Data-Driven Management

Management is what allows a business to plan, organize, direct, and control their processes.  If a business doesn’t do all these things, there is a smaller chance for long-term success down the road.  Using a data-driven approach to management allows for working smarter, not harder.

Let’s imagine a company that doesn’t manage well.  It doesn’t plan, it doesn’t have goals, a mission, or even target demographic or industry served.  With no preparation for the future, no answers for “what would happen if”. Every situation outside of the norm calls a company’s long-term stability into question.  

As a result of not planning, the company has little or no direction.  Personnel at all levels lack supervision or being told what to do next.  You can imagine a lot of wasted time and slacking off.

Consider a company without organization, with no clear hierarchy.  Life at the bottom would be quite miserable, never knowing who to report to, taking direction from anyone and everybody.  Supervisors can’t rely on their employees, not knowing whether a different supervisor has tasked their employee to do something else.

Imagine a company without controls, where workers do things how they want, in the order they want, with little repeatability and no synchronization between teams.  You get the idea.

Good management starts with record keeping.  Without even a basic level of record keeping, there is no way to know how much to estimate or bill a job, or how much to pay employees.  Record keeping tells you whether to expend the logistical effort to bring specialized machinery out to a site, or do it by hand. Record keeping lets you know if you’re charging enough for salt application.  At the most fundamental level, the point of record keeping is to track your costs so as to ensure profitability.  

Until the last forty years or so, record keeping was a manual process.  Before that time, data was tallied up by hand and calculations were performed on a periodic basis.  Companies often developed internal forms in order to standardize inputs. When computers came into widespread use, the spreadsheet became a valuable tool to not only enter data, but to analyze it immediately.

What kind of data are we talking about?  Consider the following questions asked at each job site.

  • How big is the site (acreage, total sidewalks, etc)?
  • Is it in my main service area?
  • What kind of personnel/equipment are required?
  • How much salt should I be using / do I use?
  • How long should it take / does it take?
  • Per-visit or seasonal pricing?

Individually, the estimated answers should match up fairly well with reality, or you might be doing something wrong.  Record keeping gives you that insight. 

However, it’s easy to gather data for the sake of gathering data.  Don’t fall into this trap – gather only what you need to manage better.  Ours is an industry where time is of the essence. The “paperwork”, while essential to the job, shouldn’t eat into your direct labor any more than absolutely necessary.

To gain a larger appreciation of your data, aggregate your answers (if you’re not doing this already).  Make a big spreadsheet with your property list in one column and columns for each question going to the right.  Sum or average the numbers in each column to give you an idea of your total acres, linear feet, lane miles, or tons of salt, as well as man hours required.  Or perform across-the-board or per-site averages to provide a baseline to make future estimates from, or identify targets to meet or exceed. Metrics to analyze might include pounds of salt per acre, plow time per acre, or MH per storm or per site.  Using these numbers will give you an idea of where to improve, and improving your processes will make you more competitive.

And since there’s a good chance you’re reading this article while attending this year’s Symposium in Grand Rapids, I invite you to walk around the trade show floor and talk with some of the app vendors.  Don’t be afraid to shell out some big bucks for their services. In addition to providing basic customer relationship management (CRM) and streamlining your operations, and provide reports that analyze things you haven’t yet thought of.

And it goes beyond simple cost tracking.  Today, data collection is an absolute necessity, especially in our industry.  If you don’t log your activity while performing snow removal, you open yourself up to a world of liability.  People will sue you if they lose their footing anywhere near one of your job sites. And it won’t be immediately after the fact – depending on what state you live in, it could be almost two years later or even longer.  (Ask me how I know this.)  

So how do you protect yourself (and your customer) from liability?  The answer is, you keep records, and you keep them religiously.

As with anything, know your requirements.  Find out what you need, at minimum, to shield yourself from liability, whether it be photos, times in/out, employee names, etc.  Your attorney should be able to answer this question. Next, build awareness of your requirements into your employee training.  Your team will be more on board with new requirements if they understand why they exist.

For tracking data, if a spreadsheet is too manual, look for an app that does most of these things for you.  Being able to audit a site, to look back through time and gain a clear picture of the work you performed should be the key feature.  Geofencing, on the other hand, while it may be able to automatically handle clock in/out for your crews, might be more a “nice to have”.  And don’t waste your time looking for the golden goose – an app that does everything may not do them all well, and you might end up paying too much for features you don’t use.  Make sure the app fits your needs, so when at all possible, ask for a free evaluation period before you decide.

Once you decide on an app, train your employees on it.  Your team leaders have to know how to use it, but also getting your junior guys spun up may save you time and energy in the long run.  As an experienced user on our app, I actually do a lot of on the job training in between job sites in the cab of my truck.  Not only does this save time, but it gives my crew members hands-on time with the app and insight into management responsibilities.

Data-driven management is good not just for consistency of service and liability reduction, but for long-term profitability and success of the company.  Business analytics, statistics, and data forecasting helps drive future planning and ensure long term success. As your company grows, data becomes much more than a management tool – it will help you maintain a competitive edge.

This article was first published in the June 2019 issue of Snow Business magazine.

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