Put Time on Your Side

With better time management

You know the type. Maybe you are one. The manager who arrives in the morning before sunrise, who works through lunch and stays until 7:00 or 8:00 p.m., or longer. As a society, we often marvel at this commitment: “He’s such a hard worker,” or “She’s so dedicated.”

But what’s really going on here? Are all of these extra hours really adding value to the company? Or are they simply thrown away in poor time management?

If someone left a company truck running for a couple of extra hours each day, would we be so impressed? Of course not. But wasting time on unproductive activities makes about as much sense as leaving a truck running for no reason. Effective time management is a critical factor in the success of any business. While it might seem obvious that good time management can reduce labor costs for hourly employees, the issue is just as important, or even more important, for salaried employees and top leadership.

“Our industry spends so much time focused on how productive a crew can be,” says Bret Achtenhagen, owner of Bret Achtenhagen’s Seasonal Services, Mukwonago, Wisconsin. “Often there isn’t that same expectation of productivity for managers and administrators, even though this is such a significant source of overhead.” For managers, every hour spent unproductively is an hour that detracts from the really important stuff—like strategizing, financial planning, and crisis management. In the same way that an idling truck eventually runs out of gas, the manager who continually puts in overtime just staying on top of everyday tasks will eventually run out of steam—often when it’s needed most. Improving time management skills from the top down can make your company stronger, more productive and more profitable.

Making time for leadership

Like many entrepreneurs, Bret Achtenhagen got a crash course in time management when he started his company fifteen years ago. He learned quickly that as the person responsible for all aspects of daily operations, his days could get very long. But he also learned about prioritizing, delegating and making time for strategic planning in order to grow out of the start-up phase. Now, as owner of an award-winning, full-service landscaping company with approximately 80 employees, Achtenhagen never discounts the importance of careful time management for every employee, including himself.

“There are so many things asked of owner-managers every day,” says Achtenhagen. “You need to keep those hours as productive as possible. If you allow yourself to be distracted by tasks that are not important, you can be assured the 15-hour day is going to become the norm.”

Achtenhagen acknowledges that there are many times when an owner needs to burn the midnight oil, especially when a company is just starting out. But he says operating this way on a regular basis is not sustainable and can set an owner up for trouble when a real crisis arises, like today’s economy, for example. “If you’re spending 14 hours just surviving, you’re not going to have extra time to work on the business,” he says. “And in this economy, you need to have that extra time.” In the current economic slowdown, business owners everywhere are looking carefully at profits, expenses, marketing strategies and all the other aspects of the business that may need adjustment in order for the company to weather the storm. Leaders who haven’t carved out extra time to make those strategic decisions can face a rude awakening. Achtenhagen carves out time in a number of ways. One way is by establishing regular, dedicated office hours. “I see clients only three days a week. Every Monday and every Thursday are office days. The sales and design staff are also required to be in the office on those days.” Coordinating time to allow for weekly meetings has been a tremendous help, he says.

“We’re so much more productive when we can get together at a conference table. When we need to review designs or review estimates or talk about project planning, we’re not trying to do it through voice mail messages. Everyone comes prepared with their list of things to discuss. We set clear expectations and deadlines so that we’re not talking about the same things the next week. Of course, large projects might be discussed on a weekly basis, but most items are talked about, dealt with and done.”

Letting go

Learning to let go of tasks that don’t add value to the company has been another important step for Achtenhagen. “We question everything we do to make sure it still makes sense. Does this activity need to be done or are we just doing it because we always have?” Achtenhagen says he learned to do this early on. “It was when I was starting out and working the 14- hour days. When a crisis did arise, I had to drop things. That’s when I learned I didn’t need to be taking care of some of those things to begin with.” Clear goals and expectations for employees are a critical component of time management for everyone at Achtenhagen’s company. “We are very job-description focused. We don’t have multiple people tackling the same task. If several people are tackling one task, another one is usually being ignored.”

Achtenhagen is not impressed with long hours. “When I see people living like that, it leads me to believe they’re not managing their time well. We don’t create any job description that requires a person to work 14 hours a day. When we look closely, it becomes obvious where someone is going off task.”

Automating and delegating

Even in a strong economy, effective time management is necessary for a small company to grow. Mittzi Fulrath, who with her husband, Aaron, own Aarons Greenscape, Inc., in Winnebago, Illinois, says that automating, delegating, and creating streamlined protocols for everything have helped give them more time to run the business productively. Purchasing specialized software was one important move. “We use software from Real Green Systems,” says Fulrath.

