“Houston, we’ve had a problem.” Of course, I’m referring to James Lovell’s call to the NASA control room at Johnson Space Center and the historic Apollo 13 mission in 1970. And, if you saw the movie, you know that there was a mad scramble in Houston to find a solution to a problem aboard the spacecraft carrying 3 American astronauts, a problem that could have been catastrophic.
“Boss, we have a problem.” Now, I’m referring to the typical call made by cell phone from an employee in the field that comes across a potentially volatile situation. Unlike NASA space missions, you don’t have a central control room collecting real-time data, feeding your analysts, and providing you direction on what to do. You rely on your instinct, or at best, some 2-month old reports from various departments of your company that do not actually provide you with actionable data. Sound about right?
Seldom will your business decisions be life threatening, but they are often “critical” aren’t they? Do you have the data you need about all of the activity in the field to make sound decisions? Is that data that you need making its way through the filters of your various operation departments and being organized into actionable reports? We decided to take our research to the literal “field” to examine what is really going on out there. And, as suspected, we do have a problem Houston.
We are talking to the CEO of one of the state’s largest landscaping contractors. Frankly, I never really paid any attention to the operational side of this industry, just enjoyed the outcomes of it (freshly manicured lawns, and nicely adorned shopping centers, etc.). What I am finding out is how complex the business really is and how little data management is employed. The owner of the landscaping business calls it “Organized Chaos.”
During the “season”, the company employs upwards of 800 employees. In the off-season, less than 100. Can you see the first challenge? There’s a fleet of over 150 vehicles, multiple maintenance and storage garages, several administrative offices, and well, frankly nobody knows how many rakes and shovels. In New Hampshire, the “season” is essentially May to October. Six months of pedal to the metal and six months of “Ok, what just happened and how do we prevent that from happening again?”
The company, like most, is divided into departments and layers, with area supervisors and managers that all follow a chain of command to the CEO (the owner). Work crews tend to be 3-5 people on an average landscape project and only 1-3 people on a maintenance project. Each project has a lead crew member, foreman, supervisor, manager, and department head, whom all report their activity to their superiors. Their coverage area is about a 50 mile radius (nearly 8000 square miles) of mixed residential and commercial accounts. And, this is in a very touristy part of the state, so many of the jobs are grand second home design-build projects.
At any given time, there are somewhere between 4 and 5 layers of staffing between the guy/gal with the rake and the guy signing the checks. Ever play the telephone game where you whisper something to the first person, who tries repeating it to the second, and so on until it gets back to you? Now imagine this taking place across 8000 square miles of landscape. The owner of the company calls this data communication chain his “largest obstacle to growth.”
The good news is that he knows what information he needs in order to make sound business decisions. He has gone to great lengths to identify the operational, administrative, sales & marketing data and has every supervisor and manager in his company attempting to collect and report it. Just ask one of the project managers about the paperwork involved in their landscape job. Or ask the sales folks how many reports they fill in about their customers each week. If we had to guess (and it would definitely be a guess), this company probably has 500 clipboards.
The owner is borderline pathological in his quest for “the numbers” and he should be. The answers are in the numbers. Whether his team is making a call on hiring for the season, or purchasing equipment, or scheduling plow trucks based on weather forecasts, you can bet they are looking for the data. The obvious (to me) problem is that they have no efficient system for computation. Clipboards, with 3-part forms and sketchy handwriting get left in the trucks overnight. When the paperwork does make it to the shop, someone then has to enter that data in the spreadsheets on their computer. And, the spreadsheets are cumbersome and ineffective at best. But, that’s another blog article in itself.
Here’s a thought. Let’s reverse-engineer a web application for this. We know what decisions need to be made regularly. We know what information those decision makers need. We know where the information comes from and we know who is responsible for collecting it. We know the area that we work in (and yes we have cell-phone coverage in NH) and we know how to use technology. So, let’s embrace it. Let’s build a web-application that can collect the data at the project level using a cell-phone or tablet. Rather than handwriting, we can have touch-enabled screen selections. Project information can be entered on-site, feeding the supervisors, managers, and department heads with a real-time picture of what’s happening.
Operational needs can be communicated up the ladder now, rather than when it is too late. Customer satisfaction issues can be treated while they matter and human resources processes can be automated. Work crews can report to their posts and punch in (time clock) on their foreman’s tablet. Job requisitions can be reviewed in the field, designs can be downloaded, and scheduling can be customized daily. Equipment inventory can be controlled in the garage or on the trucks. And, CEO’s can sleep better at night knowing what is going on in their company.
At Keene Systems, we would effectively accomplish this by developing a responsive-design (mobile friendly) website application that would be accessible by any device with a web browser. Using ASP.NET as our development platform, we would build-in multiple different sets of security permissions, all with access to various levels of data. The data, of course, would all be stored in a SQL Server database allowing us to move away from all the spreadsheets. We would query the database for the reports that management needs, and access it from our control room in Houston, in real-time. Problem solved.
Did you count the 7 reasons why implementing a web application would make their business more efficient? Here they are:
Human resources tasks can be controlled electronically, from a remote location.
Vehicle fleet maintenance can be coordinated, minimizing down time.
Equipment inventory control can be established and monitored.
Work orders can be delivered electronically, minimizing translation from sales to ops.
Job/customer feedback can improve response times and satisfaction levels.
Sales & marketing data can be analyzed today, rather than during the winter months.
Top level decisions markers are using the data provided by the front line employees, without data loss from playing the telephone game.
Human error can be minimized by removing paper from the equation.
Everything is computed in real time.
Ok, so there were actually more than seven. But, who’s counting?