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Selling and Managing "Time" For
Increased Productivity and Profits

by Dan Brantley, Summary Systems

Dan Brantley is experienced in both sweeping and time management techniques as they apply to sweeping. Here's a lengthy article packed with ideas to get your juices flowing about how you can increase the time management in your sweeping firm, municipal sweeping operation or other service firm. He is a management team member with Mister Sweeper, Inc., Dallas, TX, a 37-year old sweeping company that runs a total of 27 sweepers.

Dan Brantley

We are not experts in time management and we are not experts in efficiency. We've just discovered some things about time and how it affects our business, and that's what we wanted to share with everybody at the event. The basic thing we've figured out -- and it's an obvious thing -- is we only have so many hours in a day to sell. In our case, we only have from about 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. or 7:00 a.m. Whatever we can do to maximize that time makes a big, big difference in what we do. The intent is not to teach anybody about time management practices. You can buy any number of books for that.

Rather, what we've learned is that we all need to change our thinking a little bit and shift away from selling services, from selling parking lot sweeping or power washing or whatever. Instead, think of the fact you're selling the time it takes to do that service.

Basically, customers don't care if it takes us 10 minutes, 10 hours or 10 days, as long as the result is what they want. Of course, if we all took ten days it could get real dirty out there since nobody would hire any of us, but other than that most customers for sweeping basically don't care about the details of how long it takes. They just want it done at the stated price. So, what we can do to maximize the time it takes us makes a big difference.

Here's a great example. Today, the only airline that is making any money is Southwest Airlines and the reason they are is that everything they do helps them save time. You may not know that Southwest has an entire fleet of one kind of planes, 737s. As a result, they only have to train mechanics on one type of plane. If there is a problem with the plane, they don't have to wait for the right mechanic that knows that plane to come in, because all the mechanics know this one plane. All the parts are standardized. All of the maintenance is just on the one plane. The stewardesses know the one plane. The pilots know the one plane. The reservation agents know the one plane.

Everything contributes to Southwest saving time and that's how they are able to do their ten-minute turnaround that they were famous for, where they brought the plane in, unloaded, loaded back up again and out in ten minutes. They have taught themselves how to efficiently use their fleet better than any other organization on Earth. If truck fleets or service companies can think of ways to do the same thing, we could really start to maximize a lot of our time.

A little bit of history. There was a very interesting article in the Wall Street Journal about this. It was about what happens with companies when they are able to develop a 'temporary monopoly' as a way to grow. One of the examples of this was also one of the first instances of automation in the Industrial Revolution. At the time, the Royal Navy in England used a lot of wooden pulleys and they were all made by hand. Then, a man discovered how to make them by machine and he cornered the market on wooden pulleys.

Another example they cited was about bricklayers in New York. A builder noticed that some of the bricklayers on the jobs laid twice as many bricks as the others. So, he watched them, figured out what they did and then taught it to the other guys. The result was that his whole crew could lay bricks twice as fast as the other crews. This allowed him to gain a temporary monopoly, and his crews basically then built all of New York at that time in history. So, as a conceptual way to think about this, we're all looking for a temporary monopoly. Eventually, in the previous examples, other people learned how to make pulleys, and other people learned how to lay bricks quick, but for a while they had that temporary monopoly and could do things quicker, yet made much more money by the fact they could do so.

I'm sure most of you are already time oriented. We all look at costs and revenues. We look at how employees are paid based on hourly rates, and equipment is typically amortized over time with monthly payment. We have time windows, daylight hours, office hours, night hours; everything is keyed to time. That's why I suggest that what we are selling is actually time and, even further, we're selling slices of a daily pie that spoils. If not sold, our 'time pie' turns into a pumpkin pie at midnight.

Now, let's first consider our equipment, our rolling stock, trucks, and so forth. They are a special case precisely because they are dispersed. This makes them much harder to manage. Once it leaves the shop, whoever is driving your sweeper might as well be chairman of the board because there is nobody watching him, telling him what to do. He is the company while he is out there on his route and so, as owners, you have to do special things to manage truck fleets.

There was some resistance when our organization first got started with the GPS concept. The owner, David Franklin, and his partner, Bob Montana, did a lot of surveys of truck fleets to determine how they could use their concepts to save them money. They evaluated one trucking delivery company where the hourly drivers made about $40,000 a year. They all had set routes and it was a profitable business. The company had high revenues versus costs and they were making money, so it had led to slack management.

