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Organize production chaos

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Ken Thomas

I started my career in the green industry working summer jobs at landscape companies. After college, I threw out a hard-earned biology degree and entered the landscape business full time.

During the early years, I learned and mastered all the field-level skills that helped me become a great landscape technician. Eventually, I started my own business and quickly realized my field skills wouldn’t be enough to make me a successful business owner.

At first, the business flowed smoothly because I had my hand on most areas. But as it grew, it began to slip out of control. No matter how many people or how much money I threw at the problems, I couldn’t control them. The turning point in my career came after reading Michael Gerber’s book, “The E Myth: Why Most Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It.” His simple but profound insights about building a process-based business connected with me in a powerful way.

Based on the principles of building a process-based business, my crew and I began to change our task-led enterprise into a well-oiled machine that delivered a consistently excellent product and service in a standard way. Over time, we learned all landscape jobs flow through a predictable path from start to finish. We figured out how to break the jobs into steps and group tasks and accountabilities into the right phases to organize our work into a standard product delivery system. We coined our formula for success the Start Clean Finish Clean (SCFC) process as a way to organize all the chaos that comes with producing a great landscape product into a standard group of processes that guarantee three main outcomes from every job:

  • extremely satisfied clients;
  • happy employees; and
  • profitable work.

SCFC breaks every job into six phases: lead, design, estimating, closing, work in process and close out. In each phase, there are processes (standard work) and accountabilities (who’s responsible) that ensure that phase’s success. All phases are connected and work together to form a successful job. The beauty of SCFC is no person is responsible for the entire process. Each employee just has to execute his portion of the job as it flows through his area of responsibility.

Phase 1: The lead

All jobs start with a work request from a customer or prospect. How we develop that lead starts our process. The following are the main components.

  • Menu: What do we sell and why?
  • Qualifying: How do we select the leads that will progress?
  • Tracking: Where did the lead originate? What did it cost? What was the final value of the lead to the company?

Phase 2: The design

All landscape jobs have a design, whether it’s as simple as picking a replacement for dying material, a complicated plan for a design/build job or even designing a scope of work to bid for a maintenance contract. The main points are:

  • Determine how much design is needed to sell the work. Don’t over-design. If you’re building the work yourself, you need to design only enough to estimate and sell the work accurately.
  • Determine how much design work is needed to produce the work. It should be enough to give your crew a clear, working plan to install what you sold. The basics include scaled plans that are labeled correctly. Anything that’s unclear will require more designer time on-site. Create a standard work scope on items you produce regularly so specs don’t have to be on every plan.

Phase 3: Estimating

Once the design is established, an estimate must be developed to determine the final sales price. Too many people in this industry estimate by using a multiplier of material costs. This approach will not get you where you need to go and doesn’t allow you to negotiate based on facts. Consider the following:

  • All estimating needs to be cost-based, which means identifying all material and labor costs so you can determine your break-even point on bids. Once you know your costs, you can apply an appropriate gross margin markup to determine your final sales price.
  • All estimates should be constructed in a way that feeds budget information for materials, labor, equipment and subcontractors to your teams in production and administration. From there, they can set up the jobs and manage them properly.

Phase 4: Closing

At some point, you need to close the sale. This phase requires salespeople to:

  • generate a contract, review it with the client and get a signature or client approval;
  • generate the job package that contains the proper deliverables for accounting and production; and
  • route the job to administration to be set up in the system.

Phase 5: Work in process

In this stage you perform the work that was sold. It includes:

  • scheduling;
  • purchasing;
  • material and labor management;
  • safety, quality and productivity; and
  • change-order management.

Phase 6: Job close out

The final phase, wrapping up a job, includes:

  • the final walk through and punch out;
  • a client review;
  • collecting payment; and
  • the job cost review.

Creating a Start Clean Finish Clean process for your company will enable you to organize the chaos associated with selling and producing work and consistently achieve the aforementioned three main system objectives on every sale. You work less and accomplish more.


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