Working on keeping your company running efficiently is the management equivalent of daily exercise. You know you ought to devote an hour to it every day, but it’s hard to carve out the time to do it. You’re too busy with this, that and the other thing, and besides, it’ll take a lot of energy to do right, and how long will it be before you see the returns?

Perhaps a better question is how much longer will you be able to avoid embracing lean management? Labor costs are always a headache for landscape contractors, and it’s bound to get worse. For a number of reasons, the H- 2B program has become a bureaucratic mess this past year, and millennials are hardly chomping at the bit to enter the landscape industry.

“Everybody talks about how hard it is to attract talent, and how nobody wants to go to horticulture or landscape school,” says Todd Pugh. “I blame it on 95 percent of the owners.” Pugh is the owner of Enviroscapes, a 200-employee landscape company in Louisville, Ohio. He has been an adherent of lean management for a long time.

“When you’re lean, you can afford to hire top talent who, in turn help manage your business better,” he says.

“When you’re not lean, you don’t have any money to hire talent, so you just keep throwing more horsepower at it.”

Maybe you’ve never heard of lean management before. If you have, it was probably in the context of manufacturing. Lean is a management practice developed from studying the success of Toyota’s manufacturing techniques during the 1990s. Much of lean’s specialized terminology, like ‘kaizen’ and the ‘5 S-es,’ are simply re-purposed Japanese words.

We’ll talk about those terms a bit later, but at its core, lean management is all about eliminating waste. By thoughtfully and consistently ‘leaning out’ different areas of your company, you free up resources. You also foster a company mindset geared towards maximizing the value for the customer.

Most landscape companies that practice lean management trace their start back to a mower manufacturer, the Ariens Company in Brillion, Wisconsin. Dan Ariens, chairman of the board, says their story dates to the turn of the millennium, when they began implementing lean management as a way to reduce the inefficiencies they saw in their manufacturing process.

“We started to do our transformation around 2000, and got really good at it around 2004,” he said. Then, in November of 2006, they partnered with JP Horizons, a green industry consulting firm, to run the Working Smarter Training Challenge, and introduce lean management techniques to landscape contractors.

Pugh was one of those contractors, and he says that lean management works just as well for service providers as for manufacturers. “I think the real limitation is your mind,” he said. “I hear a lot of owners say, ‘I don’t think it’s for me, I don’t think it’ll work for my business.’ Well, they’re right; because they said it won’t work for their business, it won’t.”

Any significant change to your business starts with a commitment from the top. You’re asking everyone, from the furthest back office employee to the newest addition to your crews, to participate in a major overhaul of how you run your business. Sooner or later everyone will be asked for their opinions, and they need to know you’re taking this seriously; that lean management is here to stay, not gone tomorrow.

Otherwise, fear of change can set in. “It’s natural for people to resist change,” said Thomas Bolas, general manager of James Martin Associates in Vernon Hills, Illinois. “You have to communicate, give examples, and give people time to understand the benefits, both to them and to the company.”

There’s a high likelihood that some employees will lump ‘leaned out’ in with older corporate euphemisms such as ‘down-sized,’ ‘right-sized,’ ‘let go,’ ‘laid off,’ and ‘destaffed.’ Bolas made a point of allaying those fears right at the start. “We reassured people that our goal is not to eliminate people, our goal is to save time and expense where we can,” he said.

Think about it this way: if you go through your company and find that a third of the time you spend is wasted, you don’t have to fire a third of your workforce. Instead, you can change up your habits, and handle more clients with the same people. If employees can see that picture, they’re much more likely to join in.

Of course, the best persuasion is to get employees involved. That participation starts with meetings to spur improvement, called kaizen events, or just kaizen. Kaizen is Japanese for improvement (literally, it means ‘the act of making a flaw or defect better’), and in the context of lean management, a kaizen is a re-evaluation of a particular process.

That re-evaluation could take an hour, it could take a day, or even a full week for a major overhaul. The goal in every kaizen is the same—make the process function better by reducing wasted time or materials. So what makes it different than a meeting about work efficiency? Well, there are a few guidelines that help encourage a suitably thorough approach.

