Simplify for Success
Everyone remembers as a kid hearing and having a laugh at the acronym for “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” Truly, it is good advice. Nowadays, I prefer the quote adopted and made famous by my favorite architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, “less is more.” Or, how about, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”, said by Leonardo di Vinci. There are no shortage of sayings that elicit the idea that there is value in simplicity. It’s a principle seen in many individuals and cultures and if you look closely, you’ll see the value that results from it.
Personally, I try not to acquire too many “things”. “Things” are mainly distractions and weigh you down. Not having them keeps you agile and your mind focused on what matters. Recently, I lived for a little over four months without a television. In that time, I was able to read a lot of books and get an incredible amount of work done renovating my house. And because I don’t keep a lot of “things” in that house, I could pick up and move tomorrow if an opportunity arouse.
Applying this principle to business can create tremendous value. I tend to think of things practically at an in-the-weeds level, meaning I usually consider how someone is realistically going to conduct a process step by step. This allows me to strategically analyze how we can simplify that process. Specifically, how do we reduce the number of clicks someone has to make to get somewhere? How do we reduce the amount of thinking someone has to do to get through it? People tend to write off these types of questions or thinking. “They can do xyz, it only takes two seconds, it’s not a big deal.”
Let’s look at an example. You might have an administrative process that you can remove one or two steps from. They might not be major steps; again, maybe it’s one extra mouse click that only adds five minutes to your administrator’s day. However, let’s say you have two administrators and do choose to simplify by removing that step. Do the math and you will find from those five minutes per administrator per day, you’ve saved 43 hours of work in one year. That’s time those individuals can now put towards improving the business and more bandwidth you have before you need to hire another administrator as you grow.
This is the same principle Elon Musk has applied to Sapce X and Tesla at scale, which has lead him to incredible success. Using a dumbed down explanation, Musk looked at the aerospace industry and saw the unbelievable expense in creating and sending a rocket to space only to then dispose of that rocket that took so much capital to manufacture. Musk thought, wouldn't it be simpler to reuse a rocket than create a new one for every launch? If we can reuse a rocket ten times, that’s essentially a ten-fold reduction in expense. A ten-fold reduction in expense means that you can more than comfortably outbid the competition. Now, you watch in awe as these rockets land by themselves and are caught in the ocean by giant nets; inconceivable without the power of simplicity.
In my day-to-day work with the Aspire software, I aim to apply this principle in system setup and processes. This commonly comes into play with item catalogs. Nothing drives me crazier than having to sort through a catalogue of several thousand items. It’s just not necessary. One example is in Labor items. People like to overthink this and have a labor item for everything: Mowing Labor, Pruning Labor, Flower Labor, Watering Labor, etc. At the end of the day, these are all Maintenance Labor. Combine ten items down to one and now you have nine less items to update twice a year. People get caught up in one or two options not being specific enough, but if you use an average as the input, it averages out in the end. The customer isn’t going to care, let alone notice that their pruning price has gone down two percent and their flowers have gone up two percent.
That being said, simplifying can’t come at the expense of something else. I don’t recommend, for example, lumping Irrigation or a Turf Applicator, in with Maintenance because the rates are often different enough and you don’t want to under or overinflate your estimate and as a result make it look like you are beating or losing against every job estimate.
This tendency to be overly specific is seen in materials as well. Take mulch for example. I often see a handful of items for different colors of dyed mulch. At the end of the day, it’s dyed mulch, and if the price is the same for all of them, why not have one “Dyed Mulch” item and reap the benefits previously stated in not having to update as many items or open yourself up for the mistake of estimating or allocating the wrong item. Again, this can’t come at the expense of something else; maybe it's helpful to estimate the specific color so that the crew knows which to use. Personally, I’d communicate that through a simple Work Ticket note. To me the benefits outweigh the rest. Consider another benefit; inventory counts and adjustments. You can manage but you can’t really avoid a crew leader allocating Brown Mulch when they actually used Red Mulch. Likewise, a Production Manager isn’t always going to catch and correct that, so what you end up with is inventory adjustments at the end of the month. Inevitably you’ll hear about these adjustments to no end from someone, so why not simplify and avoid it altogether?
Some other ideas for simplifying items are anything with color or content variations that are more or less the same thing and have a similar cost. Fertilizers are always one I push for simplifying. There’s no end to the different combinations of fertilizers. This is because fertilizers are made up of three different macro nutrients, each of which for any given product could come at different levels, which results in there being dozens of combinations. There’s no point in estimating any specific one of these combinations because the lawn technician is going to use whatever combination is best for the time of year and conditions at the time, so why make him waste his time sorting through and allocating the correct fertilizer combination when they’re all essentially the same thing. I’m not saying to have one item for your entire turf department, but simplify where possible; 13-13-13 and 14-14-14 should be the same item if you’re buying them in the same size and at a similar price.
Another area of Aspire I recommend simplifying is your markups. Again, people love to overthink this. They think they need a specific price for every service they offer. They sell pruning at 110% markup, flowers at 80%, mowing at 100%, and so on. Notwithstanding other factors that you should consider, if on the scale of one year, we need 108% markup to make the profit we want, price everything with 108% markup. Give your estimators something they can grasp, something they don’t have to scratch their head at and try to reverse engineer why their estimated gross margin is fluctuating so much every time they edit, add, or remove a service from an estimate. And again, I’m not saying to not consider some nuance; Irrigation and Turf Techs are hard to find, so let’s sell that at a premium.
I can’t really give enough examples of simplification because almost everything can be simplified. The big picture is that, like the example of removing one click in a process, if we simplify small aspects everywhere, then the aggregate effect of that simplification is less time and brain power wasted for everyone in the organization.