Here are some of the things that were happening: The Department of Transportation allowed 12-hour shifts, so guess how long the drivers all worked? Even worse, when they studied several of the routes they learned that, on average, if the men had about 20 stops on their routes they completed the first 15 in six hours. So they took six hours -- or at least they charged for six hours -- to complete the last five stops. It looked like huge savings were possible.

Analysis showed that if a way could be found to just save 30 minutes a shift, per day per truck, on their 1200 trucks, the company would have doubled the profits the it made. In this particular real world example, the president of the company didn't believe them and didn't buy their system. GPS and tracking concepts are much more recognized today, and yet some of the savings possible are still hard to believe.

Let's use the magic number of 30 minutes per shift. That's what we started out with as an initial goal on Mr. Sweeper's 24 routes a night. Now, I'm not talking about 30 minutes per route; just a minute or two per route. We did the math, and realized that if we saved just a total of 30 minutes per night, 3-1/2 hours per week, here's what would happen: Since our goal is to try to get $70 per hour when we're out working, that adds up to over $12,000 per year in savings. This also happens to be what we expect to get out of one truck per month. So, we could add all of that to the bottom line, basically get an extra month of work in the company, without buying anything, just by saving 30 minutes per night. It can be hard to believe, but it's absolutely true and that's what we do. We can do it because we manage it by watching it with our GPS systems.

There are a lot of ways to monitor and improve your time management. The low tech one is to have a supervisor follow the truck around and just watch what the operators are doing. Another thing a lot of people try to do is to have the driver write down needed information on his or her time usage. This is obviously not very good. When we were trying that, we would come in every morning and find six drivers sitting around a table filling out their time sheets on what they did the night before. Not real accurate. There is the chart recorder-type device. There are the windups, the vibrating ones. Some hook on to the speedometer cable. These are, more or less, a way to develop a physical chart that shows when the truck is moving and when it stops.

You can have an on-board computer, one of the tachometer systems. There are a number of different types of these. The one we prefer, the one we think is most accurate, is a GPS-type system. It's by far our preference because you can load in stop data, so you know when the sweepers are moving and when they are stopped, as well as where they are stopped and if they are where they are supposed to be when they are stopped. In our case, we downloaded for two different ways, through a short-range radio link that works in our yard. In addition, we also have cellular communications. We download all the information once a day and read it, so that we can see what the trucks did the night before and manage that data.

There are also 'real-time' systems out there, too, where you can monitor what's happening with each of your drivers while they're actually on the route. Minor Planet (www.minorplanet.com) has one of the best systems we've ever seen and if we didn't have our own, we would probably go with theirs. It's actually an English company, but they are operating in the U.S. now.

No matter what brand or type of monitoring system you use, let's consider what things you might want to measure. The major categories include time spent at the shop, time spent approaching the first account and then between each stop, time spent and activity at each customer (by looking at the data you can typically break out backpack blower and trashbag changeout time vs. actual sweeping time), breaks and goofing off time, operation of the vehicle idling, the PTO's time (broom and back engine running).

Assessing the latter provides you with a good indication of what they are doing. Anytime the PTO-related items are not going then you are not getting full value out of the machinery for that moment. This helps you determine whether it might be more valuable to have a one- or two-person crew. In combination, and using the built-in analysis tools that good software systems will have, you can really hone in on your time data.

One of the things to realize is that today's data does not save you any time or save you any money right now, today. It's historical data that's meaningful. The real value comes out over time, because this type of system gives you the ability to compare multiple trips to the same stop, multiple drivers at the same stop, different pieces of equipment at the same stop, one- vs. two-person crews at the same stop, etc. Today, because we've been monitoring some of these stops since about 1997, we have thousands of data points of when we arrived, when we left and what we did there. This information provides a tremendous advantage because there are no anomalies. Now, because we have so many event points from each of our accounts, we know with exactness what each costs us on average.

That's not to say that there aren't some advantages you get from the start, though. You will immediately find out if you have operators that are goofing off or going off their routes, for example. For this reason, you should consider well how you'll be alerting your work crews to the fact you're installing this system. Although I've heard of some contractors who leave their crews in the dark at the start in order to see if they can catch them doing something wrong, depending on your state laws there may even be liability in that approach. Better is probably to provide them with the information ahead of time, even to the extent of having them sign an official letter of understanding that goes in their file. The software provider you choose should be able to assist you in this process.

I know when I talk about the ability to analyze 'thousands of data points' it might sound overwhelming. In reality, a good package, whether GPS or not, will have a lot of reporting built in that will help you build reports relatively easily. For example, you should be able to easily analyze your information by truck, by driver, by shift, and to log amount of time spent for all stops. It's important to do this analysis, too, because all the data in the world doesn't make any difference if you can't analyze it. You have to decide what is important and make sure you look at that on a regular basis. Plus, the rest is available to you, should you need it or want to look at it in a different way.

