How To Run A More Efficient Interior Landscape Business

By Joelle Steele

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Time is money and no where is that phrase more true than in a labor-intensive industry such as the interior landscape industry, where maintenance services consist of a work force that is frequently unsupervised, often poorly trained, and always subjected to repetitive and sometimes unrewarding tasks. Plant losses correspond directly to the high incidence of turnover in technicians and many interiorscape companies find it difficult to break even, much less make a profit.

While interiorscape companies are fundamentally the same, many differences exist from one firm to another. To name a few: the type of clientele (residential, commercial, large or small accounts), the technology used (pressurized watering tanks, subirrigation, utility carts), the training methods (videotape, on-the-job, hit-or-miss), the scheduling (by hand, by computer, distance factors), the administrative support (manual systems vs. computers, in-house accountant/bookkeeper or outside C.P.A.), and of course, the management style (autocratic or democratic, progressive or traditional).

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Whatever differences may exist, however, all businesses have one thing in common: the desire to make a profit. And that's where time and motion studies come into the picture. The use of time and motion studies dates back one hundred years when they were first used to reduce expenses and increase productivity in the contracting trades and the manufacturing industries. The use of these scientific studies has evolved into an accepted part of the creative problem solving process that is applicable to almost every possible work situation imaginable.

Many of the processes in our very unstandardized industry are in use simply because we were taught to do something a certain way and never questioned it, thus developing a habit of doing it that particular way, and passing that method on to our employees who never questioned it because the boss said to do it that way and the boss is always right. But just because we did something and accomplished the end result doesn't mean that we did it in the most economical manner possible with the least amount of effort and in the shortest period of time.

In our industry time and motion studies can be used to analyze such tasks as watering, trimming, prepping, installing, growing, loading, transplanting, and spraying, down to the smallest motions and processes. They can also be used to analyze office tasks such as filing, typing, telephone systems, and various other day-to-day processes which often take longer than necessary and incur high incidences of error.

While time and motion studies often reveal serious flaws in jobs that have resulted in high employee turnover, losses, errors, etc., it is important to recognize that performing these studies is not the solution itself. Before the studies can even be performed, a problem must be defined down to its smallest sub-problem. Once the studies are performed the problem must be further examined within the results of the studies to determine possible solutions and search for likely alternatives from which a "preferred" solution can be chosen. Those alternatives must then be evaluated because it is often desirable to have three from which to select: 1) the ideal solution, 2) the solution preferred for immediate use, and, 3) the solution which can be used at a future time or under different conditions.

As you can easily see, time and motion studies are not to be pursued as a curiosity or a casual pastime. They are truly scientific studies that require the formulation of a hypothesis, followed by the precise measurements of motions related to time, resulting in the formulation of theories which must then be further analyzed or tested prior to implementation of the proposed process or system.

If you want to perform these studies yourself you will need a good stopwatch, a pen and clipboard, some graph or ledger paper, privacy, and above all else, plenty of time. You will also need several willing subjects, all of them the most proficient at the particular task you intend to study, and a location for the study that is most like the real environment in which that task is normally performed. Under no circumstances should you ever attempt to use yourself as both subject and observer. If you want to participate as a subject, have a qualified assistant on hand to time and log data for you.

When selecting subjects to participate in a study of this kind it is important to use individuals who are highly experienced at performing the process you plan to study. Using a trainee or someone who just naturally moves slowly, or more importantly, awkwardly, can give you an untrue picture of what is actually involved in the process. For example, if you study an experienced technician you will find that his movements in relation to time will be consistent — he has had years to develop a pattern of movement to perform that particular process.

Just because an individual is consistent and maybe moves quickly does not necessarily mean he is performing the task in the optimum manner and you should not allow yourself to be fooled by his apparent speed. An individual may move very rapidly and appear to complete a process with lightening speed, but if he is using unnecessary movement he may become fatigued when performing the process over a period of time more prolonged than the length of your study, for example, the duration of his workday.

For a study to be accurate you must determine at exactly what part of a motion or activity you are going to begin timing. For example, if you are trying to find out how long it takes to install a plant you must decide when that process actually begins. The instant the tech first places their cleaning rag in the cleaning solution to prep the foliage or when they first touch the rag to the leaf? The minute the tech picks up the grow pot to place it in the deco pot or the minute it is placed in position in the deco container?

