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System check: Pass or fail?

  • Dale Keep
- Posted: July 3, 2017

Now is the time for an operational review of your company while operations - and any accompanying challenges and victories - are fresh in everyone’s mind. A system check involves evaluating each component of an account and associated paperwork from the day it is acquired to the last time it is serviced for the winter. This individual account data is compared with other accounts to identify areas within your organization that need to be scrutinized for major improvements, elimination or honed with simple maintenance. 

Don’t jump to conclusions
For example, your review indicates Route A is performing better than Route B in terms of customer satisfaction with Route A having 50% fewer complaints than Route B. It could be very easy to jump to conclusions and assume Route A is better managed and has better employees than Route B, but that is not advisable. It likely is not that simple. 

Many factors could lead to the increase in complaints on Route B, including types of equipment used to deliver the scope of work; material used or not used; contract type; cycle time; and overall approach to winter operations on this route. 

When trying to identify the difference, as the saying goes, “seek and ye shall find.” Fail to seek and another, albeit paraphrased, saying comes to mind: “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is not smart business.” 

A careful review of various components of a system within an overall winter operation can identify what’s going well and what isn’t. Look for steps that are truly needed but perhaps could use upgrading. Always look for duplication of efforts. They not only generate more paperwork but also increase chances for errors and increase the cost of doing business. Regular system checks lead to a “continuous improvement” mentality, improve the overall health of a business, are important for profit margins and should be conducted regularly. 

How often should I do a checkup?
My recommendation is that a checkup be done twice per year. In the spring, when recent winter operations are clear in everyone’s minds, and in the fall to make sure systems reviewed and adopted during the system check are being implemented as expected. Just as regular equipment maintenance and inspections help to identify areas in need of attention, system checks also should be reviewed regularly for areas that need attention. The more you perform such checks, the easier it gets. 

While doing a system check, develop a simple checklist to track what you find. When completed, this checklist will show the items reviewed, the rating of that item for each route or area reviewed and a brief comment as to why it rated as it did. Identifying those items to perhaps eliminate, improve upon or duplicate because of their benefit presents a picture of your overall operation. 

Who should be involved?
Bear in mind that when something is studied from different views, the more likely you are to gather a true picture. Regardless of the item, it will look different from the point of view of the customer, route manager, plow truck driver and company owner. Team members often give great insight on system components that comprise your operation. The best solution is found by considering all views, while remembering that the buck stops with you, the owner. 

Some areas and details to consider include the following:

Contracts, dispatch and routing
Often a spring system check reveals areas of concern due to poor wording in contracts, including conflicting requirements within the same contract. Depending on the type of contract and how scope of work and obligations within it are structured, some key items on which to ensure clarity are: 

  • What did the client expect and did their expectations match what was defined in the scope of work?
  • What labor, equipment and material was used to achieve the scope of work?
  • Was it necessary to talk to the customer to clarify contract gray areas or conflicting statements? If yes, did you document the conversation and results and how can it be fixed? 

Winter strategies
The approach to snow and ice control, including material and how it is used, significantly affect the timeliness of service delivery, the cost for that storm and margins. Things to scrutinize include the following:

  • Were the strategies used selected to meet the customers’ requirements in the most efficient way, or were they used due to equipment challenges or perhaps old habits?
  • The correct use of liquids deicers in combination with solid deicers is effective and efficient when used correctly and with specific goals in mind. Should alternative strategies including material use be reviewed? 

How the labor force is designed, mobilized and used is critical to meeting contract obligations and to profit margins. When you have your answers, you will know if employees are performing the activities properly and according to company policy, or if they need further training. Considerations are numerous but should include: 

  • Is the site/route staffed properly to ensure timely, efficient service?
  • Are good decisions to activate crews being made in a timely manner and is crew mobilization working as expected?
  • When the storm is over, do those workers properly complete the required records and documents? The importance of documents cannot be overstated. You must be able to document what was done, by whom, where, when, why and how.

Equipment performance problems or the wrong mix of equipment often leads to poor customer service, employee complaints, return visits and a negative impact to profit margins and possibly renewals. When reviewing equipment and its use, consider the following: 

  • Is the most efficient equipment being used to match the scope of work and level of service?
  • Was the equipment ready for use when needed?
  • Are all the safety items (lights, brakes, heaters, wipers) in working order?
  • Is there a timely and effective system in place to report and document equipment concerns?
  • Is the equipment receiving timely repairs and maintenance? 

Having the right materials stockpiled and ready for use at reasonable locations is significant in meeting customer needs. Inventory always involves large sums of money as it is purchased or used. A well-designed system to track material use by site, per given storm event, is also critical to achieving the highest profit possible. 

  • Going into the winter season, determine how much material is available on a per-site basis. Is a reorder or redistribution of materials needed?
  • Are inventory records current and are the stockpile sites in good order allowing quick access to material when needed?
  • With liquid deicers, were storage tanks full when material was needed? Are loading equipment (pumps, hoses, connectors) ready for immediate use?
  • If making and using salt brine, is the brine-making equipment well maintained, producing quality brine and being operated properly? Are the strictest standards of quality control followed when making brine? 

Remember only salt brine made to the proper standard will deliver correct performance. When making a blended liquid deicer with multiple ingredients, or when trying to pretreat a solid material such as salt before placing it into the salt pile, there are numerous factors to consider. To not do so often leads to expensive educational opportunities. In short, don’t guess on what to do, how to do it or what performance to expect. It is way too expensive compared with doing it right the first time. If you aren’t sure, find someone in the industry to help.

Constantly monitoring operations and combining that information with personal experience and lessons previously learned and documented equals improvements in your operation. Seeking opportunities to improve can result in happier customers, fewer headaches and, in the long term, more business and an improved bottom line. 

The review process
At each step in the system check, ask the following: 

  • What did we do?
  • Why did we do it?
  • What can we do better?
  • Were there issues that need resolved?
  • Are we doing something that duplicates another effort? Can steps be combined or eliminated for improved proficiency? 

As you compare accounts, take a deep dive into any disparities or performance fluctuations. 

Dale Keep owns Ice & Snow Technologies, a training and consulting company based in Walla Walla, WA. Email him at

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