June 1, 2011

Three little sentences mean something's about to go wrong

Short sentences. Big problems.


With spring upon us, we rarely have the time for lunch, so what better time to look at some simple ways you can improve your business?

We narrowly avoided an issue onsite recently that would have cost many hours of productivity, added stress, and a resulted in a lot of finger pointing. As we went through the questions to examine the problem, I felt my blood pressure rising. Over 15 years in this industry, and previous work in construction and project management, I've subconsciously trained myself to react strongly to certain sentences. They're just a few words each, but they're enough to set off my warning bells — I know something bad is about to happen. At that point, everything stops and we get clarity, because I'll spend a lot less time and money stopping a problem than I will solving one.

The best time to solve a problem is before it starts. Certain answers to questions result in problems just about every time I hear them. Here, in this article, I want to take a look at three sentences that should shout to you that something's about to go wrong.

"I was going to, but…"
The real meaning: "It's not done, but I have an excuse." There are rare occasions where there is a good justification, but upon hearing this answer, I'm mentally prepared to deal with an excuse. It's critical that we, as owners and managers, look hard at the second half of this sentence, the excuse, to ensure we create a culture that doesn't tolerate lazy habits.

Why it's said: People generally fall into two categories: people who ask themselves, "Why won't this work?" and people who ask themselves, "How can I make this work?" As Tony Robbins says, your brain will find the answer to any question you ask it. If you ask yourself why you can't get something done, your brain will justify. Ask yourself how you can get something done, and your brain will figure out that answer, too. Unfortunately, most people ask themselves why something can't be done — especially in their work lives. And when you ask these people why something hasn't been done, they're primed and ready with a "reason." Be realistic and recognize this fact. Anyone can come up with a reason why something can't be done … that's easy. Good employees get things done in spite of reasons. Unfortunately, most employees aren't wired this way. You need to deal with it.

What to do about it: Your job as an owner is to get tough on the "Why won't this work?" thinkers. They are costing you time and money and worse, you are likely working extra hours thinking and planning to compensate for "why I can't" thinkers. Train your staff to ask themselves, "How could I get this done?" by always replying to this warning sentence with, "What did you do to try to solve the problem?" Don't think for them — that's critical — they'll soon expect you to do the thinking. Instead, keep asking questions. It won't take long for lazy workers to paint themselves into a corner. Good employees will get the message, and in the future, start to prepare themselves for your line of questioning by asking themselves, "How can I get this done?" before they have to answer to you. When you and your staff start to change the questions you ask yourselves, you'll find your jobs go smoother and your work lives get easier. (Tip: this works great for your personal life as well!)

"We don't have the right designs/specs/takeoffs/information…"
The real meaning: "Something's wrong … but it's because someone else didn't do his job." In landscape, especially construction, we hear this sentence all too often. Blame is shifted to the designer, the architect, the operations manager, the customer, or even the owner. The employee feels that, since the problem occurred before he got involved, he is not responsible.

Why it's said: Having incomplete information is an easy excuse to fall back on. There are so many variables that need to be considered in landscape, or any construction, it's impossible to create an airtight job plan in the design and planning phase. There are only two circumstances when this sentence should be an acceptable reason for slowdowns: the foreman or crew has made attempts to get the information, but is still waiting, or your company policy is to put together perfect work packages for crews.

Since the second statement doesn't apply in my company, reason number one is the only reason we can tolerate slowdowns as a result of missing information.

What to do about it: Hundreds of potential billable hours are wasted because field crews don't have accurate information when they need it. Worse yet, people will spend more time complaining about missing information than they would have spent picking up a phone to deal with it.

When planning any project, we do our best to build a solid execution plan, but in this industry, we're never going to have a plan for everything. The foreman is in charge of the job. It's the foreman's job to identify missing or incorrect information and to deal with it. Profitable companies employ foremen who, on their own, get the information and surface any key questions or decisions based on the new information.

Smartphones (Blackberrys, etc.) are considered essential equipment for our crews, right up there with shovels. If the crews are missing information, smartphones give them the tools required to deal with it, on the spot. When you don't deal with problems immediately, you put your head down and forget about them. You don't think of it again until the moment you need the solution. A quick email, on the spot, is enough to get the request out there, before we're in a position where we're losing productivity. Remember, most people naturally avoid surfacing problems. They don't want to bug someone senior, they don't have the confidence to admit they don't have the answers, or they procrastinate because solving problems isn't as easy as staying busy. You need to be firm on this one: "If you need information, it's your job to ask for it™

"I think [insert name here] is doing it…"
The real meaning: This is the thinking man's way of saying, "That's not my job." Unless you're in a union, you can't get away with the "not my job" sentence anymore. Instead, people are using new and improved ways of saying the same thing.

Why it's said: Beginning the sentence with, "I think" means they're not doing the task, they haven't make any attempts to do the task and they haven't done anything to make sure it's being done.

To make it even worse, they try to deflect responsibility, by redirecting the blame on the person they are fingering.

What to do about it: Your job is to immediately ask the return question, "Does [insert name here] know they're responsible for this?" If that answer is, "I think they do," or worse, "I don't know," then brace yourself for problems. Unclear answers clearly demonstrate a lack of control. The answer you need to hear sounds like this: "Yes, I asked him yesterday." Anything more vague than that means your company stands an excellent chance of dropping the ball on this task.

Winning teams hold each other accountable. Foremen have to coach their crews in the field. They are responsible for ensuring that tasks are clearly assigned, and are being executed. Can you imagine sports teams where positions (roles) were left unmanaged? "Who's playing left defense?" "Who's batting fifth?" The results are going to be embarrassing.

Whether it's equipment maintenance, material planning, loading fuel, or filling out paperwork, your foremen are responsible for ensuring that the work gets done right. "I think someone else is doing it," is going to cost you (the owner) a lot of money.
Mark Bradley is the president of TBG Landscape (The Beach Gardener) and the Landscape Management Network (LMN). LMN is an online suite of software and systems to help landscape contractors build better businesses. Learn more at www.landscapemanagementnetwork.com