PRB Articles


Maintaining Efficiency

The foundation for any sector of an organization is the organization itself and how it's organized. A disorganized organization could hardly be called an organization, but that's sometimes the reality.

Translated to the real world and those who work in the field disorganization and miscommunication equates to confusion and waste. Fortunately, this is not the natural state of parks and recreation. However, there are ways to further improve even the most seemingly smooth grounds maintenance operation.

Rockville, Md., has found that a mix of in-house labor and outside contract help has been a real boon to the department and the community. Rockville's superintendent of parks and facilities, Steve Mader, reports that the city has 40-50 different types of contracts, from the subtle (floor mats) to the more visible (mowing rights-of-way and tree maintenance).

"It allows us to respond to requests rather quickly," says Mader. "We have a policy in place that if anything's broken that would interfere with the use of a facility we repair it in 24 hours. Our in-house people tend to do most of the service requests or citizen response. Generally, the contractors do the bigger jobs that are planned out in advance. With tree maintenance, for example, we use the contractor to prune the entire neighborhoods, and our forestry crew responds to the 50 or so individual work requests we receive in an average month."

With contractors responsible for the more scheduled, ongoing types of work, the in-house staff is free to turn on a dime, if need be. This program has the additional benefit of providing the department with options during budget crunch times.

"It's often preferable to reduce the dollars for contract maintenance, versus reducing the city's work force, so we have a buffer between the better years and the lean years," explains Mader.

Rockville has recently created a long list of best practices detailing the situation and the solution. For maintenance, the list runs the full gamut, from the department's Gypsy Moth Suppression Program to its stance on ADA. To view Rockville's Best Practices form, go to www.parksandrecbusiness.com, and click on Forms.

Getting it on "paper" is a good step toward better management, as is getting rid of paper. It seems contradictory, but it really means turning physical paper into a digital format.

Rockville is working toward the implementation of grounds maintenance and management software to bring it all together.

"We have a lot of different data on Excel spread sheets and it's not all tied together, so we recently did a complete inventory of our park land boundaries and picked up GIS information that the new software will link to," says Mader.

"In the time between acquiring the software package and now we're going through all these inventories, making sure they're updated and the acreages and facilities are all correct so that all of it can be downloaded into the program. Right now we have a paper trail that doesn't cross reference and our version will have both a work order and asset management component."

Though there is management crossover between the city's 60 parks, Mader reports that the department tries to tie managers with specific expertise into parks that fit their expertise.

"For example, we have a horticulturist who has several parks within the 60, but his parks tend to be those that contain extensive gardens, and are more heavily planted or manicured," explains Mader.

"The parks with all the athletic and sports fields are assigned to a supervisor who has a strong background is sports field maintenance. We have a city forester who does all the tree maintenance, including the street tree program. The parks are assigned based on each person's strengths; we're reaping benefits from those strengths."

Rockville has installed a management program from the University of Virginia called LEAD (Leading, Educating and Developing). The philosophy of the program is to create leadership and management on all organizational levels so that everyone has a voice in the system.

As part of the city's overall effort to do this, the parks and facilities department has established committees, including a product selection committee and a training committee.

"In the past I'd say, 'You guys are getting a steel chainsaw, here it is, go do your tree work.' The committee -- which includes park directors, a couple of foremen, a mechanic and laborers -- meets once or twice a month," explains Mader.

When a piece of equipment is up for replacement the committee is able to determine if it really should be replaced, and if not, if there's another greater need in the system that could use that budget line item.

In this scenario -- whether equipment or training -- communication difficulties of the past become less pronounced. On one hand, the directors and managers aren't sending equipment or materials out in the field that are not customized to the laborer's needs, nor is the field manager making buying decisions independent of the big picture view.

Equipping the Workforce

Another aspect of equipment purchasing is standardization. Many parks and recreation agencies have found that choosing one vendor for whatever the equipment might be, saves time and money.

Of course this strategy depends on the department and the resources it has available to it. For Portland, Ore., its needs assessment dictated standardization.

"We have to show efficiencies in our operation, to our taxpayers and as a budget manager. It was killing us to maintain this rainbow of equipment that all basically had the same function," says Jim Carr, senior facilities maintenance supervisor, Portland Parks & Recreation.

"We found that we were keeping parts on the shelf for a particular piece of equipment that we would end up not using three years down the road because we bought a different brand. And, through good tracking and maintenance practices, I could show justification for standardizing our equipment by showing all of those things empirically, such as the benefits of fewer parts, interchangeable parts, operator familiarity, and so on."

For others, such as North Richland Hills, Texas, equipment maintenance happens at a clearing house-type location, where all of the city's mechanical items are maintained. In this case, it's equally important to hire and train people who can move from a police patrol unit to a backhoe and down to a mower, as they often do in North Richland Hills.

