by property; however, the job specs are critical in doing the work.

Hopefully, you’ve been keeping records on all your jobs so you have some kind of average of the man-hours spent on each visit. If not, I recommend you start doing so immediately. Your biggest expense is labor, and if you follow these tips, it will improve your bottom line for sure.

Next, take a look at all the properties your company maintains in terms of total man-hours spent, and give some thought to front-end loading your work week. Simply put, do all the major, time-consuming jobs early in the week, since these are likely your most profitable (maybe not, but that’s another story). Your personnel are fresher earlier in the week and you get the big stuff done more quickly.

Now, starting with your biggest properties, break down how long each service takes; i.e., mowing, weed eating, hard and soft edging, pruning, blowing off. Let’s assume you have a property that takes 21 man-hours to complete; of those hours six are spent mowing, three edging, three trimming, three weed eating and six blowing off. This is a perfect three-man team.

Depending on the property layout, maybe one person mows, one does the edging, one the trimming. Once the edging and trimming is done, they team up, using string trimmers to do the weeding, then start blowing off. Figuring travel time to the job is a half-hour each way, this is a perfect and manageable eight-hour day. Add another half-hour for the supervisor to get ready in the a.m. and unload in the p.m. The total labor expense is 25 hours for the job. Your personnel are not overworked, production and quality work continues and everyone is happy.

One major issue is the system layout. Based on the property size, get a site map and begin to lay out your system. Make sure, once the system is perfected, that all personnel start in the same spot, so you can reduce training time. Think of the property as being a complete circle. You are trying to create a work-flow pattern so your crew is not covering the same ground more than once.

Ideally, your team pulls up and each person knows in advance how long their specific jobs will take and go to it. This takes constant training of your supervisors, discussing the work on the way to the job, making sure all equipment is fueled and ready to go, along with advice like, “The pitch on that pond is steep so keep the mower high on the edges, and do not put it in the pond.” Think I’ve done this a time or two?

Who designs the system? Owners and good managers have to lay out the system. I’ve rarely seen an onsite supervisor who is capable of laying out a system for any job much less a sizeable mowing property. If you have a great supervisor, give him a shot at doing it. However, you have to give him some training first. Give him an insight as to what you’re trying to accomplish. You may find a pearl in the rough.

Again, if you don’t know your hours per service, begin by collecting the information from the field and logging it in, either manually or by computer. It should take about three to four visits to benchmark the times and give you the ability, with accurate information, to continually tweak the times and improve the services.

At this point, you’ve established the accurate number of work hours on all jobs and can begin your budgeting process. Supervisors must understand the system, the manhours allocated, and it should not fluctuate much, weather depending. Obviously, if they’re on the job and you get an hour of rain before starting up again, you have to forgive that overage and bite the bullet.

One important aspect is the job specifications and frequencies of service in your agreements. Some companies deliberately write specs to save them time. As an example, let’s take the pruning of hedges, trees and palms. Depending on hedge type and growth patterns, maybe pruning them monthly doesn’t benefit you, from a labor standpoint. Fast growers need pruning more often. If you have six inches of top growth to prune monthly, and then rake out the hedge, rake up the debris and bag it, that’s a lot of time. Consider doing it more often and simply tipping them. It saves time and money—very little cleanup and expense.

Where are your properties located? Routing of the jobs is obviously important. Are you passing jobs you could be getting done sooner? Are your crews running the “star” route—north, then south, then west, then east and back again, on the same day or week? Windshield time is very expensive.

Let’s not forget about quality control while your teams are there. After the jobs are completed, the responsible person should walk the property to ensure all jobs were completed professionally, debris picked up, gas cans and equipment back in the truck, etc. We sometimes forget this step, and then customers call with complaints, creating callbacks and more expense.

Once you’ve perfected your work systems on each job, continue to record the date of service, how long each service took, plus or minus man-hours based on the budget for long-term tracking and management. This will also tell you on a prioritized basis which properties are your most profitable. In my consulting experience, I find at least 20% of our maintenance properties are not profitable. The monthly fee could be large or small, but profit is the goal.

To accomplish this, create service reports. Break down all services: mow time, herbicide time, etc., spent on the job. You should also include space for travel time, who was on the job that day, the supervisor, special or billable services performed, damaged equipment or property, supervisor suggestions for improvements, and last but not least, have the person responsible for the work sign the report, indicating all services have been checked and professionally performed.

If you decide to do service reports, be advised that most supervisors will not be receptive to the extra effort, so you have to convince them of the reasoning and benefits of doing them. And stay on them to ensure that they are completed after each visit and put in a specific place for management review and logging in at the end of the work day, not the next day.

If you take these actions, they will prove highly beneficial, as your biggest expense will shift to the bottom line—you’ll have accurate management information; your supervisors and employees will be better trained; the quality of work will improve; your customers will be happier and your business will run like a systematized machine!

 
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