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GPS tracking: a means to increase efficiency, productivity in lawn care industry


June 8, 2011
By Mike Jiggens


Topics

USING global positioning system technology in fleet tracking can be a
helpful tool for the lawn care industry in increasing production
levels, attendees at the second annual Nutrite Professional Seminar in
Guelph, Ont. were told in March.

Justin Striech of the Winnipeg-based Fleet Profit Centre shared the story of how GPS fleet tracking systems helped The Weed Man in Winnipeg to recognize inefficiencies on the job and subsequently resolve them and boost productivity.gpsweb

Striech had previously worked for Weed Man, beginning in 1992 while a university student and eventually becoming production supervisor, leaving the company in 2006 to pursue a new career at Fleet Profit Centre. During his tenure with Weed Man, the company’s customer base had grown to the point where its fleet of equipment had grown from two spray trucks to seven as well as other company vehicles.

He said that when he had begun as a technician, Weed Man’s customer base was sparsely scattered in the area which made it challenging to establish consistently tight routing. By the time he moved into the management end of the operation, the business was enjoying greater customer density, but he said he struggled with his perception of its production levels. He said he figured the company should be doing more work than when he had been a technician, adding he suspected more was getting done but at an unknown level.

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“Other than accounting, I was pretty much running the company at that point,” Striech said. “But there was still the question of what our production levels should be.”

The company opted not to pursue GPS immediately to try to bolster productivity, having some reservations about the technology.

“We didn’t want to jump into GPS right away because, like most companies, we were concerned about the costs and weren’t sure about the benefits, and we felt there were traditional ways we could handle managing the guys and making sure the production was up to speed.”

Striech said that during the off-season, the company would take a look at what had been accomplished the previous year, including customer densities, and would determine how many trucks were necessary. The information would lead to strategies aimed at increased productivity in which employees would be trained, given their assignments and encouraged to work hard. Spot checks would then be made in the field to ensure everyone was doing the best job possible.

“At the end of the day, when you’re going through the work, it isn’t always going to be at that optimal level.”

At the time, the company was highly customer-focused, something that was “drilled” into him from the time he first began as a field technician.

“The idea being, in lawn care, you don’t make money off a customer in their first year. You make the money when they renew year after year.”

Because attention to the customer’s needs was paramount, he wouldn’t hesitate to send staff back to a job site if they had forgotten an application, even though it meant added fuel expenses and paycheque overtime.

“Let’s take care of the customer and ensure they’re going to be back year after year,” Striech said.

In spite of his technicians’ best efforts, however, Striech said he wasn’t convinced he was getting the best out of their time. The technicians’ efforts were frequently monitored through supervisory spot checks, ensuring productivity.

“But years would go by, and we still weren’t seeing a whole lot of increase in production.”
In response, Weed Man experimented with various incentives to encourage productivity, including bonuses and higher wages. Striech said the strategy started off well, achieving its goal, but then delays began to occur with workers saying they were held up answering customers’ questions or were ensnarled in heavy traffic.

By 2002, a year of record sales, a decision was made to look into GPS tracking. One of the trigger points leading to the decision was a call made by a technician who had flipped his quarter-ton vehicle. The incident happened on a Friday following a staff meeting when spot checks were no longer made for the remainder of the day.

Striech said the incident seemed suspicious, but the company didn’t want to throw more money into supervisors nor did it wish to spend more time on the road.

“I only had so many hours in the day, and probably put in as many as I could,” he said, adding it wasn’t uncommon for him to begin his day at 6 a.m. and not lock up until 8 or 9 p.m.

Going with GPS tracking was somewhat of a challenge in the company’s initial year, not only because there were few choices for GPS units in Canada at the time, but Striech said his boss was concerned the expense might not measure up to a yet-to-be-identified return in investment.

“In the green industry, we’re basically talking about passive GPS, which is no monthly fee. We’re not looking to put real time tracking into trucks because why are you paying monthly fees for something no one’s going to watch?”

He said going with the system was more about accountability in making sure crews were going where they were supposed to be going.

Four vehicles were overtly installed with the units while a fifth was equipped with a covert unit. Technicians were rotated among the different vehicles throughout the 2003 season.
When technicians were operating from vehicles that were unmonitored, manual productivity calculations determined they were working at just shy of 90 per cent. When working from a monitored truck, however, productivity was upward of 108 per cent. Using a benchmark of 100 per cent, and moving workers back and forth between monitored and unmonitored vehicles, the differences in productivity were essentially self-correcting, Striech said.

Early analysis from the GPS tracking system data showed there were some things that were being done correctly and others that were not.

