June 15, 2011
By Mark Bradley

Mark BradleyThis series of articles, published in Horticulture Review for the past two years, follows Dan, a struggling landscape contractor, and his long-time friend and mentor Bill, who has recently introduced Dan and his company to systems.

This month, Dan’s spring schedule is in full swing, but things are just OK at Danscaping. Dan is busy and sales are up, but he is also working just as hard to get some of his new company systems off the ground. Convinced he is either doing something wrong, or the systems just aren’t for him, he sought out Bill for advice.

“We’ve really focused on systems this spring,” said Dan. “I’ve been preaching to everyone in the company. Results have been good in some areas, but falling apart in others. I’m just not sure systems are right for our type of business. Things change on-the-fly. We don’t always have all the information before we start a job. Or, things happen spontaneously and we must react. I can’t depend on systems with all these other variables up in the air. We don’t have the time, or the people to keep on top of everything.”

Surprisingly, Bill nodded in agreement, “That’s every contractor, Dan.”

Dan looked confused. Bill didn’t say anything more, so Dan continued, “Here’s the problem. I have some systems up and running. Not every system, but it’s better than anything we ever had. But now, I’m driving around to sites and I’m still seeing waste. I see waiting. I see rework. I’m coming down hard on using our systems to fix the problems, but my foremen are turning it around, blaming the systems for the problems. They’re burying their heads in busy-work, and then blame the systems for missing information when they’re falling behind.

Bill asked, “So, what makes you think it’s your systems that are causing your problems?”

Dan had thought long and hard about systems during a late drive home. Dan needed a wall finished ASAP to hit a big payment milestone. During a quick site visit to check on progress, Dan found that his crew hadn’t even started the wall. The measurements on the drawing were off. The foreman sent one email a few days ago asking about it, but then had gone silent. No one had done anything to fix the problem. The foreman pointed to his job package and noted that he hadn’t had any updated designs or information since he noticed an incorrect measurement on the drawings. Dan had heard about it a week ago, but at a bad time, and forgot about it. The foreman was blaming the job package system for not being able to move forward.

“It’s because our projects aren’t like projects in other industries. There’s information that’s not perfect. Things aren’t always planned perfectly when we start. We can’t just stand around waiting for everything to be planned, or we’d never start any of our projects. Now I’m preaching systems, systems, systems to my people, but they’re starting to blame the systems for slowdowns and waste.

Bill responded, “Dan, you’re mostly right. We’re not ever going to solve all the problems in a landscape project. We know it. Do your foremen know it?”
“Sure, they know that,” said Dan.

“Well, if they really knew it, they wouldn’t use it as a reason for waste, except in the rare cases where they’ve run completely out of options. But, that situation is rare. Your problem is not in your systems, Dan, it’s in your company’s expectations of them. You need to make the role of systems crystal clear to everyone.

“Systems take care of the day-to-day problems. They make sure that your crews leave the shop with fuel and the right tools and equipment, and that they know how many hours are allocated to their tasks, so that work is done safely and efficiently.

“Foremen/supervisors and key staff are paid a premium to get work done. They are problem solvers, who take action and make decisions when our problems are bigger than our systems.

“Do the work, not the job.” — Seth Godin

“Don’t allow your systems to become an excuse for waste. You and your foremen need systems. No amount of planning and preparation is going to solve every problem in the landscape industry, especially with construction work. In our industry, foremen need to think on their feet, see the road ahead and solve the problems that aren’t fixed with simple systems.”

As Bill spoke, the lights came on for Dan. He had built his staff to expect everything from the company’s systems. But landscape construction is not an assembly line – it requires constant problem solving, creative thinking and great communication. Dan had some great staff, but he’d set up the expectations all wrong. They were expecting the systems to eliminate all the problems for them.

Bill recalled several years back, when he experienced the same frustration Dan was feeling. “I started with a staff meeting, where I put it all on the table. I explained just some of the 100 reasons that, despite our best planning, jobs won’t go exactly as planned.”
  • Waiting on customer decisions, or changing requirements
  • Design flaws, or missing information
  • Weather and site conditions changes
  • Late material deliveries, unavailable materials
  • Equipment breakdowns
  • Schedule juggling for cash flow
“Systems aren’t going to fix these issues. A foreman’s job is to work through these problems to ensure the job gets done. He needs to communicate when he requires information, what decisions are holding up the progress, and when he is going to require resources. Foremen are problem solvers. That’s the first role on their job description.”

“Every day, foremen need to look at their goals and ask, ‘What do I need today to make this happen on time and on budget?’ Even with systems, problems are going to happen, information will be missing, and questions will be unanswered. When a foreman can’t solve a problem, they need to take every step to ensure he’s communicated the issue to the person who can. If he needs information from me, I want an email or phone call every day letting me know that I’m holding them up. Then, the problem is my fault, and I know about it.”

Bill continued with a last bit of advice for Dan, “See these problems right now as an opportunity. Your job as an owner is to teach your key staff that problem resolution is everyone’s job. When you get employees pushing back at the systems, you need to ask one simple question: ‘So what did you do about it?’ Their response will help you identify great staff who can help you grow your business, and lesser staff whose problems will be your problems, and whose productivity will suck your profits dry.”
Mark Bradley is the president of The Beach Gardener and the Landscape Management Network.