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How Can You Win When There Is No Finish Line?


Joseph Fearn

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It is student move-in time here at the University of Kansas... a great time for our Grounds Crew and for the university community overall. 5,000 students returning to campus is a big deal.  Our team begins focusing on residential areas in the weeks preceding in order to put our best foot forward. Making the campus landscape look good is a labor of love benefitting our campus community, but also benefiting our team. Finding satisfaction in these moments can provide a deep sense of accomplishment for a team and can be a powerful motivator for improving performance. Unfortunately, no sooner does this task get accomplished then we are onto our next goal/target. So how does the team recognize accomplishment of a goal that never truly stops without feeling we never cross the finish line?

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Move-In Day is a big day for the campus, AND for the KU Grounds Crew.

Campus Care Never Stops 
Finding satisfaction in this moment can be difficult due to the dynamics inherent to any ground’s operation. Our landscapes are constantly growing and changing.  No sooner does one task get accomplished, then the next is already waiting. Essentially all the tasks associated with grounds management are like this. Turf management, bed maintenance, plant maintenance, irrigation, etc. require constant upkeep.  It is very challenging not to feel our teams are on a hamster wheel constantly seeking to arrive at a finishing point. I’ve heard some people suggest this is job security, but it can also be seen as failure to achieve results (not a good thing).

Focusing in on only one of many jobs, mowing, illustrates how hard performing a never-ending task can be. In our climate zone mowing is nearly year-round. In spring and some of fall it is nearly impossible to keep up with demand. Couple all the other tasks that must occur simultaneously (color rotations, turf renovation, leaf removal) one understands why we feel rushed from one job to the next.

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While continual quality improvement is important, sometimes good enough can be great.

Maintenance Quality is a Moving Target
Another aspect of our work that entails constant striving is the pursuit of a high-quality operation and landscape. How well we perform our jobs, and the landscapes we deliver, goes a long way to supporting our organizational success. Successful grounds management teams are constantly looking to improve deliverables such as appearance, safety, durability and the ever-important cost effectiveness. Don’t misunderstand, our teams are eager to undertake continual quality improvement (CQI) but we must understand it needs to be well managed and carefully articulated to the team and organization.

Often CQI occurs on a curve. Early improvements are low hanging fruit requiring low investment and can be relatively easy to achieve. As our product improves, the ability for further performance improvements becomes more difficult requiring more investment by the team through process change, equipment investment, additional training, etc. All the while the work doesn’t stop elsewhere so the team must ride two (or more) trains simultaneously. This is very challenging and again can feel never-ending. 

Finding satisfaction in these moments can provide a deep sense of accomplishment for a team and can be a powerful motivator for improving performance...

Ebb and Flow
Today’s grounds operations are not only about horticulture. I imagine every Grounds Manager reading this would breathe a sigh of relief if our jobs were only focused on the green part of our work. As with nearly every profession, our positions are expanding into directions that force us to be adaptive, quick learners and jacks-of-all-trades. This isn’t a bad thing, but it can be hard to constantly deal with.  

Today’s Grounds Manager must be a personnel manager, purchasing agent, event coordinator, IT analyst, and project manager in addition to our regular jobs. This level of required work can keep us hopping and presents constant challenges and lengthy to-do lists. No matter how refined our scheduling and prioritization these tasks come at us relentlessly. The back and forth of stress and pressure can be managed but getting knocked of course will happen. Throwing in the ever-present impact weather and nature has on our jobs adds volatility to our jobs that many managerial positions do not have to cope with.

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The first KU football game comes only weeks after Move In.

It Really Is In How You Play The Game
Our jobs are demanding. I tell all prospective employees we will always work hard. Our team strives to be the hardest working unit on our campus. We win every day we pursue this standard. There will always be turf to mow and weeds to pull. Mulch fades and irrigation heads break. Equipment needs fixing and people quit. This is our job.

Hard on the heels of move in day was our first home football game. Again, our team spent several weeks operating at fever pitch as we prepped for this event. The day of the game I finally realized something profound. While there were still parts of campus that could have looked better, there was nothing further we could have done to accomplish them. Our team had done its best. At the end of it all this is the victory we were after.

Success isn’t only about crossing the finish line first. Sometimes just finishing is a victory. And sometimes just entering the race is. Find your way to stay in the race. You may end up finishing first after all.

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When it is all said and done, the team doing its best is a solid WIN.

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Well, Joe, the grounds look amazing.  Congrats to you and your staff.

Makes me want to go back to school . . . I think I have a couple years of eligibility left.

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