Finding Your Sidewalk-Crew "White Knight"

Achieving the highest productivity with snow-removal sidewalk crews means finding just the right workers for the job—and knowing how to organize those workers into the proper-sized crews.

Managing performance in snow- and ice-management organizations (whether in on-site situations or multi-location accounts) is a complex issue. In most organizations, people are hard-working—or at least they believe they are. Thus, when you make announcements of productivity increases, more than likely, your crew will interpret it as a demand that the front-line worker—specifically the sidewalk snow-removal workers—needs to work harder.

Of course, this is not necessarily the case. Instead, you want crew members to work more effectively and be more accountable for the results of their efforts. This is true not only from your standpoint as a contractor but also from the viewpoint of the customer.

Part of the problem in achieving productivity increases is that people are, by nature, territorial. We tend to accept responsibility and be more accountable when our territory is defined. But it is difficult for the workers in our field to mentally get their arms around their territory, zone or responsibility because the areas in which we work are so large or so removed from each other. And it also is difficult for management to track employee performance until everyone knows and understands the outline of the territories.

Facing today's work-shortage realities

Sidewalk snow work is a people-intensive activity. For most contractors, the highest percentage of their payroll dollars goes toward production-staff salaries. Admittedly, over the years, the labor needed to perform sidewalk snow removal has become less intense, and it may become even less so in the future. Nevertheless, people power will be the heart of this business for years to come.

Yet, even with the use of improved ice-control materials and more sophisticated, state-of-the-art equipment, you cannot substantially reduce the worker-hours per linear foot of walk. In fact, it has been proven through time-study and snow-management contracting organizations around the country that a worker with a snow-pusher blade is considerably more productive than a worker with a snow thrower in snowfalls less than 8 inches deep. Thus, it’s frightening to think we can expect no relief in the near future for the labor intensity of our industry. Pick up any newspaper, and you’ll see articles describing how the pool of available workers is shrinking. Therefore, our industry will continue to experience more companies—mostly competitors—chasing fewer available workers.

To combat this problem, you must evaluate the importance of your production worker. Admittedly, it may be difficult, at first, to accept the reality that your production workers (often the lowest paid and generally on-call part-time employees) should be the focal point of your management system. Nevertheless, to gain success in the future, you will have to make these adjustments to your management thinking.

Today, a typical production unit for sidewalk snow removal is a crew that includes labor, equipment, material and transportation. The labor for one production unit usually consists of one crew leader and one or more crew members. The crew leader has emerged from the ’80s as the specialist of the ’90s, with an expanded role in managing snow removal and ice melting on any specific site. The difficulty and expense of communication and direct supervision of mobile service crews—coupled with the need for an experienced, knowledgeable employee on site at all times—has reshaped the value and job description of the traditional working foreman or crew leader.

Organizations that recognize the crew leader’s expanded role can streamline their organization by eliminating the middle managers and production supervisors. They can redistribute these assets while upgrading the crew leader’s role.

The modern sidewalk snow-removal laborer

Most snow-related production workers enjoy working outdoors. Many perform snow removal as part of year-round outdoor activities that include landscape or property management. Typically, this type of employee does not object to physically demanding work. Even so, you must provide him or her with the proper tools to accomplish the job because snow-related tasks are—by nature—much more physically demanding than most landscape-maintenance-related duties. In addition, you may need to provide these workers with a pay differential for winter-type work, which often means working in conditions that are intolerable to others in the workforce.

What specific traits should you look for when hiring a production worker? Of course, you want someone who meets your basic requirements: trustworthy, dependable, etc. Then, past those basic skills, you want someone who enjoys being active at all times and who appears to be bursting with energy. It may sound odd, but at Allin Cos., we look for a production worker who does not focus on detail and who may, in the past, have had a difficult time with classroom training. We’ve learned from experience that these types of people learn best by doing. They are the best candidates for on-the-job training—provided the objective is getting them to take action, not improving their knowledge.

Managing a production business

The sad reality is that most true sidewalk-crew production workers leave our industry because—as business owners and supervisors—we don’t give them the proper guidance they need. We’re not managing them as a production operation. But you should manage this way. You should staff and supervise your organization so the entire operation supports the production workers and production units. You should view sidewalk snow removal as a production-oriented task. And you should structure the functioning production organization so that management doesn’t interfere. After all, production workers perform best when you manage them as team members—or athletes—rather than laborers. They need specific goals for each production period (or snow event). And the crew leader should demonstrate the company standard (either your’s or your customer’s) for performance. Plus, you must teach the procedures leading to the standards during actual snow events. Unfortunately, snow events in some areas of the country are few and far between, thus making retention of the production principles more difficult.

Theories on crew size

For years, contractors have discussed, argued and subjected the issue of the most efficient crew size for sidewalk snow removal to trial and error. Because sidewalk snow removal emerged as a separate, specialty business, the issue has become more important. By adding mobile crews, we discovered the importance of correct crew sizing. In today’s competitive labor environment, the need for higher productivity and increased quality suggests you should take a new look at sizing sidewalk snow-removal crews. As you’ll see, large and small crews both have advantages and disadvantages, but many operators don’t understand them well.

Consider your experience with small crews. Most of us—at some time in our careers—have worked as a one-person crew. Remember how much you could accomplish in one long day? Remember the first really good helper you had—the one who read your mind and did what you wanted him or her to do? You increased your production when you added that helper, but you didn’t double it. This is because sidewalk snow removal (and snowplowing, for that matter) is a series of solo, one-person tasks. Unlike landscape installation or construction, sidewalk-maintenance crews don’t handle heavy or awkward materials or equipment that require more than one person to improve efficiency. This lack of synergistic benefit on a per-task basis encourages us to think of our crews as combinations of one-person crews.

