May 15, 2011
By Mark Bradley

Mark BradleyBill advised Dan how to get some key areas of his operational systems in order. That meant creating procedures, policies and systems, allowing Dan’s business to run effectively, without Dan needing to constantly be there to put out fires. Dan spent the month implementing the most urgent systems, communicating new policies and procedures to his employees and training them to effectively use his new systems.

Work season is in full swing at Danscaping. Things are starting to run smoother, but Dan is still noticing mistakes. Now, they bother Dan more, because he knows how much they cost him and that his people should know better.   

These mistakes are different, but regardless, they’re costing Dan extra time and money. These are two things he’s no longer willing to ignore. He knew Bill would have a strategy to fix the little mistakes. After a stressful day of dealing with his crew, who had to make two extra trips to vendors because of forgotten materials, Dan decided to give Bill a call to see what he did when he ran into similar situations.

No foolproof method

“Glad to hear things are on the up,” said Bill. “Of course, having systems in place is not a foolproof method. Your guys are still going to make mistakes, but as these mistakes happen, it’s best to deal with it in a way to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.”

“Agreed,” said Dan, “but it’s hard to imagine that the little things, the basic common sense things, are permanently fixable.”

“Well they are,” said Bill, frankly. “The trick is fixing the source of the problem, rather than just always fixing the problem itself.”

“What do you mean?” asked Dan.

“Simply ask ‘why’ every time you encounter a problem. Doing this you will discover the root of the problem. If you just focus on solving problems, you will forever spin your wheels. There’s always an underlying reason to every problem, and it often has a simple solution.

“Let’s take the problem you encountered onsite earlier today,” said Bill. “You mentioned that your guys were running around chasing after things that were forgotten. What happened?”

Dan explained, “Yesterday, the guys cleaned out our yard’s supply of bagged concrete. We always have a skid in the yard inventory, so we can take it when we need it. No one had the common sense to let us know we were out yesterday, so the guys who needed it today had to make an extra stop on the way to site to pick up some concrete . It was half-an-hour of wasted time. When I later dropped in at site, the truck and another guy were missing. He’d run to the supply store, because they’d run out of string line. String line! I’ve got $20 worth of materials costing me at least $100, because some guy had to stop working on site to head over to the supply store, when he should be getting through billable work on site.”

“Right… so you fixed the problem (missing materials) by picking up more.  What did you do to find out why it happened? Unless you go to the root of the problem and figure out why it happened in the first place, you’re just going to have to clean up the mess again. That the same problem will continue over and over again. Do you get what I’m saying?”

“Yes, I think so,” said Dan. “How do you suggest I get to the root of the problem?”

“By using what many experts refer to as the ‘Five Why Technique.’ It’s so simple, you can teach everyone in your crews to use it. Simply continue to ask the question ‘why’ when a problem occurs, until you find yourself at the source of the problem. You don’t just fix the problem, you solve the cause of the problem, so it doesn’t happen again,” explained Bill.
“I believe you, so how do I get started?”

“Start by writing your problem down,” explained Bill. Next, ask why the problem happened and write that down. Now ask why that reason occurred. If it doesn’t identify the root problem, continue to ask why until it does. Repeat this process until you identify the root cause. Let’s take a look at your case. The problem is that you had a set production goal and you didn’t meet it.

Why #1: “Why did the crews not have the materials they needed?”

“We were out of stock in the yard,” answered Dan.

Why #2: “And why did nobody re-order new stock?”

“Nobody knew we were out. The crew who took the last bags didn’t let us know we needed more.”

Why #3: “Why didn’t they let anyone know?”

“The foreman said he thought we still had some in the shop.”

Why #4: “Why would he think you still had some?”

“Sometimes we keep some in the shop, and there were a few bags on a skid over on the other side of the yard, but they’d gone hard.”

Why #5:  “And why don’t you have one, single location for your material types – labelled so that everyone knows what’s belongs there? Why do you have bags that have gone hard still lying around your yard?”

Dan went quiet. He knew why; it was because the yard wasn’t very organized.  It was also because materials arriving at the shop got put wherever there was space, and there weren’t really assigned spaces for anything, just general areas.

A realistic plan

Bill didn’t let Dan think about it much longer. “You see. Now that you’ve determined the problem, come up with a realistic plan to address it. Then put the plan into action ASAP. Train your people on the new system, and hold people accountable for keeping it going.

“And on that point, you really should have everyone involved in the whole process. The next time a problem occurs, get your crew together and trace the problem back to the source. With your whole crew involved in the problem-solving process, you’ll get the full story on why the mistake happened and a better indication of what you can do to prevent it. You’ll train your people on how to solve problems themselves, and you’ll learn a lot more about the inefficiencies in your operations as you engage in these discussions.”

“Short term pain for long term gain,” said Bill. “Everyone would rather stick his head in the sand and not have one more thing to deal with each week.  But imagine how much easier your work life will become, as one by one these little problems stop happening. Imagine building a company where you’re not the only one on the lookout for these problems and where your employees are actively solving problems, resolving that they will never happen again. Ultimately, the end result is more profitability, which results in greater rewards for your people.”
Mark Bradley is the president of The Beach Gardener and the Landscape Management Network.