"That's a hurdle, but my mechanics rise to the occasion very well. I've been here a year and a half and I'm blown away that everybody can be as proficient as they are on all the different types of equipment we have -- diesel, propane, electric and gasoline," says Guy Jones, fleet equipment supervisor for North Richland Hills.

"We don't have the luxury of just hiring a Toro or John Deere mechanic. When we hire mechanics we're looking at their application to see if they have a variety of mechanical experience -- a well-rounded mechanic. For instance, we try to pick up a mechanic that dabbles with his motorcycle on the weekend, has messed around with two-cycle engines and works as a heavy equipment mechanic 9-5. Otherwise, it's trial by fire."

The fire is doused somewhat by a shrewd provision the department puts into its specifications for new equipment purchases. When North Richland Hills specs out equipment to a vendor it requires that the vendor provides factory training, factory service and a parts manual.

"If that means going to their facility, we'll receive the same training as their mechanic would. In some cases, that's going to their factory and some cases that's their mechanic training our mechanic," says Jones.

"In other cases, some vendors just don't have it available and then it becomes a case of OJT -- we pull the book out, read the book and go to the school of hard knocks a little bit. But you do that long enough and next thing you know you have a pretty proficient mechanic."

Jones adds that the department is fortunate to have little turnover, and most mechanics have been there for an average of seven to nine years. One reason is the variety of work keeps things interesting, especially given that they're in charge of about 350 different vehicles.

In order to push proficiency to the upper limits, Jones will not hesitate to place someone on a particular job who's not particularly comfortable with that type of work.

"Let's say one or two mechanics are proficient in electrical… It's real easy to get caught up in putting those two guys on electrical every single time, but before you know it, they're complaining that all they do is electrical," says Jones.

"Case in point, I have one of our guys putting in some emergency lighting, and he's probably taking twice as long as one of my more proficient electrical guys. But I expect that next time he does it he'll shave off about a third of that time, and the next time, maybe half that time. Next thing you know, now I have three electrically proficient people. I try to rotate them through so that if any particular job comes in I should be able to take any one of my mechanics and feel good about putting them on any job, period. That's what I'm working toward."

Jones also hopes to instill a sense of repair immediacy with the operators. A daily and disciplined maintenance and checklist routine saves untold time, money and even lives and limbs down the road when that little problem turns into a giant and even injurious one.

Jones recommends asking questions that require more than simple yes and no answers. Ask an operator how low the oil was yesterday, rather than if they checked the oil. Also, make sure to show operators the difference between good and bad practice. The point is to constantly hammer the idea of preventative maintenance.

Community Collaboration

Basically, from labor to the end-user community, widespread buy-in makes everything easier, more efficient and cost-effective. Community buy-in has been an important cog in the machinery for Portland's parks and recreation department.

"We have literally hundreds of teams using our sports fields, so we started educating them on the cultural practices of our parks and the need to be involved, not so much from a volunteer standpoint, but educating that if we overuse these fields, we're abusing them," says Portland's Carr.

"So once or twice a month we have evening meetings with a sports workshop group, who represents all the different users of our sports fields."

Before that group was formed, the city had tried to raise permit fees, a measure that was subsequently shot down. The need for such a group, and community education became apparent.

"We came back with these monthly meetings, and by doing that they agreed to raise their permit fees $5 per child and $10 per adult. It represents about $350,000 annually that's a boost to our field maintenance budget," explains Carr.

"It was a matter of educating them about what our costs were. Then I could sit back and let them argue among themselves about whose team is using the fields too much or not rotating them enough. Pretty soon it wasn't so much that they were fighting against each other, but they would end up telling each other everything I told them six or seven months ago, and now they're the ones making the decisions. By doing that Portland Parks was successful in passing a parks levy that gave us about $600,000 for sports field enhancement, and it passed overwhelmingly."

Carr also collaborates closely with educational extension agents, like Oregon State University. Rockville reports similar collaborative success with its local universities, as well as other educational opportunities, such as an annual sports field workshop Camden Yards holds at its stadium.

"OSU is offering independent testing on grass seeds and turf performance. As a municipal agency we are active in getting involved in those trials, and getting the information from their research," says Carr.

"We also provide similar information, but under real-time circumstances -- like a sports field that's using a particular variety of grass seed, the cultural practices we're using, tracking our efforts and tracking our data. The extension agent can use that information and bring their students to our location on a field day, talk with me and walk a site. It seems like a natural for us, and means a tremendous amount to me from a management standpoint, but is equally important for apprenticeships and people working for us who want to go further with their education."

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