November 1, 2012

Systems: Key to Superstars


Several years ago I remember looking at a sign that hung at the entrance to our shop. We were growing, we’d lost a key person or two that year and I really needed to find a foreman (or two!) to keep things moving along. “Landscape Foreman For Hire. Apply Within,” it said. That sign, along with a few other ads, both published and online, would hopefully attract some interest.

It was a well paying position. We were taking on unique, interesting work. The projects were challenging, but rewarding. When you finished, you really had a sense of pride in what you had accomplished. We gave our foremen more information and authority than what they would be used to elsewhere. I believed we offered a great opportunity. I crossed my fingers and hoped.

Fast forward a few months and I wasn’t any further ahead. The sign and the ads brought interest, but three months and three foremen later, I was out front hanging the sign once again. All three candidates had over-promised, under-delivered and ultimately didn’t last long. I needed a great foreman. I was ready to pay for a great foreman.

I wish this story had happened only once or twice, but the same story has played out in many different positions in my company, from accountant to delivery driver. Yet no position is quite like a foreman. Hiring a foreman is like handing the keys to your business over to someone else.
  • They load trucks and ensure the necessary people, equipment, tools, and materials are prepared
  • On site, they create daily plans, delegate tasks and ensure we work safely, minimize warranty and call backs, and bring jobs in on time and on budget
  • Their conduct, cleanliness, and organization are the face of my business to my customers, to their neighbours, and to every potential customer who passes by our jobsite
  • They need to plan days in advance to ensure we’ve got everything we need when we need it
  • They make decisions on-the-fly when faced with obstacles like weather, design changes, customer requests, equipment breakdowns, and unexpected surprises
  • They help us ensure extra work is tracked and ultimately billed to the customer
  • They ensure crews track their time accurately, for payroll and job-costing
  • They ensure our company systems, policies and procedures are followed each and every day
  • They are ultimately responsible for ensuring that, at the end of the job, our customers will be our best advertising and marketing tools.
And when my foreman failed in any of these responsibilities, I was ultimately left to pick up the pieces and fix the mistakes.

In any major company, someone with these responsibilities might be called a vice-president or senior manager. Now, here I was, handing the keys to my business and my personal livelihood to the first few able-bodied people who responded to our sign. I needed, against all odds, to find that one-in-a-thousand foreman who would walk through my door and handle all these responsibilities like I would.

I had the sales opportunities. There were customers willing to pay fair market value for our services. I had built up a fleet of equipment that gave us a cost + productivity advantage over many of our competitors. I just needed some people that could help me get this work done! But after many attempts, I had to accept the fact that no matter how good I thought our company was, or how many awards we’d won, superstars were just not going to beat down our door. But I had to do something — this was the bottleneck slowing our success.

The real problem starts to surface when you get really honest with yourself. Superstars are few and far between in our industry. Extraordinary people rarely pick the green industry to pursue a career. Will that ever change? We’re seasonal, it’s hard work and long days, you get dirty and sore, and other trades pay better wages. My people problem was always going to be a problem and I needed a way to fix it.

Looking back, I realize now that our ‘foreman-for-hire’ sign was a clear indicator that we were not a systems-based company. We were a company that depended too much on everyday decisions made by people — most especially me!

Our real problem wasn’t that we couldn’t find great people. Our problem was that we depended on finding them.
We needed systems. Systems that took the ideas and plans from my head and put that information in the hands of my people. Systems that clearly told my staff:
  • What tasks needed to be done
  • Who was responsible
  • When they happened
  • How they were to be carried out (safely, quality specs, time constraints).
So began one of the longest, but most rewarding journeys in my landscape company’s growth and development. There were many late nights, weekends and vacations spent thinking about, then documenting a better way to do what needed to be done. There were systems that worked, those that didn’t, and those that needed four or five changes before we got it right.

There were many new policies, procedures and company meetings. There were people who couldn’t, or didn’t want to, keep up with the change. There were staff that didn’t survive the changes. New people were quicker to adopt the systems, since they didn’t know any better. They were impressed we had systems, and it was all they knew since their first day in our company.

I still look at my landscape company as very much a work-in-progress. There is always another problem to fix. But my problems today are far different than the problems I had back then. I don’t worry whether my crews brought fuel to site, whether they’re taking too long to get out of the yard in the morning, or whether our job-costing hours are accurate. My foremen know they are responsible for those issues, and our company systems ensure those tasks get done right. I’m freed up to worry about the bigger issues. Like:
  • Making sure the sales pipeline is full
  • Making sure we’re making money
  • Making it home for dinner (at a “normal” time) with my family.
Our company’s systems help us get around the people problem. Our success doesn’t depend on great people. We depend on good, disciplined people who follow systems. Good people with great systems make for great companies.

Better still, our systems develop future superstars within our own company. Before, I found myself constantly wading through other company’s castoffs, trying to find exceptional people who could run my sites like I would run them. Our systems, combined with a company culture that offers and promotes continuous training and education within, push our own employees up the ranks. Instead of looking outside my company for help, I typically have anywhere from two to five lead hands ready to take on a bigger role. These ‘developing stars’ often need help with leadership and planning skills, but they already know our company systems, our policies, and the company culture/work ethic. We don’t have to absorb weeks or months’ worth of ‘mistakes’ while we bring new employees up to speed.

Don’t get me wrong — great people make great companies too, and I owe a lot of my success to the great staff that surrounds our company. We can never have enough great people. But while I’m hunting down the best and brightest stars of the industry, great systems and good disciplined people form the backbone of our company. Hiring landscape foremen, and all staff, is so much easier when you have the right systems in place. You’re happier because your people are better trained and more productive right away. Your staff are happier because they know what’s expected and who is responsible. Looking back, our systems were some the best investments I ever made.
Mark Bradley is president of The Beach Gardener and the Landscape Management Network (LMN), in Ontario. LMN provides education, tools and systems built to improve landscape industry businesses.