Pursuing Perfection | AQUA Magazine

Pursuing Perfection

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Designer/builder Scott Cohen is the first to admit that his company, The Green Scene, has made its share of mistakes over the years. Being a savvy businessman, he’s used his experiences to create a company culture and organization aimed at preventing mistakes. Here he shares some of the common sense measures he’s instituted to keep projects as error-free as possible.

As contractors, we all know it’s our responsibility to avoid errors that upset clients, cost us time, effort and the dollars required to set things straight. We also know that no one’s perfect and human error is part of the business landscape.

There are a number of ways mistakes can happen. They can result from a misunderstanding with the client, or lack of work supervision or understanding of specific job details or construction techniques.

Preventing all types of errors first and foremost means being aware that potential mistakes exist at every phase of construction. Avoiding them means putting systems in place within your organization designed to identify problems ahead of time. That effort requires regular communication with clients, between management, job site supervisors and ultimately the construction crews themselves.

It also means keeping track of past mistakes you’ve made or those you’ve seen made by others and making a deliberate effort to learn from them. After all, while it’s great to learn from your own mistakes, it’s even better when you can learn from someone else’s.

WHEEL WOBBLE

Like many people in this business, my career began modestly. I started out mowing lawns and cleaning swimming pools and eventually moved into landscaping. From there, I moved into patios, masonry and hardscapes. I got my general contractors license and then started designing and building swimming pools.

I’m proud of how far we’ve come. The Green Scene takes on a wide range of landscape design and construction projects, some at a high level of cost and sophistication. Naturally, getting to this point was not easy, and we learned a lot of lessons along the way.

Like any growing business, as our operation expanded, we needed to put in place layers of management and oversight aimed at controlling quality because one person can’t be everywhere. As much as I’d like to be able to supervise every construction detail on every job, that’s just not realistic.

When you reach a certain level of volume, your organization can hit what I call “wheel wobble.” Any machine can run at a given speed, but when you start to go too fast in an effort to keep up with your expanding business, you start to miss a few things and technical details start to fall through the cracks.

I recall a job over a decade ago when we were going too fast; we poured our concrete before we had run our electrical conduits. Missing that “detail” cost us several thousand dollars. That’s not something I’d care to ever repeat and thankfully, we haven’t.

Frankly, I don’t know of anyone designing and building swimming pools who hasn’t made some type of serious mistake along the way. To a large extent, the difference between sustained success and mediocrity or even outright failure is how you respond to mistakes. Do you learn from them and implement what you’ve learned, or do you stumble along, simply responding to situations as they arise hoping for the best?

CLIENT CONTACT

A crucial component of our system involves regular contact with existing clients. It’s a simple plan that has helped us stay on track.

Whenever we sign up a new client, I establish a plan to meet with them once every two weeks; for exceptionally detailed projects/clients, we meet once a week. The purpose of these meetings is to make sure the client has a detailed understanding of the construction process and progress. It gives them an opportunity to share any concerns or complaints and they always know that they’re never being ignored.

In the course of my work as a construction defect expert witness, I’ve found that one of the most common mistakes a contractor can make is lack of communication with the client. When they expect one thing and then the contractor does another, the results can be costly, both in terms of resources required to correct the situation and the corrosive effect it has on the clients’ good mood.

Here’s a simple example: Let’s say that at the outset of a job, your clients want a dark-colored concrete finish. Then, somewhere along the line, they change their mind and decide they want a lighter color; maybe they convey that change via an email and assume the change makes its way through all the needed channels. If, however, for some reason that change isn’t properly recorded and made, and the contractor installs the color they originally wanted, now there’s a very serious issue.

I’ve found that those types of changes are extremely common and these bi-weekly meetings give me the opportunity to confirm and re-confirm exactly what the client is expecting. It leaves nothing to chance and additionally becomes an opportunity for selling. Often clients will decline certain options initially, but at these meetings we can revisit them — tile selections, water treatment options or automation and control, to name a few.

And, it gives me a chance to oversee the construction work in progress, although that’s really not the main reason for the visits, because we have jobsite supervision already covered by our foremen and superintendents.

Yes, these meetings do take time and effort, but these days I wouldn’t do it any other way.