First of all, it’s important to include people who are the closest to whatever you’re looking at. “Typically, the lower you go into the company, the closer to the work, the better the idea,” says Pugh. The guy who’s pulling equipment out of a trailer everyday will likely have more experience with, and have given more thought to, a better way to organize his tools.

Secondly, it’s a good idea to shake things up occasionally by bringing in a set of fresh eyes. Pugh has taken out office staff, mechanics and even customers on reviews of maintenance sites to get a new perspective on how to lean out the property. “If you take a bunch of mowing guys out there, they have all the reasons why you can’t mow it any faster,” he said. “Other people see it completely differently from the guys who do it every day.”

The search for efficiencies often delves into the minutiae of how employees complete their tasks. Rather than having crews stop their mowers to pick up sticks and other debris as they go, it may be more efficient to have a crew member assigned to the task as soon as they reach the property. If that’s the case, it may be you can gain even more time by giving that employee a bucket, to avoid multiple trips.

Think about how your crew lays out their trailers. If they have to step gingerly around and stretch to get what they need, they’re taking extra time doing so. Worse, they risk breaking the equipment or injuring themselves if they lose their balance.

That’s why lean management has a tool that’s specific to workspace organization, the 5 S-es. These are: seiri – sort, seiton – set in order, seiso – shine, seiketsu – standardize, and shitsuke – sustain. Each step is designed to create a workspace that is clean, safe, clearly labeled, and organized for efficiency.

Pugh explained the concept to me using the example of organizing a closet. “You’d empty your closet, and get rid of all the stuff you don’t need,” he said. “On a scale of 1 to 10, if it’s less than a 7, get rid of it. Then take a label maker, and label where everything goes, so that everything stays sorted.”

Once everything has a place and the waste has been removed, you clean and shine all of your equipment, making sure it’s well maintained. Then you standardize that layout and get everyone who uses that space acquainted with the new layout, so that your changes will stick.

When you get into the nitty-gritty of this process, it may seem like a lot of extra work is being done just for neatness’ sake. There’s no question that lean was originally designed for manufacturing, but that does not mean it does not hold lessons for our business.

Holding regular kaizens and teaching everyone the lean management tools also establishes a common mindset, one that methodically seeks and destroys waste. “With us, it’s an ongoing process now,” Bolas said. “So if anyone notices a step they think isn’t adding value, they can point it out on the spot, and we’re very willing to examine that step, and take it out if they’re right.”

Over the long haul and the large scale, it all adds up to serious savings. “I can walk into any company, including my own, and take probably 20 percent of waste out of the business,” says Pugh, “because it’s everywhere.”

You might think that, after nearly a decade of continual improvement, lean managers run into a problem of diminishing returns. According to the contractors I talked to, though, nothing could be further from the truth, even after years of consistent practice. “You learn that lean management is an inch wide, but a mile deep,” said Pugh. “No matter what you’re looking at, it may look an inch wide, but the ability to make it better is a mile deep.”

That brings us to the capstone of lean management, namely that there is no best, only better. As your business grows and matures, your processes will change. Changes in equipment, staff, customer base, and the economy as a whole, all serve to make ‘better’ a moving target, not a fixed point.

Keeping your eye trained on that prize will give your business a serious competitive advantage. The resources you’re freeing up can be reinvested in your company, your community and your employees, providing steady growth, strong client ties and attracting top talent. If the economy dips again and times get tough, your business is already prepared to trim sails and weather the storm.

There’s so much more to discuss when it comes to lean management, and being efficient with time and labor in general. We can all benefit from being mindful about how we run our operations. It’s easy to get stuck in a routine, or buried under your workload, and go months or even years, without taking a good hard look at how things really get done.

When you can take a step back, get everybody together, and have an honest conversation about how things could be better, you may be surprised at how much of a difference it makes. It’s not just you; everybody gets a little complacent sometimes. By communicating throughout our businesses, and building common ground, we can make our operations, and our industry, cleaner, safer, more efficient, and more effective. That’s what lean management is all about.