"There just aren’t enough hours in the day for everything I have to do!” Haven’t we all said that at one time or another? If you’re involved in the green industry in any sort of ownership, management or supervisory capacity, chances are those very words have come from your lips, maybe on a daily basis. If someone asks you if you practice ‘time management,’ you might be thinking, “What do you mean, ‘time management’? Time manages me!”
If that’s how you feel about the ferocious beast called Time, you might enjoy hearing what ‘whips and chairs’ other professionals use to tame it.
“First thing in the morning, I have an operations meeting with my team,” said Daniel Reeves, director of maintenance for HeadsUp Landscape Contractors in Rio Rancho, New Mexico.
“I view that as invaluable. We talk about everything that will be happening that day, so we all know what the plan is.” It’s a chance for everyone he manages to touch base with him and each other. It also lets him know about any hot-button issues right away, so they can be dealt with swiftly.
After the meeting, he goes into his office. There, he checks the running list he keeps of everything he needs to get done that day, and in what priority. The lists are made at the end of each workday. When it’s close to quitting time, whatever tasks he didn’t complete are moved to the next day’s list and reprioritized.
Jorge Castaneda, operations manager for Valencia, California-based Stay Green, Inc., follows a similar routine. “I have my to-do list ready to go, then I do the best I can to stick to it. Everything can go perfectly until you get that one issue, that one emergency call that’ll change the whole schedule.”
These two men may have time management nailed, but those who work under them very often don’t. As a supervisor, Castaneda uses ‘ride-alongs’ to counsel struggling employees. He’ll spend a couple of days with them, gently guiding them to prioritize, saying, “What do you have on your plate today? What can we knock out first?” He says that, a lot of times, supervisors have trouble delegating to the people below them. Either they don’t know how to delegate, or they feel that certain tasks are their responsibility. As a result, they spend a lot of time working below their level, doing someone else’s job for them.
The biggest time-management bugaboo is the client who calls with what to him is an emergency. He expects you to rush right over and deal with it, and your natural inclination is to please him. After all, that’s what he’s paying you for…right?
Right for him—wrong for you.
“This industry has an addiction to urgency,” said green industry consultant Bruce K. Wilson. As coowner of the Scottsdale, Arizona-based Wilson-Oyler Group, he helps contractors build their businesses and manage their employees.
He ought to know—he’s the former president of ValleyCrest’s landscape maintenance division, which he built up during his 30-year tenure. (ValleyCrest recently merged with Brickman; the new name of the combined company is BrightView). Wilson is also part owner of a maintenance company in Palm Springs, California.
What robs us of our time the most, according to Wilson, is mainly the things we enjoy doing. “We tend to do the things we like to do, not necessarily the things we should do.”
He says that landscape people love the speed at which everything happens.
It starts in the spring, when the grass starts growing faster, and it suddenly seems like they have to do everything at once. They get into urgency mode and stay in it for the rest of the season. Then that client calls, and they automatically jump, saying, “I can take care of that!” and off they go. But the matter really wasn’t that urgent; it was something the crew could have taken care of the next time they were at the site.
Wilson has a name for this: ‘Hero Management.’ Reeves calls it ‘Firefighter Syndrome.’ Whatever you call it, “by nature, our business tends to be reactive rather than proactive,” said John Eggleston, an irrigation business consultant at ServiceFirst Irrigation in Lansing, Michigan.
“A line breaks, a head blows off, a backflow preventer starts filling, and suddenly you have to make an ‘emergency’ service call. When a client calls and says, ‘I’ve got water shooting out all over the place,’ the contractor or technician will drop the six other things they had planned for that day, instead of saying, ‘I’ll tell you how to shut off the system, and I’ll be out tomorrow.’” “Taking care of somebody screaming that a sprinkler head is broken could derail your entire morning,” said Dr. Phil Allen, professor of landscape management at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.
“Say it happens right when you have a deadline to write a proposal that could generate a lot of longterm revenue for your business. If you don’t give yourself time to complete that proposal effectively, you won’t be competitive—all because you dealt with that sprinkler head rather than having the appropriate person deal with it.”
Reeves can attest to the addictive nature of always being in urgency mode. “You can get hooked on this, because it feels like you’re accomplishing a lot, but you’re really just treading water, not moving forward,” he adds.
It’s a common mistake that even veteran contractors make. Putting on your cape and staying in superhero mode may be exhilarating, but it doesn’t leave time for planning and meeting strategic long-term goals.
Wilson says a trap that supervisors, especially new ones, can fall into, is saying “yes” to too many tasks. They end up with delegation in the wrong direction, up instead of down.
Here’s an example. A supervisor does a task that a foreman should have done, just to make sure it gets done correctly. As a result, the foreman never learns about the thing he was supposed to do, and repeats the bad habit, setting it up to happen all over again.
“We’ll take the best worker and make him a supervisor or account manager, and just assume he has management skills,” says Wilson. “Or we’ll promote a good foreman who’s able to manage one or two people really well. But give him four or five people, plus a whole bunch of customers, and it’s a whole different ballgame.”
