Maximizing the Efficiency of Your Mowing Crews

Time is money, particularly in the green industry

Some people have to learn everything the hard way, and apparently, I’m one of them. For instance, for years when cleaning house, I’d use the same bottle of spray cleaner, toting it from room to room, and often, forgetting where I’d just left it. One day, it dawned on me that I could save time, steps, and aggravation by simply keeping a separate bottle in every room. I have no idea how much time I’ve saved by doing that, but I like to believe it’s a lot.

Little inefficiencies like that, at the household level, are pretty harmless. But in your landscape maintenance business, seemingly ‘little’ things that your mowing crews are doing—or not doing—can add up to big losses in revenue after a while.

Time is money, particularly in the green industry. With fuel, labor, and other overhead costs as high as they are, you just can’t afford to waste any. Happily, there are lots of ways to make things more efficient.

Tighten up your routing

Perhaps the most important thing to look at is routing. “You want to schedule your work with as much route density as possible,” said green industry business consultant Ben Gandy, a former landscape maintenance company owner, and a principal at Envisor Consulting in Atlanta, Georgia.

Route density is a simple, yet profound concept. It means grouping your clients as geographically close as possible, to minimize drive time. “It’s a huge factor in whether or not you make a profit,” said Rich Arlington, business manager of Affiliated Grounds Maintenance Group in Erie, Pennsylvania, a 3,700-employee, multibranch company that services about 23,000 commercial clients. He’s also owner and president of 37-employee Arlington Lawn Care.

Ideal route density would mean that every single residence or business on a street was your client, had properties of similar size, required similar services, and could be serviced on the same days and within the same timeframes. A crew could simply follow the string of pearls, moving from one job to the next, and the next and the next.

Of course, the real world never works like that. “Routing gets complicated, because there are multiple decisions to make and lots of variables,” said Gandy. “It’s not just about geography.”

The skill sets of your personnel is one variable. If you’ve got a huge mowing job, you’ll want to put your best athletes on it. Other clients have a lot of ornamentals to trim. Your master gardener may not be as productive in terms of time, but he’s got the knowledge to let him prune those plants correctly.

Russell Gliadon, senior account manager at KG Landscape Management in Minneapolis, Minnesota, said that even if there are two sites right next door to each other, he may route them for different crews.

“Say one area has five residential and five commercial clients. I would not necessarily have one crew mow all ten sites, even though they’re all in close proximity to one another. That doesn’t mean the crew that mowed the first site is necessarily the right fit for the next site, even if it’s right next door.”

The more clients you have, the more complicated this gets. Because of that, many contractors have turned to software to help. Scot Tolson, operations manager at Lawn and Landscape Solutions, LLC, Olathe, Kansas, uses a customer-relations management (CRM) program that takes in all the different variables and calculates the most efficient route for each day.

“Every client on our list is in the software program. Back in 1998, when I first started routing crews, we did everything through Map- Quest. I had to type everything in individually or, just know where every client was. This new program has shaved many, many hours off my work.”

Gandy has experimented with a few of the routing products that are out there but lately, he’s been telling his clients to just use Google Maps. It’s free, and can do a lot of the same things that some of that software dpes.

Do things in the right order

After tightening up the routing, Gandy says that maximizing efficiency is about properly sequencing work tasks. “There’s a proper sequence of activities, and a lot of times it shouldn’t start with mowing. It might be better to do the pruning or other detail work first.”

For instance, pulling weeds. If you do that task first, prior to mowing, you can just pitch the weeds right onto the turf, and later, mow over them. The mower will grind them into mulch, and you won’t have to double-handle them, bagging them up for disposal. A nice bonus is that less material to get rid of means lower dump fees.

Gandy says that string trimmers should always follow behind mowers. “That’s critical to being productive. If the guys are out front with the string trimmer ahead of the mower, they don’t know how far to go, because they don’t know how much the mower is going to catch or miss.”

He adds that a lot of times, a person string-trimming will overproduce—trim more than is needed.

Then the mowing person comes by, but still misses something. Now the trimmer has to revisit the exact same spot he already trimmed.

Not everyone agrees with Gandy’s mow-first policy, however. “Probably the core best thing that we’ve ever done—and we’ve done it for 30 years—is teach our crews to trim first, then mow,” said Arlington. “Having them trim last is the single most inefficient thing you could do on a job site.”

In his experience, the person on the mower tries to get as close to every tree and gutter as he can, because he thinks it’ll save on the string-trimming time. But he ends up hitting tree trunks and running his tires into flowerbeds.

“All those things cost time, and afterwards, you still have to go and clean up with the trimmer. But if you string-trim first, the person on the mower doesn’t have to try and get so close to everything, and can mow faster. If you’re doing ten jobs a day, and you cut five minutes off every job, you’ve saved 50 minutes, and can fit in another lawn.”

Tolson said that his work sequence depends on the type of property his crews are working on. “At a residence, the string trimmer usually works ahead of the mower, because he usually gets done before the mower does. But on a very large commercial property, like the million-square-foot HOA that we service, the string trimmers follow behind the mowers, because they’re going to be slower.”

Cut windshield and other down-time

When consultants like Gandy are called in to help companies improve efficiency, they’re often are shocked by the blatant time- and laborwasters they notice right off the bat.

