Staying On Budget

Crew chiefs are accountable for safety, job quality and customer satisfaction. That’s a lot of responsibility! Here’s one more assignment: Ensure that projects and properties are profitable.

Know the Budget

Staying on budget requires knowing what the budget is. “When our foremen pick up their work orders in the morning, the budgeted hours for each property are on them,” says Bruce Moore Sr., president of Eastern Land Management in Stamford, CT. “They’re responsible for the budget hours, and we have an incentive program in place that’s tied to their performance.”

“Our foremen have PDA’s, so the budgeted hours for each property are right at their fingertips,” adds Miles Kuperus Jr., owner of Farmside Landscape & Design in Wantage, NJ. “They key-in when they check in to a job and also when they check out. They know precisely how their crews are doing that day, and whether or not they are on schedule.”

How crews perform on a given day, however, is only a snapshot of their overall performance on a property. Maybe traffic was exceptionally heavy that day, a crew member might have called in sick, or there was an equipment glitch, e.g., flat tire, broken starter rope, and so forth. The point is that it’s great to stay on budget on every property every day. But, as the saying goes, “things happen.” The big picture is making sure properties are not trending in the wrong direction.

Help Solve Problems

“We hold weekly meetings with all of our six foremen,” explains Farmside’s lawn maintenance supervisor Chris Dragon. “During these meetings, we discuss properties that may be consistently running over budget or otherwise encountering another issue. If there are budget concerns, we may take a closer look at routing, make sure the equipment is the right size for the project, and so forth. This is the time when foremen are encouraged to bring up specific concerns to me.”

Stuart Griffith, Albuquerque branch manager for Heads Up Landscaping, started out in the field but now oversees the company’s field supervisors, who oversee the crew chiefs. “Once a month, I print out a performance report that details percentage of hours used for each property,” says Griffith. “The program sorts by jobs that are on budget, over budget and under budget. I print out this report for our field supervisors, and give them a couple of days to digest it before holding our meeting.

“If there is a problem, the field supervisor discusses it directly with crew leaders to determine if the issue is chronic or something that can be fixed by tweaking how a project is approached,” Griffith continues. “If it’s chronic, we may have to go back and change the allotted hours. Otherwise, it could be the route. Maybe excessive traffic is the issue; we include windshield time in the job cost.

“Or maybe it’s how the job is being performed. Crews might be starting at the wrong end of a property or otherwise not being as efficient as they can be. Or it could be a breakdown in planning, with a crew leader failing to adequately plan out the week. It could be a communication issue, with tasks not properly allocated for each crew member.”

In other words, it could be any number of things that cause a property to run over budget. Regardless, the foreman must work with his supervisor or the company owner to help get the property back on track.

Don’t Wait Until the Boss Finds Out

The best crew chiefs help fix problems as soon as they emerge, rather than waiting for that weekly or monthly meeting when the boss is upset.

“If crew leaders see a problem developing, I want them to ask for different equipment or otherwise help figure out what the best approach is to keeping a property on budget,” Griffith says. “Not all crew leaders operate this way, but being proactive helps the company’s bottom line and works to keep the customer satisfied if it’s a quality issue.”

“On maintenance projects, staying on budget is all about hours,” says Jim Van Heemst, general manager for New Jersey-based Jacobsen Landscape Design & Construction. “Construction projects are slightly more complicated. Rain can stop maintenance for a day, but it can slow down a construction project for several days. Then there are materials to consider.”

That said, a common problem with construction still involves hours. “A project may have two days left in the budget but require four days to complete the job,” Van Heemst relates. At that point, all you can do is add a couple of crew members or different equipment to complete the job. This will hurt job profitability. But ideally, the crew chief would have spotted the impending issue ahead of time and found other ways to keep the project moving on schedule and within the budget.

Quality is Just as Important

The above contractors re-emphasize that making budget is only part of the bigger picture. “We never sacrifice quality or safety for profits,” says Heads Up’s Griffith. “Reaching all three goals requires a team effort, which means a strong training program is an absolute must. I tell our team that training is not an event, it’s a process.”

In addition to having a strong training program, Eastern Land Management finds other ways to ensure that quality and safety are not sacrificed for meeting budgets. “Account managers routinely inspect sites,” says Moore. “A crew needs to achieve a quality score of 85 to 90 from the inspection to qualify for a quarterly incentive. Our safety program is based on crews accruing points based on safety infractions, e.g., the type of accident, dollar value, damage to equipment, and so forth. Getting 12 points within a year could result in termination.”

Always Stay Focused on the Budget

The other part of the big picture is simply staying true to the budget to start with. “It’s part of our company culture to stay within the allotted hours,” says Bill Horn of California-based Terracare Associates. Horn rarely, if ever, adds crew members to a project or authorizes overtime. “In maintenance, when you don’t meet the labor budget, you lose.”

Horn explains that the company’s estimate sheet breaks out hours by the month, January through December, based on need. Depending on the time of year, the monthly hours will vary, but it’s the foreman’s responsibility to make sure his or her crews stays within the budgeted labor hours for the year.

“Throwing more personnel at a project is a slippery slope,” says Dan Palmer, Terracare’s Sacramento branch manager. As Palmer puts it, a crew doesn’t fix a problem by adding hours. “It’s all about establishing priorities and sticking to them,” he adds. “If a crew cannot meet the hours, it could mean they’re not staying on task or keeping priorities straight.”

“Maintenance jobs are never done,” Horn adds. “Crews cannot do everything every time they stop at a property, and it’s their responsibility to stay within the hours for which the client has paid.” Agreeing with Griffith, Horn emphasizes that training (e.g., establishing priorities and tasks and defining procedures) goes a long way toward staying within or actually beating budgeted hours.

“As a company, you don’t want to battle the budget issue,” Horn relates. “Staying within budgeted hours has been something we have worked on for years. Yes, there are occasions when budgets are missed, but they are few and far between, which makes missing them a little less painful.”

Whether a company is big or small, and has (or lacks) a budget-making culture, performing within a budget is ultimately the responsibility of the crew chief. He or she has to know and track the budget, and then identify a property that’s trending the wrong way. A relatively simple adjustment in routing or tasking may fix the problem. If not, proactive foremen will address the issue with their immediate supervisors and help find a way to bring the property back in line.