Implementing change in your landscape company
- business management 


BY MARK BRADLEY

Change. If you’re a business owner, that one word likely makes the hair stand up on your neck. Not a week goes by where I’m not approached by someone asking how my landscape company, TBG, made so many fundamental changes to the way we operate over the years. If they only knew how many changes we tried that weren’t successful, they might better appreciate how much work and commitment it took to put our changes in place. To this day, we still struggle with why we can’t — or don’t — put some good ideas into action, even when those ideas benefit everyone in this company.

Why is it so hard to introduce change? And what steps can you take to better implement change in your company? In this article, I’ll outline the strategy we use to roll-out significant change at TBG. But be warned, knowing the steps is only five per cent of the solution. Committing to execute the steps is the other 95 per cent. And even then, you are still going to fail sometimes. However, if you are not changing, your business is dying.

Get involved. Get committed.
Recently, a friend who owns her own small business rolled out some new software. On a Wednesday, her staff gathered to get trained on the new processes. My friend, the owner, skipped the meeting and met a client instead.

We all know clients are important, but what did her absence demonstrate to staff? That the change wasn’t very important? That change was optional? That she didn’t appreciate the significance of the change to their daily roles? All of the above.

As an owner of a software company, I am always amazed when I see company owners who want to drive change, but do not get engaged in the process. They don’t take an interest in making sure the software solution they chose is set up to drive change in the right direction. They miss start-up meetings, fail to actually audit progress (have your staff demonstrate the software in action!) or learn how to use the management reports. 

If you’re going to roll out significant changes in your business, you do not have to execute them, but you must actively support and show your commitment. If the leader doesn’t get behind the change, neither will staff.

Explain why the change is important
If you’re going to make a change, you must explain the change clearly to your staff.  Gather the staff to explain it, and make sure to plan lots of opportunities to get their feedback as well. To help you put together a complete explanation, think about explaining:
  • What is the change? What is changing, how is it going to affect each department, and when is it taking effect?
  • Why the change? What are the root causes of the change? What problems is it going to fix — save time, make a job easier, improve communication, etc.? Take this opportunity to ask why staff think it is important; their ideas may be different than yours, but more meaningful from their perspective!
  • What if we don’t change? What happens if we ignore the problem and the change? Will we continue having frustration, breakdowns, working late, going over budget, higher overheads? Again, start by asking staff this question: What do they think will happen if we ignore the change?
  • Ideas to make the change better. Now that the change has been explained and everyone sees the risks and benefits, ask for suggestions on how it might be rolled out. Are there any ways to improve its adoption? Use this step as an opportunity to share responsibility for the change. If someone has a good idea, make him responsible for seeing it through!
Explain how the change benefits staff
Don’t skip this step. Now that you have outlined the change and why it is important, ask your staff to explain how it could benefit them. It’s really important at this step to let them lead the conversation. An easy way is by changing your statements to leading questions. For example: “So we’ve talked about daily equipment inspections and how important they are. But how are they going to make your life easier?”

If you don’t get answers right away — and there’s a good chance you won’t — resist the urge to give the answers. Instead, ask questions that allow the answers to surface.

“What happens when equipment breaks down? Who has to do the heavy lifting?” This leads them to realize their jobs are physically harder.

“How much longer does the job take? And what happens when our jobs go over budget?” This leads someone to suggest raises are tough when we keep going over budget.

“What else could happen if the equipment isn’t inspected?” This question leads someone to suggest that everyone deserves to go home safely at night.

Write these statements down as your staff’s ideas. Print these ideas out, and hand them out to staff after the meeting. If the change fails down the road, meet again and use these minutes as a discussion starter. “You guys suggested you wanted to do daily equipment inspections to help save work, help us all make more money, and keep you and your crew safe. What’s changed?”

I don’t have any fancy studies, but I bet only 20 per cent of your company actively gets behind the change, while the other 80 per cent fall somewhere between apathetic (don’t care) and sabotage. That is why change is so hard. Make sure you examine who is working for you, and identify who is a risk to sabotage the change you are trying to implement.

“Double agents” must be sought out. These types are the single biggest risk to change. They will sit quietly in the meeting, then as soon as it’s over, they tell anyone who will listen how stupid the idea is. And they will be effective — because it’s much easier to convince people not to change. You need to know who these people are, and you must control this virus before it spreads. 

Sometimes, you can deal with double agents by taking them aside before the meeting. Privately explain the change and how important it is for them to support the idea. That means you need to sell them on the benefits. Sometimes, you are better off getting rid of the virus. Let them be an anchor around some other company’s neck. 

Assign responsibility, and set a deadline
You need not shoulder all the responsibility. Many people like power and responsibility — even without pay. Assistant managers in retail and service industries are not paid much more than front-line staff, but they shoulder lots of extra responsibility. Why? Because they feel more valuable. They feel like they are important — and they are advancing themselves.

Be very clear in your assignment
Define who is responsible. “Janice is going to make sure equipment inspections are completed every day.”

Define what success looks like, and when. “Starting on Monday the 25th at 8:30 a.m., Janice is going to make sure your inspections from yesterday are turned in.”

Define the consequences. “If you fail to turn in your completed inspections on time, Janice will record your name. If you fail three times, you will receive a written warning. After two written warnings, you will have a face-to-face disciplinary hearing. After three written warnings, you will be demoted or terminated. We cannot risk each other’s safety and future livelihoods because you don’t want to follow a system.”

Verify and hold accountable
Once you’ve rolled out a change, the worst thing you can do is assume it is happening. Schedule a meeting for the week after the deadline. Ask the person accountable to show you the results so far. Ask them to host a meeting to demonstrate where the project is at. If it is a really significant change, invite others to the meeting. The more people invited, the more pressure Janice will feel to ensure success.

Celebrate the short term wins. Ask whether obstacles have come up. Again, use questions to help solve the issue. If obstacles are raised, ask “Why?” And then “Why?” again and again, until you get to the root cause of the problem. You will enjoy better success if you can coach the person responsible into solving the problem. 

When the change is stable, explain how Janice can regularly keep you up-to-date (e.g. Send a monthly summary report by the first Friday of every month).

Rolling out change isn’t like following a recipe. It takes commitment, an investment of time and training, and strong leadership. There will be failures, but if you hope to grow your business, make more profit or gain an edge over your competition, you must embrace and pursue change with a relentless fervor. 

Mark Bradley is the president of TBG Landscape and the Landscape Management Network, based in Ontario.

Landscape Trades, January 2017