As an example, with a GPS-based package you will also have, from the moment you start using it, the ultimate way to prove conclusively exactly where each of your sweepers was at any time. This can be extremely valuable in the event you get accused of 'midnight dumping' or a client doesn't believe you cleaned their property because of trash that built up since you were there.

Let's talk about some of the advantages to having a system like this in place. One of the big decision making items you'll discover, once you start gathering the data and taking a look at it, is employee pay. You can analyze the difference in productivity and cost between people who are hourly versus salary versus bonuses, versus you name it.

In our own case, it has shown us that hourly workers inevitably take longer. The prime example is a route that we have had the same stops on for many years, and one driver did it for many of those years and he took about 7-1/2 hours a night to run the route. He left us and when the new guy came on we thought we'd try something new and put him on hourly. He immediately took 12 hours and never got below 10 hours. Same route, same stops; nothing had changed except the driver and how we paid him, and even a bad driver wouldn't take three more hours to do the same work. It was quite an eye opener for us.

We've tried different ideas, different ways to pay and have spent some amount of time experimenting with it. We've used a set amount of time plus bonuses; added in on-call pay; piece rate; many different things. Piece rate is worth looking at, however if you do be sure to look at your state's wage and hour laws on that method and pay time and a half over 40 if you need to.

We've also tried having contests, but find they're hard to manage and often the same people win time after time. Plus, it's hard to not have the winner seen as coming from a subjective decision on the supervisor's part. That, again, is where the high-tech tracking system is clearly better, since it provides an absolutely objective way of measuring time spent and work activity. It shows us where they go and how long they spend while they are there.

I'll throw in a quick commercial message for something we also have developed and have a patent pending on, which is our Sidekick blower system. In a nutshell, it is a turbine blower that mounts on the back of a parking area sweeper that develops 10,000 cubic feet a minute of airflow. It is very thorough, and we are able to clean areas adjacent to the sweeper at the same time we are sweeping. Prior to that, we ran two-person crews because we could move real fast. We could pull on to the lot, a helper could hop out and start blowing the sidewalk, and empty debris cans while the driver swept the lot. The driver then picked up the helper, swept up what had been blown off the sidewalk and away they went.

We were looking for a way we could make one person as productive as two, and the blower is what has helped us do that. There are many, many accounts where the driver never has to get out of the truck. If the stop has a short shallow sidewalk with no cans, he can cruise down the sidewalk blow off it off and picking the debris up as he sweeps. He is in and gone in the time it would take two men to do it, and obviously we are saving the payroll amount and getting the same productivity out of the blower system. Unlike our inhouse GPS system, we now have this product for sale to the contractor community. If you'd like more information about it, the Internet site for the blower is www.sidekickblower.com.

In our case, we now have a smaller payroll, less hassle and, a big thing for any company of our size, is that we have had fewer worker's comp claims. We've never had a blower call in a worker's comp claim or a back injury, and it has made a big difference. Initially we were concerned the blower might create a problem by kicking up dust or rocks or gravel or something like that, but we have had these on trucks for over three years and have had zero problems with stuff like that. The worst we've seen is the airflow will get underneath those 3 x 5 carpeted doormats they lay in front of the door, but it just blows it down the sidewalk and has to be retrieved and put back where it belongs. And, obviously, you don't use it everywhere and if there are people on the sidewalk or something. Here's what using Sidekicks has done for us, though: When we installed the blowers we had just over 1300 accounts. Now we have nearly 1500 and have cut staff by 18, so it has truly made a big difference.

Here are some other ideas of how you can increase your productivity. Because I used to work on the preload shift at UPS, I tried following something UPS does which is to absolutely load their drivers with stops. They give their drivers a bit more stops per day than they are comfortable doing, and the result is something we've all seen. When you see a UPS guy, you never see one walking. It's always a quick walk or even a jog sometimes, because they've got places to go and they've got stops to make. We've tried the same things with our crews. We give them a route and if they are finishing in good time, we will add another stop or two on it; still finishing in good time we keep adding on until either quality suffers or they start taking an inordinate amount of time to get the stops done. Just keep a close eye on quality. We keep pressing them a little, because they get better. They get more efficient and we let them use their efficiency to get things done.