“You can’t just take a system and plug it in and say, ‘This is going to work great for you.’ GPS isn’t a magic bullet, and you need to use the information that is brought back. That’s really the challenge because it then becomes an extra job.”

When one is working 14 or 15 hours in a day, he doesn’t have the time to look at seven or more trucks to see what they have been up to, he said.

Striech remained with Weed Man following the 2003 season in a limited capacity, using the newly-installed fleet tracking as “my little laboratory,” until the end of the 2006 season when he went full-time with Fleet Profit Centre.

“As we tried different things, we learned it’s not just going to work on its own. You’ve got to plot the data, and we did get to see some gains in production.”

Striech warned that companies looking into GPS tracking will likely want to avoid micromanaging all available information.

“That’s what kills you and takes all the time away. If you get a GPS system, you’re going to see all this information that you didn’t have access to before.”

He said that could lead to one employee being chastised for speeding while another is criticized for excessive idling.

“If you’re micromanaging all this information, it’s taking too much time.”

Eventually, the supervisor may find that everything is going according to plan one day, assuming the same for the following and subsequent days until eventually he has “a several-thousand-dollar toy that doesn’t get played with anymore.”

What Striech said he learned after initiating the system was how to best use the information derived so that it could be shared with staff “almost making them self-accountable to their own information, and that way not having such a large job to do yourself.”

Companies will ideally want a system which summarizes the data for them, he said. Every system will produce summary reports, but companies are apt to want to take things a step further and have a computer analyze the summary information, providing specific bottom line information to the company.

The system should be set up to incorporate a company’s own policies, Striech said. The system will look at the reports and produce a page that might suggest nothing is wrong. The problem, he said, is that the company needs to have quality data because, if the system is not accurately recording what is happening in the field, the reports themselvess won’t be accurate. This could mean missed information, suggesting workers are doing things they shouldn’t be doing, or the reports may produce false positives to suggest there are no wrongdoings among the employees. This defeats the purpose of the system’s benefits.

“You want the guys to know that this company means business and that there’s no goofing around here.”

The system calculates distance, and time can be extrapolated from that.

“It’s simple dots that the software converts into meaningful information.”

Striech said he doesn’t want to have to look at maps every day and retrace the routes taken by his workers.

“We want the computer to do this for us.” When the computer is measuring the intervals between the dots, it will estimate what is happening between the intervals, and the data produced will go into the reports.

If something of significance happens between those intervals, it might not be a major concern in one particular instance but, over the course of 30 lawns in a single day, the generated information may produce a 15 per cent variance. Striech said when such large variances are identified, it’s best to avoid making decisions about your company.

GPS is simply about finding the inefficiencies which exist in a company, he said, and making the most out of its productivity. It’s not about not trusting employees or not knowing what they’re doing.

“I feel it’s a great peace of mind. Do what you’re already doing. It’s just now you’re going to have access to information that you previously would not have. Once we have that, we can streamline the policies and have them easier to do.”

Striech said that instead of taking more time, the system can collect information that would be gathered anyway and, since it can be trusted, it can produce reliable information that will be helpful in decision-making and in conducting administrative tasks such as tracking odometers for fuel level calculations or oil changes.

If a company has more time, it can look deeper into the system and discover a few new things happening, and these can be integrated into the system, Striech said.

“It’s nice to have this system produce a report card or something a little easier to look at and digest.”

Information derived from the system will help a company rank its employees according to who is least efficient and who is most efficient.

The system will eventually pay for itself, he said.

“With a passive system, you will eventually get over that hump because you don’t have the reoccurrent fees.”

It’s all about how much money a company will save and will continue to save month after month and year after year, Striech said.

Being able to produce custom report cards which take the first month’s operation and creates a benchmark allows the company to monitor such information as decreased mileage expenditures.

“That’s how you make sure the system continues to give those returns to you month after month and year after year.”

Each tracking system is different as is each company’s priorities. While at Weed Man, Striech said he used the system to learn of the company’s inefficiencies. The information produced prevented him from having to follow his workers around and snoop on them. It also helped to identify problems to that they could be improved upon.

“I don’t recommend nitpicking. But you can spot trends and see if things are consistently happening over time.”

GPS tracking systems are not designed to replace people, Striech said, noting the technology allows more time for the manager to make quality control calls, speak with customers or apply increased energy into sales. This helps alleviate the time it formerly took for a manager to compile data and do paper work.

“We’re not taking the people element out of the company. We’re using them for what they’re good at, and using computers and technology for what they’re good at which is basically compiling and crunching boring and redundant data and giving us something we can use.

“Technology isn’t supposed to be replacing people. It’s kind of a waste of our time to compile a lot of data and do a lot of administration work when machines can do that for us.”