September 18, 2015

Developing accountable staff, 12 months of the year  


We’ve all been there. Over the slow season, you put together an improvement plan for the company. You’ve made a list of the biggest problems from last year, and some new methods and systems to fix them. You pull together all your key staff — maybe even all your staff — for the big kickoff meeting at the start of the season. You share the opportunities, the challenges, the “new ways” for this coming season, as well as the reasons why everyone should buy in. Most of your staff nod in agreement. You sense some new-found motivation and engagement. Things look up…

… and then you find yourself, in the middle of the busy season, exactly where you were in the last busy season. The new systems and ways lasted a few weeks. Some of them never even really started. Everyone has forgotten, or ignored, all the reasons and methods to improve.

In six short weeks, many companies go from energized spring meetings right back to the way things have always been. It frustrates owners who are under paid and overworked. It’s just as frustrating for employees who hope that better success for the company will bring better compensation.
Change isn’t easy. Change is hard. Walk down to your bookstore and you’ll find 50 books in the business department on this topic. I don’t believe in Five secrets to successful change or anything like that, but I do believe the following points have been critical for our transition from a “one-owner show” to a company that successfully implements changes each and every year, on our path to continuous improvement.

Measure estimated vs. actual hours
If we’re not tracking and reporting up-to-date estimated vs. actual job hours, then we’re running without a scoreboard. Without a scoreboard, good staff members have no motivation to excel and poor staff have no real motivation to get better. Most, then, put forth just enough effort to avoid getting terminated. Consequently, these companies end up making just enough profit to avoid going out of business, and little more.

Day-to-day, permanent accountability begins when crews know there is a reward and a measurement for success. All too often, the new initiatives fall off because no one knows whether they are working or not. So, if your foremen don’t know whether they are winning or losing and we’re never talking about ‘the score,’ the company will more than likely slip into neutral as staff go back to old, familiar habits.

When job successes and failures are shared as they happen, the entire company sees, and attacks, the inefficiencies, mistakes, and oversights that cause failures.

Update goals monthly
Personally, I don’t believe there’s anything secret about sales goals for a company. Most big companies have goals — and share them — and perhaps that’s part of what got them to where they are. Start the spring with sales and production goals for the year. Share them with your staff. Each month, update your progress. Build in some kind of incentive for beating it! Even something as simple as 10 – 20 per cent of every dollar above goal becomes “bonus capital” for key staff. Just make sure you have a budget so you know exactly what your sales goal needs to be.

Something we struggled with for years is maintaining a neat and organized shop, yard and crew trailers. We would employ a part-time crew to clean house and organize everything. Going into spring, we were organized like a surgical room… and six weeks later, you would never know we had cleaned at all.

If you want to organize your shop/yard/trailers, and keep them that way, try the following:
  • Label every shelf. Have a specific place for everything. It might seem like overkill, but without labels, staff (especially new staff) will put things back anywhere and everywhere. Labels give everything a defined space and it’s clear to everyone where things go.
  • Inspect, inspect, inspect. If you want something to succeed, make time for it. Inspect regularly and hold people accountable. Use an inspection checklist so that you are not the only one who can do inspections. Let the office staff inspect the shop and trailers. 
  • Have the foremen inspect the office. You don’t have to do it alone, but you do have to communicate exactly how it’s to be done.

Dedicated equipment assignments
Dedicated, assigned equipment to crews was one of the best decisions I ever made.  This includes both small tools (stocked tool trailers) but also heavy equipment, such as skid steers. Not only were each of my crews equipped properly to do any job efficiently (we significantly improved our job speed), but equipment was better cared for. Without dedicated equipment, it is too easy to “leave the problem for the next guy.”

Implement an incentive program
Without an incentive program, your crews are working for nothing more than their hourly wage. You, the owner, will be the only one who truly cares about improving productivity, because you are the only one who will benefit. Vague promises of “more money for everyone” quickly wear thin when there is no objective system to measure performance and rewards.

Start with an operating budget to identify a baseline that will pay your salary, and generate a fair profit for the business. Recognize that sales and production, over and above the goals identified in your budget, generate “super profit” for the company. If you can exceed your sales goals in the same number of working hours, you will drastically improve your profits, as your payroll, equipment, and overhead costs do not increase significantly. Share some of the super-profit with your key staff — especially the foremen. Foremen make the biggest number of daily decisions that influence job success or failure.

Be 100 per cent committed
Sometimes you need to take off the gloves and get real. No more Mr. Nice Guy. Too many owners are too afraid that if they set rules and consequences, their people will quit.

You cannot build a company with staff who are “good at what they do,” but are all off doing their own thing. If you accept people who are good at their trade, but refuse to improve at managing paperwork, equipment care, training others, and more, then your company will never get past the basic struggles to implement change.  As George Urvari of Oriole Landscaping in Toronto likes to put it, “The people will change, or the people will change.” Set the rules, hold people accountable and once in a while, accept that you have to make an example of the worst offenders. It’s difficult to replace people, but it’s even more difficult to build a company with systems when you allow people to not follow them.    

Mark Bradley is president of TBG Landscape and the Landscape Management Network (LMN), based in Ontario.