If you're going to do something like that, one of the things you have to get over is what we call the 'six-minute-stop mindset.' We've talked to a lot of sweeping companies nationwide and many of them say that if they ever found out their guys were doing a place in 6 or 8 minutes they would fire him on the spot because they don't believe a place can be done in 6 or 8 minutes. Well, we have the GPS data that backs us up. We know there are certain times of the year, certain ways the wind blows, such that some places can be done in 6 to 8 minutes. So, we benefit from the efficiencies our drivers have by letting them do a 6-minute stop. We have a quality control man that visits places and checks on them, and we are in constant communication with our clients and it works. There are places that can be cleaned in that short amount of time, and you've got to be ready to let people do that when it's possible.

Another area where you should try to save time is in your bidding process. Develop a database system that not only keeps track of the customer, but that also allows you to do bidding. In our case, once we put in the information about the property, the software figures the bid, prints the contract, prints the letter, prints the mailing label and prints a confirmation sheet that the assistant gives back to confirm it's been done. We've even added some remote access software so we can sit in a Starbuck's and use their high-speed network to dial into the office computer and do a bid almost on the spot. We've gotten a lot of business over the years just by turning bids around quickly, and now we can do it even faster. Anything you can do to speed up the bid process is truly helpful.

With the GPS system, we know what our costs and profit margins are, absolutely, and that can be a blessing and a curse. Just about the only way we lose business in Dallas is when somebody comes in and bids half of what we are charging to do some place. In many cases, we know it can't be done for that so we just wait. One of the benefits of being in business since 1965 is we know that in another year or two, this guy will be gone and we will still be here. We won't bid below cost because you just can't make it up on volume.

In our experience, a false area to save time or money is having an answering machine take calls. We have found it very important to have an actual person answer the phone. When a customer calls in, everybody in the office who answers the phone has access to the database and can answer their questions about what their schedule is, and can enter notes, complaint, etc. We try to get customer inquiries handled by the first person who answers the phone. If not, they can send it to my voice mail and if I'm out of the office our system actually rings my phone within minutes. People are pleasantly surprised by how quickly I call them back when I am not in the office.

Let's talk internal communications: Some 50% of the screwups that happen in our office are because, although one of our employees knows what's going on, the person in charge of doing the job didn't know or understand what was supposed to be done. So, one of the things that the database helps us do is when a complaint is entered we have the ability at that moment to print a work order if we need. It can go to the day crew or to the night crew to be handled. A note will appear on the night supervisor's list so he can follow it, and it also appears on the driver's route list and he has to check it off that he has either handled it or read the note about it. We've learned to keep that internal communication flowing down very well.

Our internal voice mail system will forward a lot of messages on voice mail. If there is somebody particularly irate, we want the person responsible to hear the tone of voice, for example. In addition, one of the things we do for all of our voice mail messages for all our top people are all copied into a central mailbox set up just for that. Once a day, we all listen to this box at some point and we erase our messages that were handled, but this also lets all of us know or get an idea about what is happening with everyplace else too. So, if I happen to answer a call about something that another manager has been handling, at least I have some idea about what is going on. I may be able to help him right then or at least I'll know that the other person has been handling it. It is a real simple thing to do, and we've found it to be very, very helpful.

We love email. Our current great example of how email improves communication is that Dave, our owner, wanted to get some information from the president of one of the large property management companies we deal with. You know how hard these types can be to get on the phone. Dave sent him an email and within minutes had a reply back. A lot of our customers are starting to send us email requests for junk patrols, or email requests for bids, and that saves all of us time.

One of the things that we do is actually send out a customer service report to every customer every month that lists the times we arrived at their location, tracked by our GPS system, and it's a way to keep in contact with the customer. We are now considering doing this by email. I'll tell you why this is important. For one, we keep in front of the customer in a positive way. Also, up until the point that we started doing that we would get routine calls from places where we swept once or twice a month, basically accusing us of not having been there in months because the lot looks so bad. Since we've started sending them a note every month with the day and time we arrived, we've had zero calls. It has saved us a tremendous amount of time not having to follow up on complaints like that.

To conclude, I encourage you to just step back and take a global perspective of how your company is currently operating. Ask yourself "How does every piece of my company work and how might I save time in any of those pieces?" Then, before you institute changes, think about how the change might affect everything else in your company, both positively and negatively. You don't want to get so focused on scratching every little minute out of one area if by doing that it's going to affect another area adversely.

Instill the attitude in your whole company of looking at how can you do things better, how can you do it more efficiently and how can you save time, either from using the GPS programs or, if you are not ready for that, using a lower tech way to monitor what your crews are doing. In our experience, you'll find the time it takes to do many tasks in the company will be reduced and your profit margin will definitely be the better for it.

You may reach Dan Brantley via email sent to dan@mistersweeper.com.

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