“That was a great investment.” The software helps with everything from sales and estimates to scheduling and determining the most efficient route for employees to take to the worksite. “Before that, we did everything by hand on paper,” says Fulrath. “I’d go through files by hand, see who’s in the same neighborhood and try to schedule them that way.” The company also takes advantage of satellite technology and the Internet to offer customers “instant pricing,” through their website. “In most cases, we can get a measure of the customer’s property via satellite and can email an estimate within twenty-four hours without ever driving to their property,” says Fulrath. The time that used to be spent driving can now be spent on big picture management issues. One way the Fulraths use that time is to examine all aspects of their operations and develop streamlined processes for them. “We develop procedures and protocols for everything we do,” she says.

“Basically there are forms for everything in our company. When someone gets a certain form, they know exactly what’s been done with a job and what needs to be done. There’s a flow to everything.” Having these protocols in place enabled the Fulraths to take another important step in their growing company. This year they created a new position for a general manager who has taken over the task of supervising employees, serving as the quality control person and handling sales calls. They filled the position with a talented employee who had previously been involved with both production and sales.

“Now he can do the outside sales without having to do three different tasks in one day, which is less efficient,” says Fulrath. “Before, when he was also involved with production, he wouldn’t be able to break away to do a sales call and we’d have to do that.”

This has given Fulrath more time to manage the finances of the company. “It’s also given my partner more time to focus on marketing the business,” she says. “It’s given him freedom to work with our IT guy to get the website done and to do more product research.”

Seeking help

There was one common crucial step Achtenhagen and the Fulraths both took to improve time management in their companies. They sought help. Seeking the advice of outside consultants and mentors and investing in systems that can streamline your operations are key ways to start putting time on your side. The Ariens Company, Brillion, Wisconsin, has had so much success implementing “Lean Management” principles into its lawn mower and snow removal equipment manufacturing operations, it is now committed to helping landscape contractors learn how they can use it to make their companies more profitable. Lean is a process management philosophy that stems in great part from the Japanese manufacturing industry.

While definitions vary, one overriding principle of Lean is cost reduction through the elimination of waste. “The thumbnail definition we use is that Lean is ‘The Least Waste Way,’” says Paul Leao, director of Lean resources for The Ariens Company. “This can be translated to mean the ‘least waste way’ to assemble, to fabricate, to hire or to do any transaction.” “The Ariens Company has been on its own Lean journey for ten years or so and it has had some very positive impacts,” says Leao.

“We realize that Lean is a wonderful tool and is something that our customers can benefit from as well.” In partnership with Jim Paluch of JP Horizons, Ariens now offers a 52-week Lean training program called the Working Smarter Training Challenge (WSTC). More than 300 green industry businesses have participated in this web-based program designed to show contractors how to apply the tools of Lean to their own company. Goal setting is one area of focus, says Leao. “In manufacturing, we have cells for assembling a snow thrower and we have hourly targets. We look at the difference between the goal and the actual and continually ask how we can improve.” He says landscape contractors can do the same with every task. “If you take a typical maintenance crew, they need to know their goal. Is the job supposed to take four hours? Often a contractor will call, use a broad brush description, and call it a half-day or a full-day job. But you need to look at actual hours—to have a goal and an actual and compare the two on a regular basis.” While Lean got its start in manufacturing, Leao stresses its usefulness to a service organization, too. “Lean can be applied to any type of environment. In fact, many hospitals across the nation have successfully implemented Lean.”

Expert advice

Achtenhagen stresses the importance of mentorship in the quest for better time management. “Seek the help of mentors in your industry and outside sources,” he says. “I belong to a CEO roundtable. It’s open to any size company—from the manager of a 40 million dollar division of a multi-billion dollar international corporation to an independent insurance agent. We have a breakfast meeting once a month and I get inspiration and advice by exposing myself to these and other people in and out of the industry.” Achtenhagen also “devours books” on time management and other business issues. “There’s a massive amount of information out there,” he says. “Be curious.” Even in these challenging economic times, Achtenhagen says small business owners need to pat themselves on the back once in awhile. “It’s important to remember that we are the heartbeat of this country. Whether you’re employing three people or 300, you’re helping to make this country great. We should all be proud of that.”