Jan. 16 2017 05:39 PM

As landscape maintenance contractors, we seem to be in a continual quest to operate more quickly and more efficiently. With weather sometimes being a factor as well as having a limited supply of labor, we must always be looking for ways to streamline our operations.

There are a lot of reasons for wanting to improve the efficiency of our mowing operations, and just as many ways in which we can go about doing it. It’s really easy to get stuck in a rut and do what you’ve always done, simply because it’s the way you’ve always done it. Taking some time to sit down and think through your landscape maintenance operations may yield more results than you expect.

When you think about it, there are many ways you can shave off a minute here or there. Some people may think, what does a few minutes mean? We talked with Doug Molchan, owner of South County Landscaping in Crown Point, Indiana. He recently decided to start pre-mixing all his gas. “We got a 65-gallon barrel and pre-mix it all,” he said. “This way, nobody has to mix gas every morning; they just pump it out and go.”

That may sound like a small thing, but think about how many crews you have. For each of them, that’s one less chance to mix unevenly, one less chance to spill. When you hire a new employee, it’s also one less chance for him to forget fuel mixing entirely and ruin a hedge trimmer in the process.

For the same reasons, Molchan also finds it helpful to have a couple of guys come in before everybody else in the morning. They come in a half-hour earlier and get things set up, so that when the rest of the crews come in, they can just grab their assignments and go.

“That way, when everybody gets here, they get out the door as fast as they can,” he said.

Winter is upon us and, in most parts of the country, this means that landscape work slows to a crawl, if it doesn’t disappear entirely. For many, winter slowdown makes for an ideal time to revisit old company habits. If you’ve collected performance data throughout the year, reviewing it now can really set you up to succeed in the spring rush.

It was in just such a review that Molcham’s wife, looking over the company timesheets, found a way for them to gain ground. “Before, we had one guy dedicated just to weeding, but now we have everybody run mowers first,” Molcham says. “Then about halfway through, one guy can break off and do string trimming. It’s faster, and we have the timesheets to prove it.”

That change worked because the Molchams considered a few simple things: What are the steps we follow on our properties every day? How long does each step take? Is there a way to make this process better? In this case, they could save time by putting more people on mowing right at the start, resulting in less trimming at the finish.

Another thought to consider is whether it’s faster to have your crew members walk through the property at the start and clear it of yard waste and debris, or to clear the property as they go. Clearing beforehand is an extra step, but consider how many steps are involved with clearing as you go instead.

First, the mower operator has to spot the problem before he mows over it. He has to stop the mower, get off the machine, and clear the obstacle, either into a trash bin attached to the machine, or by carrying it to a designated spot. Then he has to start the mower up again and get back into the groove. That’s a lot of steps for the operator to go through, every time.

Which is why Dewey Oxner, founder of Oxner Landscape & Maintenance in Greenville, South Carolina, has his crews remove the trash as soon as they arrive on the site, every time. “We’ll clean any kind of obstacles that are going to be in the way of mowing,” Oxner said. “Usually, it’s sticks or trash, but if they’re in a shopping center, it could mean carts or buggies.”

“The first step is to get all that stuff out of the way,” he said. “Then, all the mowers are freshly gassed up before they get far from the trailer.” Running out of gas halfway through a job, on the opposite side of a property from where you parked, isn’t just embarrassing; it’s a big waste of time. The crew member has to walk all the way back to the trailer and lug the gas can back out. He will also, more than likely, have to wait until the mower has cooled down a bit before he can refill it safely. It’s a simple goof, but so easy to avoid.

Just because you’ve found an efficient way of organizing your work doesn’t mean that the changes can safely be set in stone. The change of the seasons can result in a change of procedure as well. “If a lot of leaves have dropped, we may try to go in and blow off around everything first,” Oxner said. “Then we do our mowing and either suck up or blow the leaves.”

Weather conditions, like cold in the fall that slows growth, or water restrictions in the summer, can also affect your routine. Grass may not be tall enough to cut. Hedges may not have grown enough to trim.

You may find it easier to simply go through every account, one by one, and decide the optimum way of getting the work done. In areas where you maintain slopes, there are some slopes that will be steep enough to require a walk-behind, where others can be mowed safely with a stand-on or ride-on mower, provided the operator is careful. You may find that even large properties can be handled with a limited crew.

