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How to Drive Growth and Profits by Developing Better Foremen

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Business Advice

This blog was originally posted by TBG & LMN CEO Mark Bradley on Lawn & Landscape.

Each morning, as our landscape trucks pull out of our yard, I have a visualization that runs through my head. That visualization is me, handing a wallet to every one of my foreman. At the end of the day, they’re going to bring it back. One of the most important jobs I have as an owner is to find/keep/motivate foremen who can consistently bring that wallet back at the end of the day with more money than they left with. In this industry, that’s no easy task.

Other than the owner, the foremen have the most difficult job in our company. They are ultimately responsible for getting each job done on-time, on-budget. Every problem, or half-completed-task, leading up to the job, ultimately falls on the foremen’s lap. If materials haven’t been ordered correctly, if we haven’t provided enough information, if labor isn’t trained properly, or if our equipment fails to operate – all those problems fall directly on the foreman to deal with.

Mistakes, oversights, or communication breakdowns aren’t rare either! There’s some procedure, somewhere, that’s breaking down every single day. Some days, it seems like it’s every procedure, all at once!

The resulting reactions and decisions of your foremen have the single biggest influence on what happens to that wallet you gave them in the morning. Any problem can be limited to a little loose change, or, incorrectly managed, it can hit you right in the “Gold” card.

The foreman’s influence goes far beyond problems, too. Your foreman make over 150 decisions every day – ranging from small decisions to big, expensive ones. From ensuring trucks are loaded correctly and assigning tasks to laborers, to deciding how long to (truly) break, through to accurately tracking hours, changes and billable extras – your foremen have their hand in your wallet all day long.

If you want your wallets coming back thicker than when they left the shop in the morning, you need people who can think/react swiftly and intelligently.

One of the most significant milestones in my landscape business was when I got the confidence to hire (and pay for) better foreman. While spending more on wages, training, and career development, we also managed to reduced management, supervision, and the systems we had previously designed to attempt to do the thinking “for” our foremen. Instead of trying to pull information from crews every day, so we could do the thinking/planning, we gave our foremen better systems, procedures, and more responsibility. When they need materials, information, equipment, or just help – they push their needs to the office. From there, it’s the job of the office to staff handle requests swiftly.

It’s a very different culture and set of expectations from our company 10 years ago. A foreman at my company is certainly not a role I can just hand to anyone with a driver’s license. But I wouldn’t just hand my wallet to anyone with a driver’s license either!!! It took several (sometimes painful) years to cultivate, but the rewards have been well worth it.

  • Better pay, benefits and incentives led to better qualified, more responsible candidates/hires
  • More foreman responsibility led to less supervision and fewer overhead expenses
  • Less supervision led to faster, better decision making and problem-solving in the field
  • More responsibility led to less communication – and mistakes
  • And ultimately – foreman became more engaged in the success and productivity of the company

Over those years, I learned many costly lessons along the way. If I could go back in time now and help the old company develop our foremen better/faster/sooner, I’d pass on the following keys to success:

Share your vision.

What Do I Do? Ask any of your key staff to explain your company’s vision and goals and you should get the same answer across the board. Can you honestly say that for your company today – especially at the foreman level? Sharing your strategic plan and specific objectives that will lead to the desired outcomes is mandatory if you want people to genuinely care and work towards success. Knowing the desired outcomes help people feel more important, feel accountable, and will lead to better decisions, consistent with your goals. Problems and obstacles to those goals will be surfaced and corrected faster than before.

How Do I Do That? Start with your own strategic plan. Define where you want to take the business. Share this plan with your key staff. Consider breaking your company budget down to crew budgets and set specific, measurable goals for production/revenue for each foreman.

Dedicated equipment.

What Do I Do? Reduce equipment sharing wherever possible. Assigning foremen their own set of tools and equipment improves care/maintenance/accountability, but also ensures foreman always have the tools and equipment on hand to maximize productivity and job efficiency.

How Do I Do That? Consider leasing more equipment. Interest rates are low and leasing, with low down payments, helps you conserve cash for growth and/or other improvements. Foremen will take better care of their own equipment, and always having access to it boosts productivity. Improved productivity equals faster job times and therefore more available production hours. Every hour saved is another hour available to generate new job revenue. It doesn’t take many hours saved per month to cover the costs of the lease. Every other cost saved/hour gained is bonus.

Job plans.

What Do I Do? Give foremen a plan for every job, consistent with the way the job was estimated. Foreman must understand what success on each job looks like if you hope to be consistently profitable.

How Do I Do That? Create and issue a ‘job planner’ version of every estimate. Job planners don’t necessarily need to include costs/prices, but must clearly spell out:

  • How many labor hours were budgeted for the job – or tasks on the job
  • What equipment was planned (since this has a direct impact on the hours estimated)
  • Quantities, colors and specifications for all job materials
  • Subcontractor information (if applicable)
  • Notes, comments, special instructions that were learned during the sales/quotation or consultation process (e.g. “Do not remove the Ginkgo tree in the front yard – it was a gift from the grandmother.”)

Timely job feedback.

What Do I Do? Ensure foremen have access to ‘scoreboards’ on every job. You don’t necessarily need to share profit information but at the very least, foremen need timely feedback on estimated vs. actual hours. Good companies know whether they went over/under budget on a job so that know how they can improve future estimates. Great companies use live tracking of job hours to help prevent going over budget in the first place.

How Do I Do That? We equip all our crews with our payroll/jobcosting app that ensures while foreman track time for payroll, they also get real-time statistics on estimated vs. actual hours for every task they’re working on. Every supervisor, manager, estimator, and foreman has live access to the current score on every job/task we’re working on. If your company is still using/entering daily paperwork, it’s a time-consuming and difficult task, but don’t give up. Timely feedback for the foremen is necessary for setting daily goals and motivating their crews to bring jobs in on-time and on-budget.

Implement an incentive program.

What Do I Do? Employees who are paid by the hour, with no defined incentives, have little motivation to improve. In fact, they’re motivated to work as many hours as possible but to do only enough work that they get won’t get fired. Subjective incentive systems, such as: “If we do well this year, we can all get a bonus!” – isn’t enough either. A good incentive system has:

  • A goal or KPI
  • A method of tracking progress toward that goal/KPI
  • A formula for a reward on successfully achieving that goal/KPI

How Do I Do That? Incentive programs are tricky, no doubt. But to find and motivate great foremen, they are worth it. A good incentive system helps reward the right behaviors, discourages “cheating,” and is simple enough to track or measure.

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