On the clock

Landscapers use time-and-motion studies to boost productivity and profits.

How long does it take your crews to roll out in the morning? How many minutes do they spend mowing a lawn? How many man-hours does it take to plant six two-inch trees? Knowing this data is key to developing profitable bids, and keeping employees motivated.

“You need to make sure you’re operating at an efficient level and maximizing your profit,” says Joe Gonzalez, CEO of ArtisTree Landscape Maintenance and Design in Venice, Fla. “That’s especially important for a business like ours that is so labor intensive. Labor cost represents well more than 50 percent of our total cost of doing business. We need to ensure we’re being as efficient as possible. If you haven’t done time and motion studies and don’t have a good sense of your efficiencies, you’re bidding jobs mindlessly.”

Without time and motion studies – or at least some form of testing efficiencies – it’s virtually impossible to truly know if your job bid is going to be profitable, says Bill Arman, a consultant with the Harvest Group who works on time studies with his clients.

“The core element of an estimate involves knowing what it costs you to do something,” Arman says. “That includes knowing how many hours it will take. A lot of guys leave that purely to experience. They feel they can make a knowledgeable guesstimate based on the fact that they’ve been doing this a long time. Many do come up with a good guesstimate. But the ones who are bringing it to the next level are those that have done time and motion studies and know exactly how long it takes to perform a task.”

It’s that competition that drives Mark Borst, owner of Borst Landscape & Design in Allendale, N.J., to track his crews and review the numbers with them each week.

He says once the crew is aware of where things stand, they can work on ways to save time.

“If you’re not analyzing your hours, you can’t improve upon the unknown,” Borst says. “You can tell your crew to work faster but if you haven’t given them goals to aim for, it’s not going to help.”

Bathroom breaks.

Gonzalez says writing a smart bid requires a combination of historic numbers and experience.

“You have a human element you have to account for that can change your timing,” Gonzalez says. “Did the crew stop for a snack? Or take a bathroom break? You also have to account for the weather. Is it windy and is that going to slow the crew down? Even the client is a variable. You show up to the job site and they’re waiting with a list of new projects. Each of these things can change the amount of time it may take you to do a job and you have to factor that into your bid. That is where experience helps.”

Jeffrey Johns, president of Coastal Greenery, in Brunswick, Ga., says for the past 14 years he’s been going into the field with a stopwatch to time his crew doing various tasks – without them knowing, so that they’re performing tasks at their typical speed. Johns says he’s accumulated a lot of data over the last 14 years – how long it takes to install a three-gallon, seven-gallon, and 15-gallon plant, for instance – but he continues to go out each year and check on those numbers.

“You have to make sure your numbers are still accurate,” Johns says. “Things can change with different crew members, weather conditions and new job sites.”

While being as efficient as possible is the name of the game, Ryan Scoggins, co-owner and operator of Top Notch Turf in Houston, says failing to account for “quality time” is a mistake. “If you give a guy nine hours for a job, including 8.5 hours of labor time and a half-hour of driving time, you’re not allowing for any quality time,” Scoggins says. “We account for three-minutes of quality time per stop in our estimates so that our crew has enough time to interact with customers when the opportunity arises.”

For sample square footage maintenance estimating guidelines, click here.

For a landscape maintenance field estimate sheet, click here.

For a field hours verification helper, click here

Organizing Data.

Many of the companies that track this data also utilize spreadsheets and/or software to organize and digitize the information. This can simplify things as Arman says the information on a new job can just be “plugged in” and costs can be automatically generated.

Chris Speen, general manager of Twin Oaks Landscape in Ann Arbor, Mich., says in 2006 he developed a cost book that incorporates all of the materials purchased. He also developed gross profit margin job sheets. All of this was incorporated with the company’s software system. Having all this data at the tap of a fingertip with the ability to plug in information and receive updated data has helped the company improve efficiencies. But Speen says it was a lot of work to get to that point.

“This took years to develop, and it can be a lot of work to stay on top of your hours. The crew doesn’t always love it but they do always know how many hours they have on a job each day and that’s critical to our profitability.”

And Speen says that by staying so on top of hours, he knows exactly where the company’s profitability stands at all times.

“I know at all times how we’re doing. That even helps me forecast and change my game plan as I look to the future.”


Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.

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