Consistency is critical. You must use the same size plant (height, weight, pot size) each time, placed in exactly the same spot, and time that process to the same exact final motion. You must repeat it with each subject at least five times, for a total of as many as twenty-five times, hence the need for so much time and so many people to perform these studies.

The need to study more than one person is because in studying a process for which there is no standardization (a perfect example being interiorscape maintenance) you will find that there are wide variances in the length of time it takes each individual to complete a task and a wide assortment of techniques that differ from one worker to the next.

Another reason for the precision and repetition of the study is that there are so many outside variables which can affect the outcome. The time of day can have either a positive or adverse effect on the time needed to perform a task depending on whether the subject is at their most alert or most sluggish during the selected time frame. Whether it is the beginning or end of the workday is a significant factor as well since studies have repeatedly shown that productivity decreases in labor jobs by as much as 25-30% during the last 1-1/2 hours of an 8-hour work day.

If the weather is hot or the heat is up high the results may indicate a longer length of time than would ordinarily be needed. The same can be true if it is particularly cold. If there are distractions from coworkers on the sidelines, phones ringing, frequent interruptions, or fast-approaching rest and meal breaks, the subject's abilities could be affected.

Chart carefully the exact number of minutes and seconds per subject, per individual study. Once you have compiled these statistics, look at them by subject and see if there was one individual who was always noticeably faster or slower than the others. If they were substantially different from the rest then they should either be re-timed, or their results examined in the light of how they performed the process itself and whether it is the process that individual used which made them finish faster. It's nice if someone is a lot faster but you must look at these studies from the standpoint of accuracy with the average skilled individual and use the figures which will apply to the broadest range of experienced workers.

As mentioned earlier, with every interiorscape company having different methods and systems for performing tasks and then having variations of those methods used by the many individuals hired to perform those tasks, time and motion studies in our industry must be performed on the broader series of movements or on the larger processes (installing, transplanting, trimming and pruning, watering, etc.).

Repetitive tasks are the nuts and bolts of maintenance so it is easy to want to time everything you do in the search for a more efficient way. Actually, discovering, developing, and implementing the more efficient way is the hard part.

Once you have observed a process over a period of time you will probably have a good idea of why it is taking so long or why it is being done so sloppily. At that point you may wish to try some experiments with an entirely different way of performing the task or by changing a part of the task. Sometimes the time element is lengthened not due to a poorly executed procedure but by the use of antiquated, out-of-date, or poorly operating tools and equipment. Replacing the tool or piece of equipment with one that is more applicable to the situation may be the only change necessary to make a process more efficient.

If, on the other hand, the equipment is brand new, top of the line, within easy reach, the actual procedure itself may be awkward. Ask the subjects you study for their input. Ask them what they think would make the task easier to perform. It never ceases to amaze me how many truly excellent ideas come from the very people who perform the work. When given the time and opportunity to evaluate their own movements, workers usually have remarkable insight into what is needed to make the job faster and easier.

When you have determined one new way to perform a task, keep looking for another alternative way. It's good to have other alternatives so that if one doesn't work out you can try something else. You may also find that one method would require you to make other changes in your company for which you are not yet financially prepared. Having some options on hand will help you in the interim as you go from inefficient to more efficient to most efficient.

Once a new method is decided upon, it's time to implement it. Managers and supervisors should be consulted well in advance so that they will be aware that you are attempting to make changes. Their feedback on the subject should be given serious consideration as they will be involved in training and follow-up and their suggestions could prove invaluable.

Keep in mind that your newly-designed process may not work. Time and motion studies are very reliable; what you do with them is another matter altogether. Before you completely transform a department or your entire company, test out your new methods with one or two individuals for a stated period of time and then ask them for their opinion during and after the test period. You may find that you have to make some modifications to the process or that it doesn't work at all.

When you have worked out the bugs in your test case it's still not time to leap into a full-scale re-organization of your company to accommodate the proposed new system, process, or procedure. There's training to be considered. In order for your new method to work it must be clearly explained and demonstrated for the benefit of those who will be implementing it on a daily basis.

It is not unusual for a company to find an excellent way to make a process more efficient and then fail miserably when they neglect to properly instruct their workers as to the exact manner in which to perform it. The new system is then discarded as being a dismal failure, a waste of the company's money. Everyone reverts to the old way, the familiar tried-and-true way, the highly inefficient way. A tragic scenario that could have been avoided with better follow through in the form of training.

