Identify inefficiencies and streamline operations to build a stronger business.
October 29, 2014 By Rob Burtonshaw
The order book is full; we are officially delaying or turning work away for the next couple of months. We simply have no more capacity, there are only so many meters which can be laid per day and just to honor the promises already made we need good weather and to avoid breakdowns. That of course will not happen, but I hope to bend a few promises rather than break them. It’s far from ideal, but with a couple of sympathetic clients and a good dose of honesty from us the odds are in our favor.
This is the busiest we have been for a few years, and I should make two things clear. The first is that I’m not complaining. The nature of our business is that workload is very imbalanced. After harvest we are flat out, in January and February we are fixing machinery, waiting for spring and losing money. Even within this pattern, peaks and troughs are common. Sometimes the jobs are lined up and sometimes we wonder what we can do next week. Being busy can be problematic but it is far better than not having enough to go at. Secondly, despite my considerable efforts to market and sell both Farm Services and drainage to English farmers (an ongoing process which has been more successful than I thought it would be), the weather, harvest and the rising price of land have caused most of this demand. Farmers buy drainage when it is wet and no amount of sales will overcome that obvious fact. The unpredictable and wet weather is helping sales, as is the good yield experienced this harvest. The prices are another matter and I can only imagine what the imaginary, impossible, perfect drainage contractor’s year – wet, good yield, high prices – would do to demand.
At the moment it’s all hands to the deck, with our guys working as much overtime as I can persuade them to log. On site each job is flooded with men and machinery, anything which will increase production, and in the office we are running around like headless chickens. Gravel and pipe must be waiting for the guys when they turn up on site. Plans are double checked to ensure problems are solved before we are on site. Move days are well co-ordinated and wasted time is kept to a minimum. Most important of all, the drainage machine must keep on moving.
When the pressure is on, the cracks appear. I will happily state that we are far from perfect. During my Nuffield travels I have seen better drilled drainage crews and slicker run businesses than ours, but we are trying. I’m desperate to improve the business and drive it forward, and if I’m honest, very few parts of the business cannot be improved. We will get there but it takes time. One idea I’m building up the courage to implement is to swap our foreman from operating the drainage machine to the excavator (or backhoe, as you say in North America). Like nearly all contractors, our foreman drives the drainage machine, but is that really the right place for him? And if not, surely our best man should be where he can affect the job the most? Making sure the drainage machine can continue laying pipe is arguably a harder job, which requires more thought than driving a plow, for example. Of course, making sure the pipe is installed correctly is vital, but once trained and with the foreman checking frequently, can’t someone else operate the drainage machine, leaving the foreman to plan head, solve the problems, mark out the drainlines and make sure the drainage machine keeps laying pipe?
Anyway, I need to stop typing, set up the next job and make hay as the sun shines, as next week might be full of rain. I hope everyone has a busy couple of months and that demand for our services remains high.
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