How to build user accountability for protecting and maintaining your winter money-makers By Phil Harwood

Properly maintained equipment is critical to the success of any snow and ice management business. Because snow and ice management is often an emergency service, equipment must stand ready to be employed during the next event without knowing when the next event is going to be.

When equipment is not functioning at optimal levels, everyone suffers. Customers suffer by experiencing reduced timeliness and quality, and by not receiving the level of service they expect or that they are paying for. Equipment operators suffer by reduced efficiency and by suffering more frustration. Poorly maintained equipment is subject to breakdowns and it is unable to perform at its best. Owners suffer by seeing their revenue fall and by losing customers.

Imagine if every single piece of equipment were cared for as if someone’s life depended on it. What would that look like? First of all, every piece of equipment would be protected by the person responsible for it. There would be an ownership mentality where each piece of equipment would be watched, secured and guarded by its owner.

Anything or anyone that posed a threat to the functioning of the owner’s equipment would be suspect and closely monitored. Never would equipment be left alone, abandoned or forgotten.

In the snow and ice management industry, responsibility for equipment is often lacking. Equipment is used throughtout the winter by different people in many companies. Consequently, nobody takes specific accountability or ownership of the equipment. In these situations, equipment is more likely to be mistreated, misplaced or even stolen. Equipment repair costs are exponentially higher and replacements are needed more frequently.

Culture of ownership

Not all companies have such issues. Some companies do a great job by creating a culture of ownership and assigning equipment for the entire season to specific individuals. I’ve seen many excellent examples of this. Unfortunately, I’ve seen way more examples where a lack of accountability exists.

If every single piece of equipment were cared for as if someone’s life depended on it, there would be a high level of maintenance with great attention to detail. Equipment would be scrutinized at every opportunity, serviced on schedule, and thoroughly cleaned so that it would be like new at all times. The owner would ensure this level of maintenance occurred and wouldn’t let anything stand in his or her way. After all, lives depend on it.

Because equipment ownership is often lacking in snow and ice management companies, maintenance practices are generally lacking, too. In many companies maintenance doesn’t exist or is an afterthought at best. Equipment is abused all winter and left for dead all summer, sometimes without even a good shower to rinse off the salt.

Not all companies are this way, of course. Some companies do a great job with accountability, and some also do a fantastic job with maintenance. Unfortunately, the good examples are few and far between compared to the rest. As an industry, we have a lot of work to do in this area.

Suppliers can help

Equipment manufacturers have taken a strong lead in promoting proper equipment maintenance. The amount of equipment care and training they provide today is incredible. There is no shortage of information.

Information is not the issue. The issue is with the user of the equipment. There is a great need to improve as an industry on the contractor side of the table. The manufacturers stand ready to assist their customers in any way possible, but the contractor has to be engaged in the process as well. A few are, but many more need to get in the game, in my opinion.

Let’s discuss some solutions to the issues raised thus far in this article. Accountability for equipment begins with a culture of accountability, which is a byproduct of a something much greater. A culture of accountability is the result of having dedicated people on your team.

One of the most commonly raised issues today in the snow and ice management industry is finding and retaining people who are fully dedicated to the cause. However, in my experience, few companies are able to articulate what the cause is to begin with. Only a small percentage of companies take proactive steps toward creating a healthy work environment in which people feel cared for and where they have a sense of future success. The seasonal nature of the business is a factor for sure, but it can’t simply be an excuse. As an industry, we have much work to do here.

While many companies struggle, others have little to no employee turnover. When a piece of equipment is assigned to a person for the duration of the winter and that person stays employed all winter, accountability greatly increases.

What are these companies with almost zero turnover doing that other companies aren’t doing? The answer is that they are proactively creating a healthy work environment in which people feel cared for and where they have a sense of future success. This is not complicated but it does take a dedicated effort by management and ownership.

Take a look at your new employee on-boarding process. Be honest with yourself. Would you describe it as great, good, fair or poor? How would your people assess it?

Poorly maintained equipment is subject to expensive breakdowns.

The critical first day

If the first day at your company isn’t all that great of an experience for a new person, you’re starting in a hole that you may have to climb out of. Employee satisfaction, turnover and dedication all begin the first day.

Take a look at your employee feedback and review process. Do you have one? Many companies don’t. When people don’t know how they’re doing in the eyes of their superiors, performance and dedication suffer. Proactive feedback sessions create clarity, sense of purpose, motivation and accountability. Feedback sessions take time, but so does fixing and replacing broken equipment.

Take a look at your disciplinary procedures. Are they in writing? Are they applied consistently and fairly by your entire management team? When discipline is lacking, arbitrary or based on favoritism, motivation and accountability disappear.

Instead of ignoring situations requiring disciplinary action, it’s much better to tackle them head-on. How are you doing in this area?

Take a look at the professional development opportunities at your company. Do they exist? If so, are they communicated effectively? Are your people taking advantage of them and finding rewards? When people don’t see a future, they look for another opportunity. In the meantime, they do the bare minimum and collect a paycheck, or take advantage and try not to get caught.

As you can see, increasing accountability for equipment usage has much more to do with the culture of your company than anything else. Companies that embrace this reality and invest in the steps required to develop such a culture, find success with customers, employees and profitability.

I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather own and operate a company with such a culture than a company lacking this kind of culture. How about you? What steps are you going to take this year to develop your culture of accountability?