Employees usually react favorably to time and motion study programs when the principles of the studies are explained to them. They usually appreciate the labor reductions and the increased output that becomes available to them. Their sense of accomplishment and pride in their work makes them happier and more satisfied with their jobs. Some times individuals who could not be motivated or promoted can change and become an asset to the company.

While wage incentives were once the main emphasis and reason for time and motion studies, today they are more widely used for reducing costs, increasing productivity, and maximizing efficiency. But if you can find ways to reduce costs, increase productivity, and maximize efficiency, it seems only fair that some of your new-found profits should be passed on to your workforce. What better motivation for an individual to work within a new system than the knowledge that they are working at their optimum level and are being rewarded for their efforts?


The term "Time Study" was originated by Frederick W. Taylor in the 1880s, and then reinterpreted as the "Motion Study" by Frank B. and Lillian M. Gilbreth in the first few years of the 20th century. Taylor was the general foreman for a steel company. He studied how much time was needed to do various kinds of work and believed that the "greatest obstacle to harmonious cooperation between the worker and management lay in the ignorance of management as to what really constitutes a proper day's work for a worker."

Using a systematic approach, Taylor analyzed individual tasks and developed new and innovative methods of performing and delegating those tasks for the mutual benefit of management and workers. In his books, he repeatedly stated that management and worker alike must re-think old ways of doing things and must "recognize as essential the substitution of exact scientific investigation and knowledge for the old individual judgment or opinion."

To illustrate the effectiveness of Taylor's methods, after 3-1/2 years with Bethlehem Steel, Taylor was doing the same amount of work with 140 workers as was formerly done by 400-600 workers, with a yearly savings of $78,000, a significant sum for 1902. He not only created new procedures for performing tasks, he invented and implemented new equipment, set up detailed training programs, instituted daily bonus plans, and made it possible to pay higher wages with lower product prices.

The Gilbreths were pioneers in the field of the "Motion Study." Frank Gilbreth's engineering and contracting background combined with his psychologist wife Lillian's knowledge of people created a unique understanding of the interaction between the human factor and the use of tools, materials, and equipment, and enabled them to find the "best" way to perform a task.

Using photographs at first, motion pictures later, Frank studied the motions of workers and substituted shorter and less fatiguing motions for longer and more tiring ones. This resulted in higher productivity and higher morale among workers.

The Gilbreths' activities included many noteworthy inventions and improvements in the building and contracting trades. They wrote numerous books and articles on fatigue, monotony in repetitive operations, skill transference, work for the handicapped, and the psychology of management, and developed the process chart and micromotion study.

There existed for some years a controversy over the value of one technique over the other. But today, Taylor's and Gilbreths' time studies and motion studies are virtually inseparable and their combined use in all industries allows management to find the preferred systems, processes, or methods required for maximum efficiency and employee satisfaction.


One of the most significant elements that can be altered, improved, and often eliminated with the use of a time and motion study is the fatigue factor. Fatigue refers to the "feeling" of tiredness, the physiological changes in the body, and the accompanying diminished capacity for doing work.

Many things contribute to fatigue such as uncomfortable environmental conditions, consistent overtime, inequities in the length of the workday in relation to the type of work performed, neglect of rest periods and meal breaks, personal problems, personality conflicts, job frustration, illness, hunger or thirst, financial difficulties, and boredom just to name a few.

A person has certain energy requirements just to maintain his bodily functions and when he does any kind of physical work those energy requirements increase. Adding these stresses further increases those energy requirements and if the stresses are combined with an inefficient process or system the results could be costly by resulting in decreased productivity, strained client/employee relations, and even employee illness or turnover.

These days, work is not always "heavy" labor, and physical fatigue is not always an issue when productivity is down. But mental fatigue can be, in light labor such as office work and even in some phases of interiorscape maintenance. While many individuals prefer to work straight through them, the true value of the rest period cannot and should not be ignored in reducing mental fatigue.

Studies have repeatedly shown that rest periods increase the amount of work done in a day, decrease the variability in the working rate, encourage maintenance of a level of performance nearer to maximum output, reduce physical fatigue, and reduce the amount of personal time taken during the working hours. Rest periods are particularly effective in manual work, in operations that require close attention and concentration, and in work that is highly repetitive and monotonous.

