When you think of industries on the verge of disruption, it’s often a case of seeking out traditional sectors that have been doing things the same way for years – decades, even.
You’ll look for industries that could use a shot in the arm from some smarter thinking or that could benefit from digital technologies to trim away layers of accumulated inefficiency. On the face of it, grounds maintenance seems a great candidate for this treatment.
In the UK the sector is extremely fragmented, with many of the established service providers having been around for several decades and delivering very traditional offerings based on fairly rigid maintenance regimes. But that’s not to say that things haven’t been evolving. In many respects, today’s ground maintenance industry has companies competing to discover ways to add more value to their clients.
Those who struggle to achieve this rely on leaner, cheaper services, so much of GM has become increasingly commoditised and, as a result, overall service is suffering. It’s therefore time to re-evaluate some of the common practices in the industry, reconnect with what customers actually need, and shift the competitive battleground further towards value.
Short term is short sighted
One of the causes of commoditisation has been a relentless focus on the short term: Whether it’s the duration of client contracts, or the seasonality of employment across the sector, there is a lack of investment in lasting relationships and better service delivery.
In many respects, this is an inevitable result of cutthroat competition. When faced with more complex challenges on site, contractors will naturally be reluctant to treat the root cause of an issue if they feel there is a chance that that hard work could be under cut and someone else could reap the rewards later. Too often it’s easier to paper over the cracks and do the minimum amount to meet the specifications rather than go the extra mile to address problems properly, or even work to produce more aesthetically pleasing solutions.
When seeking to reduce costs, first in line to be cut back tends to be winter visits, when there is no obvious growth taking place. Typically grounds maintenance companies conduct a process of mass recruitment in March to employ sufficient numbers of staff to cover the peak period / grass-cutting season and then reduce staff numbers again over the winter. However, this pared down approach can be counterproductive as activity during winter months is very important to effective grounds maintenance.
Continuity is key
There’s also the issue of relationships: With a higher turnover of people, it is harder to build the relationships that really matter in effective GM. At the simplest level there’s the relationship with the land itself. When operatives become more familiar with a site itself, they get a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities it presents.
Every site is different and building up knowledge of that location lets individuals add more value. They can then also assume a greater level of responsibility for planning and implementing necessary actions and take greater pride in that work. This really shines through – particularly for clients, who can benefit from more specific expertise and guidance, for example when recommending further improvements.
The right balance between people and technology
All of this may seem to be an argument in favour of good old-fashioned hard work and ditching the ultra-flexible, lean working practices of modern contracting. It may even be taken as a case against outsourcing grounds maintenance in the first place. However, it’s important not to see these things as being mutually exclusive.
While the pendulum has swung too far in one direction, there is a middle ground to which we can return. Grounds maintenance companies can modernise, stay agile and take advantage of digitisation, while still fostering those vital relationships and invest in people for better service delivery.
By Jason Petsch. This article first appeared in the April 2018 issue of Landscape Insight