Forward Motion

It has been a year since Green Industry PRO and JP Horizons first teamed up to help expose the concepts of Working Smarter to landscape contractors across the country. In that time several contractors have joined the Working Smarter Training Challenge. They’re finding ways to improve work processes, boost morale, drive out waste, reduce costs, improve customer service, and overall create more competitive companies.

Here’s a look at what three of those contractors have focused on over the past year.

TLC Total Lawn Care in Weslaco, TX

TLC topped the million-dollar mark for the first time in 2010, its 11th year in business. That’s why owner Gerry Bower felt it was necessary to join the Working Smarter Training Challenge this past November.

“I’m not from the Green Industry; I come from manufacturing,” Bower relates. “I understand that a successful business owner must surround himself with quality people who help cover his weaknesses. I also understand that as a company grows, the owner can’t influence his people as much because he’s simply not around them as often.”

TLC sees roughly 80% of its revenue come from maintenance-related services. “I need to create a company culture where employees feel some sense of ownership,” Bower says. “This is going to be very important as we continue to grow. I’m not the CEO anymore—I’m the CIO, chief inspirational officer. My employees have to do the rest.”

To implement Working Smarter in his company, Bower tapped office manager Elizabeth Castillo as training coordinator. She then invited employees at the crew chief level and higher to attend the voluntary weekly meetings. Bower is not invited to the meetings—which is fine by him. “Working Smarter is an ongoing discipline I want to be prevalent in my company, and I want it to be coming from my employees,” he points out.

After meeting for several months, the group amassed a two-page list of ways to improve the company. “Evening shutdown and morning startup” was at the top of the list. The Working Smarter team is now assembling a series of processes and checklists to help improve organization and reduce downtime in this area. These will become standard work that each crew must adopt.

Other items the Working Smarter team is looking to soon address include equipment abuse and unbillable downtime between properties. “No more getting to a jobsite but forgetting to bring a gas can,” Bower says.

The implementation of these new processes and checklists is just beginning. Thus, it’s still too early to quantify the improvements in terms of time and money. Bower is certain of one thing, though: Morale is up and the possibilities are endless.

“There is a common purpose among employees now—they’ve become like brothers and sisters,” Bower says. “The team is excited about the Friday Working Smarter meetings, and everyone is excited about making our company stronger. I’m proud of what they’re doing.”

Colorado Stoneworks Landscaping in Colorado Springs, CO

Colorado Stoneworks has been steadily growing since it was founded in 2006. Specializing in maintenance for single family-residence property managers, the company is now up to four crews—and is facing a whole new set of challenges.

“We are young, we started from the ground up, and we’ve experienced our share of growing pains,” says co-owner Anne Campbell. “Now our growing pains have to do with properly managing employees, and making sure their idea of quality work matches ours.”

Campbell and her partners, husband Jonathan and Tannan Orr, joined the Working Smarter Training Challenge last September and immediately set their sights on three primary objectives.

Improve communication. Colorado Stoneworks involves each of its nine employees in the weekly Working Smarter meetings, which are mandatory. “We want to make sure our employees know that this is important to not just the company, but to them personally,” Campbell points out. “I’ve been impressed by how everyone has jumped right in to offer suggestions.”

Employees are looking at virtually every aspect of the company. “We’ve found out that our crews were running into problems where certain equipment they needed for a job wasn’t available,” Campbell relates. “Sometimes we had too many jobs scheduled on a certain day. As owners we’re not perfect, and you have to be willing to ask your team for help.”

A big white board now hangs in the office. It is used to communicate maintenance issues, equipment problems, meeting reminders, etc. Employees are instructed to check the board every morning.

Estimators now get crews started out on jobs—at the actual jobsites. This is designed to help eliminate those little components of a project that are mis-understood or completely missed.

Filling out job sheets—completely and coherently—has also become standard work. “I tell our crew leaders, ‘Someone who knows nothing about landscaping needs to be able to understand what you wrote,’” Campbell says. She’s now set some standards as to how things are to be reported. A mock job sheet is used as an example, highlighting sections that are often missed such as customer phone number, fertilizer quantity, the equipment that’s used and drive time.

Increase efficiency. Like TLC Total Lawn Care, Colorado Stoneworks wants to improve its evening shutdown and morning startup times. Campbell says her team has concluded that better preparation for the coming morning is the key. For instance, trucks are now backed in at night so they can simple drive out in the morning.

Another area of focus is comebacks. “You have to do things right the first time,” Campbell says. “It sounds simple, but it’s huge. Employees need to understand the effects of comebacks, and they have to be held accountable. Having our crews complete tool checklists has helped a lot.” Positive feedback for a job well done is equally important. Incentives such as gift cards can go a long way.

Increase revenue. Colorado Stoneworks naturally wants to continue finding new customers. They’ve also come up with another strategy for increasing revenue: accurate pricing and billing.

Billing goes back to communication and making sure crews fill out job notes accurately so customers are billed correctly. On the topic of pricing, “We are in the process of really scrutinizing our flat rates,” Campbell tells. “We have to make sure we’re charging enough.”

Crews now have a “time in/time out” sheet they fill in throughout the day. Campbell says this has helped her identify some areas where they weren’t charging enough. Plus, it has helped employees understand how important it is to keep good records in the field. “When employees make the connection that what we pay them is based on what we bill, and what we bill is based on what they report to us, all of a sudden they think paperwork is important. It’s been great.”

Landscape America in Wrentham, MA

Doug McDuff joined the Working Smarter Training Challenge for the very reason most contractors do: to figure out how to reduce waste in his company. “We just weren’t hitting the man-hours we were bidding,” McDuff says. “And now is not a time to be raising prices.”

The Landscape America staff has put job processes under the microscope, but even more important has been communication between salesman and crew chief. “We can’t bill two additional hours because a salesman had to drive a tool out to a jobsite,” McDuff relates.

Here is the typical scenario Landscape America is trying to eliminate: Salesman sells a job; job is scheduled but put on back burner; a month later the project is started, but the foreman forgets something the salesman told him, or forgets about a tool they’re going to need.

“Now we have a quick meeting every morning,” McDuff says. “The foremen have logs where they take notes, each making a punch list for the day. Then they tell us what they need to get it all done. This in itself is solving a lot of our problems.”

Downsizing crews has helped solve some other problems. Landscape America switched from three-man crews to two-man on residential accounts. “We determined that a two-man crew can bring in $800 a day,” McDuff says. “But a three-man crew can’t bring in $1,200. It became pretty clear to us that three-man crews aren’t a good idea.”

With larger commercial properties, McDuff prefers to send two 2-man crews in separate trucks. When they are done they split off and go on their own for the rest of the day. “We go by square footage,” McDuff explains. “Some of these commercial properties are pretty spread out—almost like six or eight normal-size properties. That’s where we’ll double up.”