In a time and motion study the emphasis in on finding the easiest and best way to perform a task so that costs can be reduced and productivity raised. This often results in certain types of fatigue being alleviated in the process. But mental fatigue is by far the most significant factor governing efficiency and cannot be measured or corrected with a time and motion study.

Studies of mental fatigue have concluded that an individual's work performance, even under ideal working conditions and systems, can still be effected dramatically by the following, in their order of importance: non-observance of rest and meal breaks, lack of sleep, personal problems, negative attitudes from and towards co-workers, and financial difficulties.

If you implement a more efficient system and find that an employee is not responding favorably, a little investigative work may be necessary to discover the reason, and chances are it may be mental fatigue.


Several years ago, I set out to prove or disprove my own theories about the fastest ways to perform certain interiorscape procedures. With the help of four interior landscape companies and eleven experienced technicians, I studied various aspects of maintenance, among them watering, installation, loading, grooming, and transplanting.

With the help of a friend who had a large suite of offices connected to an enormous warehouse and loading dock area, I spent two weeks performing time and motion studies on several methods of executing different procedures and the individual tasks of which those procedures were composed. I then spent a week in the field re-studying the same processes and movements on the job using the same technicians.

It was often more boring than not as the actual setting up and timing the motions and sub-motions and then logging them was terribly dull. But analyzing the results was more exciting because the analyses revealed that there could be significant improvements made that would benefit both company and technician alike.

The studies confirmed what experts have always asserted regarding repetition of a task for speed and accuracy. For example, in the general activities of a maintenance technician, it is faster to first water all of the plants and then groom all of the plants as opposed to watering and grooming one plant and then going on and watering and grooming another plant, and so forth. These studies indicated that it is possible to waste as much as 20% of the maintenance time by maintaining plants individually instead of performing each task individually.

How is this possible? It's actually quite simple and was relatively easy to analyze. When a technician enters a suite of offices and carries his bucket or hauls his pressurized water tank from one plant to another doing nothing other than watering, the additional motions needed to groom are omitted. Specifically, the act of removing scissors and clippers from holster, raising and lowering a watering bucket, or placing a hose or wand aside again and again are eliminated. When the technician finishes watering and begins grooming, the clippers and scissors and rags, etc., are at hand and the concentration is on the grooming activity.

There are mainly two things going on in this particular process. First, there is the actual physical labor. Raising and lowering a bucket in particular is extremely time consuming, not to mention fatiguing as was pointed out to me by all of the technicians during the study. In a labor conscious industry, physical fatigue must be minimized to increase productivity and reduce losses which could be displayed in the form of replacement plants or worse yet, in the health of the technician. Back injuries are certainly not unheard of in our industry.

Second, there is the psychological thought pattern. A technician must change his thought process from watering to grooming and back again repeatedly. There is a short second or so delay in this process and error or omission is often the result. Fatigue increases as the day wears on and mental frustration may accompany it under these circumstances.

During the studies of the technician watering and grooming individual plants, there was a higher incidence of spillage, rags, scissors, and leaf bags were frequently dropped, two technicians nicked themselves replacing their clippers and scissors in their holsters, and one technician left with a very sore arm after participating in the timed studies of raising and lowering a bucket.

Field and other studies revealed that production line loading of trucks and vans with materials for installations saved about 8% in time over individuals loading items one at a time, initial cleanups of takeover maintenance saved about 23% in time over doing the cleanup gradually with each maintenance visit, having service slips signed takes an average of 2-1/2 minutes at each account, and transplanting plants in 14" containers and up was less expensive than replacing them. The opposite was true of 12" and below containers, all of which were less expensive to replace than to transplant.

These studies revealed imperfections in the maintenance procedure which are reflective of our industry in general. Before the studies were even begun it was discovered that none of the technicians had tools that were in completely efficient working order. We had to postpone the studies until everyone could be provided with sharpened scissors and clippers, holsters, clean and useable rags, and non-leaking buckets.

Without even digging too deeply, these studies proved that there is room for improvement in most of the daily technical tasks and not all of them are related to motion. Many are a simple result of poorly equipped technicians who lack support from their employers and some are just poorly trained individuals who have unknowingly passed on their inefficient methods to those who followed in their footsteps. But if you think there is a better and faster way of doing something, a time and motion could set you in the direction of a solution.

This article last updated: 07/18/2000.