By Mike Lysecki
Nobody has ever considered dumping their snow-clearing equipment and going back to horses and antiquated equipment. But while technological advances in equipment have transformed operations, many snow & ice office staffs are still hamstrung by a reliance on old-fashioned processes. Paperwork is issued to the field. It comes back with inconsistencies and errors - if it comes back at all. Office staff work hours trying to make it right, and then even more hours are spent keying data into multiple systems to ensure payroll, service tracking, liability protection, etc., are recorded appropriately.
At our snow & ice management company, we knew paperwork was killing efficiency. There was too much paperwork, too many errors, too much data entry, too many phone calls, and too many staff required to run our operations.
Over the last few years, we strove for streamlined, efficient operations using simple mobile tools that make the processes simpler and faster than pen-and-paper methods. Following are three of the biggest paperless technologies we rely on for efficient snow & ice operations.
Mobile crew/shift logs
One of the biggest motivations to go paperless was to reduce time (and inaccuracies) in record keeping, including payroll, job costing and service tracking. Crews punched in/out at the shop, but their daily paperwork was neglected and inaccurate. Punch clock records had to be reconciled with what crews had written on their paper logs, and hundreds of hours were spent sorting out inconsistencies, or, worse, they were swept under the rug. Hundreds of hours were wasted transferring (inaccurate) data from paper to spreadsheet, and it was rarely finished properly. The following year, upon review, we didn’t even have, or trust, the data that we’d spent so many hours entering.
Not only were our results inaccurate, but our profits suffered. Undocumented services/extras went unbilled; hundreds of “rounded-up” time sheet hours were paid out; and we simply couldn’t afford the overhead staff necessary to review, double-check and correct every problem. Change was not an option - it was necessary for survival.
A decent smartphone (or tablet) time-tracking application will enable you to streamline your operation’s payroll, but a really good application will provide your snow & ice operation with an invaluable tool. As we sought a solution for our record-keeping inaccuracies we identified the following as essential:
- Job tracking. All payroll hours must be booked to tasks so we can review - live and in real time - hours spent on every job and task.
- GPS verification. GPS location verifies crew members’ operations on-site.
- Material tracking. Confirmation of material usage on-site.
- Site notes/warnings/reminders. The ability to set automatic reminders/alerts to pop up anytime someone clocks in to a specific site to ensure work is done correctly and safely each and every time.
- Live crew log visibility. The ability for our office team to see a complete history of each employee’s in/out times, site notes, weather notes and more in real time.
- Customer access. Allowing customers to view the status and activity at specific sites. This can reduce phone calls, mistrust and billing challenges during the snow season.
Years ago, all of our snow trucks carried binders with street maps, site maps, phone numbers, checklists, maps to salt locations, maps to repair information, health and safety policies and much more. Assembling these binders took days, sometimes even weeks, to prepare. Updating binders was just about impossible. New maps, special notes and instructions, revisions, etc., were issued, but only 50% of that information ever seemed to find its way into the binder.
Affordable cloud drives meant the end of our snow binders. Google Drive, Microsoft’s OneDrive, Apple’s iCloud and other offerings like Dropbox, Amazon’s EC2 and Box OneCloud have easy-to-use cloud storage that shares information in real time with field operations.
Our cloud drives organize all operations by type (snow, construction, etc.), then by route, and then by specific site. If a driver needs any information about a specific route or site, it’s all available via his smartphone. Cloud drives are especially handy for storing:
- staff contact info;
- supplier addresses, phone numbers, hours of operation;
- site maps and images;
- quality control checklists (site checklists, end-of-shift checklists);
- equipment manuals;
- training videos; and
- policies, procedures, safety information and MSDS sheets.
One of the highlights of Google Drive for our snow & ice operations has been the creation of mobile forms. In just a few minutes you can learn to set up forms like an equipment repair request, damage report, end-of-shift checklist and more. Staff members complete the form on their phone, and answers are stored in a Google Drive spreadsheet. You can also enable email notifications when an important/time-sensitive form, such as a repair request, is submitted.
Forms and checklists are key to any systemized operation, but online forms make information available instantly, rather than hours later when paperwork gets handed in. Even more importantly, online forms use validation to prevent errors/missing information.
Paperwork is only as good as the person filling it out. Data sections can be left blank or filled out incorrectly. None of this is checked until the paperwork is turned in, and then administrators spend hours sorting out inconsistencies. This can be largely avoided with online forms. All information can be validated to ensure completeness/accuracy before it’s turned in.
Behind the scenes, online forms give you a permanent, written record of all the responses for every form. This can cut out hundreds of data entry hours. You can also send instant email notifications of important events to anyone who needs to know.
Forms are easy to create and can accomplish anything you can do on paper and more. Set up your form design, and then configure your field by type (date, text, image, etc.) and validation rules. You can set up fields to insert images, location (GPS) and even signatures.
The Google advantage
Google offers one of the best and easiest cloud drives available for field service work:
- It’s easy to set up and run.
- Permissions/security/access are easy to share among others.
- It’s simple to use and activate on any smartphone.
- You can create online forms that collect and store data from your staff.
Mike Lysecki served as director of snow operations at TBG Landscape for eight years, and is now director of the Landscape Management Network, which builds mobile estimating and time-tracking tools for landscape and snow industry contractors.