To help you better understand this, let’s consider an example: loading heavy sheets of 4- x 8-foot plywood. One person can load 30 sheets per hour by him- or herself, but a crew of two can load 75 sheets an hour. The difference is called synergy, which means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. By working together, the plywood-loading crew actually increases the output per person from 30 sheets per hour to 37.5 sheets per hour. What would the effect be if you added a third person to the plywood-loading crew? In this case, it would actually be detrimental to the overall production synergy.

In sidewalk snow-removal work, we don’t perform activities that offer opportunity for positive synergistic effect. In fact, we experience the opposite. When we increase the crew size, we lose efficiency. If you don’t believe this, consider another example. You send one person to perform a job that takes 4 hours (or 4 worker-hours). Now, consider sending two people with the same equipment, the same distance, to clear the same area. It now takes only 2.4 hours of elapsed time (4.8 worker-hours). The two person crew did it more quickly (2.4 hours instead of 4.0 hours total), but the crew spent more time in worker-hours and, therefore, became less-efficient.

Now, in many cases, clearing a sidewalk in a little more than 2 hours—rather than half a day—is a worthwhile tradeoff, especially if it is snowing heavily at the time the crew needs to clear the sidewalk. The important issue is to recognize that the more people you send to perform the job, the faster they’ll complete it—but they’ll do so less efficiently in terms of total worker-hours. Your costs are proportionate to the worker-hours spent, not elapsed crew time.

Thus, the small two- or three-person crew may not effectively clear snow quickly enough on large sites. Small crews can’t complete the work fast enough. They spend too much time on-site or can’t get the job done on time. One answer to this problem is to increase the crew size. All you need to do so is a crew-cab truck and a few more snow pushers. You then can send as many as six people to one property and “knock it out,” then move on to the next site.

Other advantages exist to large crews. For one, they are fun to work with. They appeal to the social side of our nature, making it easy to build enthusiasm. Large crews make crew members feel safe and secure. They feel as though there are enough of them to get the job done.

In addition, production managers and snow-removal customers like large crews because absenteeism doesn’t cripple the production effort. And, as mentioned, crew members like large crews because it instills team-building. They don’t feel the pressure to produce. They have more freedom to work on the aspects of the job they enjoy as long as they keep busy. And, of course, property owners/managers love big crews. Property-management school has taught them that the more people running around on their property the better. In fact, I’ve sometimes heard them demand that contractors “get more people” on the job and “get it done.”

Of course, none of those positives can outweigh the biggest negative of larger crews: losing profits. Everyone likes large crews except for the person responsible for profit. In some cases, he or she does not understand that sizing crews incorrectly (with more than three people) is the problem. Instead, these number-crunchers blame the crews, the pricing system or the weather for any production crisis that reduces profits. However, there’s no escaping the fact that smaller crews are inherently more efficient. It situations where you require more labor than a small crew can provide, methods exist to avoid the drawbacks of larger crews, as I’ll discuss below.

The myths of large crews

Increasing worker-hour efficiency: This is only one of the many myths you may hear about using large crews. Another popular misconception is that large crews ensure quality work. This was born from the belief that it takes more time to do quality work than non-quality work, which you accomplish more quickly. Obviously, neither belief is true. Quality is the result of a process that includes trained people operating the proper equipment according to a set procedure. In large crews, where accountability is minimal, you often sacrifice quality.

As described previously, owners/managers like large crews. When you are behind schedule, many contractors believe the first solution is to add people. Desperate owners even may dictate specific crew sizes and threaten to withhold payment if you don’t meet these demands. In most cases, this “knock-it-out” attitude is an attempt to correct performance problems and force you back on schedule. If you’re in this situation, however, don’t increase the crew size. Instead, bring in a separate crew, divide the property into appropriate zones and then “knock it out.” Once back on schedule, the owner/manager will become accustomed to—and accept—fewer people on the site during a snow event.

The myth that large crews provide better use of supervisors is a throwback to factory- or assembly-line thinking that really doesn’t apply to on-site sidewalk snow-removal crews. The notion that one strong supervisor can supervise five people as easily as two and still maintain production responsibility doesn’t apply during a snow event. Some supervisors try to keep workers together, thinking it is easier to supervise them that way. But, in reality, this herd mentality further reduces productivity. Instead, the large-crew supervisor must choose either to reduce or eliminate his or her own productivity to keep five workers up to speed or else allow their productivity to drop to maintain individual productivity.

Most large-crew supervisors manage a little bit of both and, as a result, lose both productivity and quality. Instead, consider hiring a full-time working crew leader with one or two crew members trained to require little direct supervision. Divide large crews into smaller two- and three-worker crews and teach them to function as separate work units. When large properties require more worker-hours than a three-worker crew can generate, divide the property into two zones and send two crews to produce the work. It will be much less expensive for the customer in the long run, and you will look better at budget-review time.

Remember also to give each two- or three-person crew specific production and quality goals for each snow event on which they work. Even though they may be in competition on the same property, you should evaluate them on a particular snow event’s performance.

John Allin is board president of the Snow & Ice Management Association (SIMA) and CEO of Allin Cos. (Erie, Pa.). Allin wishes to gratefully acknowledge the guidance and assistance of the late Phil Christian, without whose help this article would not have been possible.

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