The Hero Management/Firefighter Syndrome can throw an entire company off-track. For instance, the client with the ‘urgent’ matter calls his account manager or client services rep. Perhaps that rep hasn’t always taken care of the client the way he should. So now he’s scared; he’s thinking, “I’d better take care of him this time, or he’ll fire us.”
The rep calls the operations manager, who now has to drop what he’s doing, which was ‘fire prevention,’ getting ahead of problems before they happen. Then another customer calls with another ‘urgent’ problem, and you have another repeating cycle.
A good time manager asks the right questions of himself when a customer calls with a ‘fire.’ Questions like, “Is this something that really has to get done today, or can it wait until tomorrow?” Don’t be afraid to ask those questions.
The four-box system
When we’re making a to-do list, how do we decide what takes precedence over what? Reeves uses a technique Wilson taught him, one that was popularized by former president Dwight D. Eisenhower.
This simple, elegant system uses four boxes, labeled ‘Urgent and Important,’ ‘Important, but not Urgent,’ ‘Urgent but not Important,’ and finally, ‘Not Urgent and Not Important.’ Every night, before he goes home, Reeves puts all of his to-do list items in one of these four boxes.
The beauty of this system is that, instead of writing out a mere list of tasks, it makes you think about each one. It also helps you recognize that a lot of tasks labeled ‘urgent’ have been labeled that by someone else. You run and do them, because you fear the consequences if you don’t.
“The things that tend to make your company better are things that fall into that ‘Important, but not Urgent’ box, like training and coaching your employees. Those are the very things that’ll save you time and money in the long run.”
“Some of the best time-management tools out there now use new technology, like smartphone apps,” says Eggleston. “We should ask ourselves, ‘Are we utilizing technology to its fullest?’ ‘Have you fully explored what’s available, made just for landscape and irrigation contractors?’” There are apps to help you choose plants, calculate square footage, pick harmonious colors and on and on.
Some apps use Google Earth to measure the outdoor surface of a property from anywhere, regardless of weather conditions or time of day. Then, it figures out the square footage for you. Built-in volume calculators will estimate the amount of materials and equipment you’ll need for a project. Some apps even give you color-coded site maps. Best of all, you can do this any time, even at home in the evening with your feet up.
“With business management software and apps, you can do onsite billing and estimating without having to make multiple trips to the same site,” says Eggleston.
There are GPS (global positioning system) trackers that will let you monitor your crews as they move through their day. A tracker can tell you if they’re making unscheduled stops or taking too long for lunch. Let them know they’re being monitored, and they’re much more likely to stay on-course. While we’re on that subject, there’s routing software that can figure out the shortest distance, not just between points A and B, but between points C, D, E, F, G, and H.
Are you taking full advantage of smart irrigation control? Central and remote control capability for irrigation systems has saved tens of thousands of man-hours and gallons of gas.
Remember that broken sprinkler head? What if the contractor had already received an email alert and was able to shut down the zone from his smartphone? The client might never have even known there was a problem. “Technology is definitely part of the time-management equation,” says Allen.
For design/build contractors, landscape architects and designers, there are numerous software programs that’ll let you and your client visualize what you’re planning. Some come loaded with images of and information about thousands of plants and trees, as well as brand-specific elements, such as paving tiles and landscape lighting. When you buy these programs, you’re entitled to periodic updates of those elements.
“With all of this stuff, it’s pretty easy to multi-task and be in six places at once,” comments Eggleston, “or at least make people think you are.”
If all of this is making you feel a bit overwhelmed, you’re not alone; many, many articles have been written about the effect all of this technology has had on us mere mortals.
The downside is that while many things have become simpler and faster, we’re also expected to run faster and harder on that hamster wheel. It’s a major cause of stress.
Human beings only move so fast, however. It still takes a certain minimum amount of time to build things, mow things and trim things.
Answering the deluge of email and text messages we get is a beast unto itself. By the time you look up, the whole day has gone by. The same goes for answering inquiries from your company’s Facebook page or website, or writing and updating blog entries. The World Wide Web contains an uncountable number of time-wasters.
One way to deal with this is to set aside a limited amount of time for each of these things; say, one hour a day for email, and one hour per week for blogging. Set a timer to remind you; when it goes off, you’re done.
Of course, not everyone is enthralled with technology. “I’m a little bit older, so I don’t tweet—I don’t do any of that social-media stuff,” says Kurt K. Thompson, irrigation director for Orlando, Florida-based Massey Services, Inc.
“I do have to respond to some email, but I still prefer talking to people on the phone. I’ll look at a text, but if you send me one with no name attached, then you won’t be very high on the priority list.”
The cell phone is another double-edged sword. When Castenada has to deal with employees who aren’t managing time well, it’s often because they’re spending too much of it on the phone. Small wonder, now that cell phones have become entertainment centers.
Some companies deal with this by having crew leaders hold all the crew members’ cell phones while they’re on a jobsite. If someone has an emergency, he’ll make the call.
Time can be a beast, but it’s one that can be trained and leashed. Become its master; don’t let it master you.