Oxner seeks out large properties that are wide open, because he knows he can handle them without a lot more labor. “I can send a guy out there with a lawn mower, and he can stay on that lawn mower all day and cut grass,” Oxner said. “Then, I send out a small crew with just a couple of guys. They can go in and do the weeding, edging and blowing, and the first mower can move on to another spot. The small crew can do eight or nine commercial spots throughout the day, and you can cover more ground that way.”

Labor troubles are a perennial problem for landscape contractors, but lately it’s become even more difficult to get help. Contractors have had to come up with some creative solutions. If your company is large enough, the H-2B visa program can be helpful. But unless you need upwards of twenty extra crew members, dealing with the administrative hassle might be more trouble than it’s worth.

Advertising on Craigslist, recruiting at local high schools, and encouraging your employees to refer potential hires are all good ways of getting fresh faces in the door. Keeping them there, however, can prove tricky.

During the spring rush, it can be only too easy to rush the training process. You have them read a few manuals, watch a few videos, and get them out with the crews as quickly as possible. Don’t get us wrong, hands-on training is vital, but it’s also important that the crews understand that the new guy needs their help.

A crew that’s in a rush and doesn’t understand the value of training sometimes circumvents the new guy. They do his work for him, because it’s quicker than teaching him how to do it himself. That does the new hire a disservice, because he never learns how to do things properly, and the crew a disservice, because they have this extra burden that isn’t getting any easier.

That’s why Oxner looks at training as one of the ways he manages, in spite of a tight labor pool. “Training is very important,” he said. “Because if a guy gets trained the right way, he can make you more money, and you can pay him more money.”

When you can’t buy good help for any price, there’s still ways to make your operations more efficient. Buying newer, more powerful equipment will make the crews who use those tools faster and more effective.

In Hampton, Virginia, Tom Morris, owner of Morris Lawn Maintenance, LLC, has a lot of large properties to cover. That’s a real problem for leaf cleanup, because on large coastal properties the constant winds can erase his work. “We’ll start clearing a property on one side, and by the time we get all the way around to the other side, three hours later, you can’t tell that we’ve been there,” Morris said. “It doesn’t even look like we’ve been on the site.”

So he purchased a turbo blower that attaches to the front of his mowers, in place of the deck. It has blowing power equivalent to six or eight backpack blowers. Not only does it let one crew member do the work of seven, but by pointing it up into a tree’s canopy, he can knock down leaves that are on the edge of falling. That lets Morris get ahead of the game, collecting tomorrow’s leaves today.

There are a lot of factors to consider in new equipment purchases.

Just because a setup works well doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s worth keeping. For instance, Morris used to have a vacuum system in a trailer that would hitch up behind a mower, and suck clippings directly from the mower’s discharge chute.

“It did a good job, but the problem was the amount of space it took up to get it to the job,” Morris said. “I could put three mowers on the trailer, or one mower with this vacuum on it. It just didn’t save me as much time as I needed it to save, to justify the space it took up.”

For every skid steer that multiplies your manpower, there are mowers, trucks and trailers that are the workhorses of your fleet. You need these to perform day in, day out, and the worst thing they can do is break down.

That’s why durability is valued so highly in mowers. All of the owners I talked to had recently made mower purchases, and avoiding downtime was a chief concern in each purchase. Some features to look for are mowers with low part counts, mowers with EFI that are programmed to throttle down in emergencies, and mower tires that are resistant to flats.

Knowing that the dealer has you covered is just as important. He needs to offer you a good support package, in case of a breakdown. Sometimes, this can outweigh any or all of these factors.

Being subject to individual circumstance is a constant refrain in making mowing operations more efficient. Every business owner has his or her own way of doing things, and their own goals for what they want their operations to excel at. What we’ve presented here are a few ways you can look at a very complex issue, not a comprehensive list.

For all the difficulties that landscape companies will face in the times ahead, there is a lot to be excited about as well. Drones offer some interesting opportunities— letting crews get a bird’s-eye view very quickly and easily. Electric power is already affecting our industry, and on the distant horizon, automation promises a revolution in the way we do business. There are a lot of changes coming, and the more time we spend considering our operations and the various things we can do with them, the better prepared we will be.