INSPECT WHAT YOU EXPECT

The other huge factor in pursuing error-free work boils down to jobsite supervision. The importance of having eyes constantly on every aspect of the work cannot be overstated. If you don’t carefully inspect and manage each phase of the work, mistakes are inevitable simply because there are so many ways to make them.

At my company, each crew has a foreman, whether it’s the landscaping crew, masonry, plumbing, electrical, etc. Each of our foremen has between eight and 15 years experience and is ultimately responsible for all the crew’s work.

Above the foremen, each project has a superintendent who visits the site frequently. Typically, our superintendents visit two or three sites a day. That person oversees every detail of the job and makes sure the foremen are giving proper direction to the crew.

Not only are these supervisors given the responsibility to constantly monitor the work per the plans, it’s also important to give foremen and superintendents the authority to make decisions on the site. In our case, we’ve set it up so that our foremen can make on-the-spot changes to things that cost up to $500, and superintendents up to $1,000. If we need to add a step in the process somewhere, make a minor grade change or alter a dimension by a couple inches, they can make that call on their own.

That way, the projects don’t get bogged down waiting for approval for small changes. Anything above that, I get involved. Also, if there’s the need for a change in the design, then I make that call personally based on my interaction with the client.

Overall, this layered system of constant inspection and decision making vests everyone with a sense of accountability and a modicum of authority. By the same token, crews don’t always understand the reasons behind various elements, so when things significantly alter the work, I get involved because I’m the one who’s been in contact with the client.

As an example, I was employed as an expert witness on a project where the original plan called for 18-inch planters next to the house. Right before they poured the concrete decks, the client asked the contractor’s crew to eliminate the planters and simply bring the deck to the side of the house. The crews complied simply out of the good intention to make the client happy.

The problem was that the planters were there partly to allow separate expansion and contraction from house and, when the crews poured the deck, they inadvertently covered the weep screed. The contractor’s excuse was that they were doing what the client wanted, which was an indefensible position. Suffice to say, the fix was extremely expensive, not to mention what it did to the client’s overall attitude.

In our system, because that’s a major design change, I would’ve been brought in immediately to discuss the issue with the client and we would’ve developed a detail to accommodate the change without causing damage to the home.

Those kinds of issues are often relatively simple when you deal with them upstream, but you’ve got to have the systems in place to identify potential problems of that sort.

KEEPING TRACK

This is obviously a huge topic and certainly each company is going to manage things a little differently, but the practices I’ve described above work for us and have saved us vast amounts of time, aggravation and money.

I’ll leave this discussion with one more helpful suggestion: I keep a log of problems I’ve seen in our work and in work by others, and I schedule meetings at regular intervals with our staff to review the material and talk in specific terms about how to avoid those errors.

The reason I started doing that was those lessons aren’t always communicated between crews. We’ve had situations where one crew makes a mistake, learns from it, but doesn’t bother to communicate it with other crews. As a result, we’ve had instances where the uninformed crew makes the same error six months down the line.

If there’s anything more aggravating than wasting time and money on an avoidable gaff, it’s repeating the same mistake later. So, I’ve made it our business to share what we’ve learned with everyone in the organization. Again, it’s a simple step, but one that can prevent all sorts of problems.

And that’s the name of the game!

Finding Help

As contractors, there’s a tendency to feel like you’re all alone, that you have to invent your management procedures from scratch. Unlike other businesses, we don’t really have models we can copy.

That’s why I always attend landscape industry trade shows and seminars so that I can learn as much as possible about my own profession and I’m constantly implementing details, large and small that I learn along the way. It’s helpful to know that help is out there, but you’ve got to go find it.

As my personal expertise has grown, I’ve worked extensively with California’s Contractor State License Board as a construction defect expert witness. Those experiences have given me a close up view of how and why things go wrong.

In that spirit, I co-authored a book with my friend Eric Herman titled the “Candid Contractor.” It’s basically a compendium of anecdotes about lessons I’ve learned from real life scenarios and 12 years of experience working as an Industry Expert for the Contractor’s License Board.

You can check it out at www.greenscenelandscape.com/candidcontractor.html

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail eric@aquamagazine.com.

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