Like three people unpacking a truck that one could do alone, or a crew cooling its heels for a half-hour while the owner figures out a plan for the day.

This kind of thing can creep up on a company, particularly when it’s experienced rapid growth. Maybe the company started out with three people doing everything, and, seemingly overnight, the staff has grown to 40—but the owner is still doing things the same way as when he started.

“It’s important for owners and managers to get boots on the ground, with the guys out in the field,” said Gandy. “Look at things like, where they’re parking the trucks, and who’s doing what tasks, and how they’re using the equipment. But you won’t know what the work conditions really are until you just stop and observe.”

Just getting landscape company leaders to stop and smell the cut grass is a feat, said Gandy. They tend to be action types, who feel their job is to be constantly busy solving problems. In their eyes, if they’re not doing something with their hands every moment, they’re not providing value.

For example, at a recent consult, he took a group of managers to a jobsite where there was an installation in progress. “I said, ‘Let’s just stand here and watch for a minute.’” “At first, they were uncomfortable, but after a while, they started noticing things. Pretty soon, they were saying, ‘Look how disorganized this is! The guys are doing the work out of sequence, and they don’t have the right tools.’” I said, “‘That’s a great discovery you’ve made, just by watching. And, by the way, it’s not their fault. It’s yours, because you didn’t set them up correctly. Now, let’s figure out how to fix it.’” Another place where a lot of time gets wasted is at gas pumps. When a crew has to stop and get gas, what are the other members of the crew doing? Probably buying sodas or coffee, talking on the phone, and so forth—in other words, not working, but still on the clock.

Some companies solve this problem by having their own fuel pump right in the yard. The trucks and machines are fueled after the shift or just before. Or, just one person is designated to fetch fuel, again, just before or right after the workday.

“At some of our bigger branches, we have utility people,” said Arlington. “They refuel all the trucks at the end of every day, so our guys don’t have to stop at a gas station on the way to the first job.”

Efficiency should start with morning rollout. Depending on how organized it is, this process can either put you on track, or set the entire day behind schedule. At Lawn and Landscape Solutions, the day starts when the foremen clock in. “They’re supposed to get here ten minutes earlier than their crews,” said Tolson.

The foremen are responsible for loading the trucks every morning, and making sure that their crews have everything they’ll need for the day: mowers, handheld and backpack blowers, string trimmers and extra line, and water. Then the crew members clock in, and they are supposed to be out the door within ten minutes. “We start at 7:30, and they’re to be out the door by 7:40,” Tolson said.

At both of Arlington’s companies, crews have 15 minutes after they clock in to hit the road. If it takes longer than that, the crew leader gets written up. Crew members are told to take care of getting coffee and so forth before they arrive at work.

Which brings us to the problem of unscheduled stops. Many companies have started using GPS trackers on their vehicles. Knowing that the boss knows exactly where the truck is at all times tends to curb sudden cravings for sodas and snacks.

Arlington doesn’t use GPS trackers or timekeeping programs at either company. “We keep track of production times down to the minute, and everything is scheduled to be done within a certain timeframe. If you were supposed to be on a job for 17 minutes, but you took 20, a supervisor is going to ask you, ‘What happened there?’ There could have been a legitimate reason for those extra minutes. A customer could have come out and asked a question, or maybe someone had to stop and fill up the mower.”

For Arlington, it’s a philosophical choice as well. “What I’ve found is, once you start with the GPS tracking and everything else, you eliminate any sort of mutual trust you’ve built within your company. And I’m the type of guy who thinks that if I have to babysit grown adults, then they shouldn’t be working for me in the first place.”

Some employees may resent being tracked, feeling as if Big Brother is watching them. On the other hand, knowing that everyone on the team is working just as hard as you is reassuring; nobody has to pick up anybody else’s slack.

Gliadon does have GPS trackers in his trucks, but he mainly relies on good crew leaders to keep a tight ship. “It’s such a fluid job, and there are so many things that can be happening. But I can't really rag on somebody for having to stop at a gas station and use the bathroom."

Pay attention to your equipment

Keeping your equipment well-maintained is vital. A sharp blade will go through grass faster than a dull blade. It means the person on the mower won't have to spend as much time going back over areas, es-pecially in the spring and fall, when the grass is wet.

"If you have to go back and double- or triple-cut something," said Tolson, "you're lengthening the amount of time you're spending on that property."

"We have a standing policy at both companies that mower blades are changed at the end of every day," said Arlington. "When a person starts mowing the next morning, he has freshly sharpened blades on his mower."

Arlington adds that if you're bagging clippings, make sure that your mowers have high-lift blades. The little aerodynamic ledges at the edges of the blades create suction under the mower, which makes the bagging operation go smoother, as you won't be chasing after clumps.

Oil, fluid and filter changes should be done on a schedule, such as after so many hours of use. Some professional mowers come equipped with hour counters.

Arlington suggests making sure your mower tire pressures are accu-rate, as you'll use more fuel running on underinflated tires, and making sure that all your moving parts are kept well-greased. Anything that slows down the mowers makes you less efficient.

We hope these tips help you save time and labor, so you can cut more grass and make more money. To put it another way, the more efficiently you mow, the more freely the dough shall flow.