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It’s Been a Year...


Joseph Fearn

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Hard to believe that I have now been at the University of Kansas for a full calendar year. Regardless of anyone’s tenure at their current job, every one of us was new at some point. We can all relate, albeit to different extents, to the dynamics accompanying completing one year at a job. It is a significant milestone. The title of this blog addresses this significance in two ways. First is the passage of one years’ time. Groundskeeping is affected by the annual seasons, requiring us to experience a full year to really understand our work. The next interpretation comes from the utterly wild ride I have been on with my team and our operation at KU Grounds. So, in both ways it really has been a year.

Team
Personnel is always a large part of team dynamics, and it certainly was for us here at KU. 2022 was a year of significant changes within our crew. Like everyone, the pandemic impacted us greatly in the form of and social distancing, significant absences, and inability to hire help. Additionally, our operation was in transition due to my hiring as new Landscape Manager resulting in some changing strategy and tactics. These necessary adjustments caused several personnel changes.

  • 5 of the original Grounds Crew (20) when I was hired are no longer on the team.
  • 5 replacement employees hired in 2022 are no longer with us.
  • 9 new employees hired in the last year are still with us.

Our net staff at this point is 24 FTE’s. We have filled crew leadership positions and improved communications. Organizationally we are divided into Horticulture and Maintenance, with responsibilities updated to maximize effectiveness. All in all, we are entering 2023 in a very hopeful state regarding personnel.

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Our team is taking renewed pride in our work and our importance to University of Kansas.

Equipment 
Our operations are overwhelmingly reliant on having the appropriate equipment and tools necessary to do our work. Proper equipment operating efficiently is a multiplier effect stretching the productivity of our team. Equipment cannot be static. Wear and tear ages machinery resulting in maintenance and downtime costs. Machinery can become obsolete as manufacturers update models/features or through industry wide technologic advances. Most operations face budgetary limitations which can also impact fleet condition.  Fortunately for us at KU, 2022 saw some of these pressures decrease. We have added several much need trucks and mowers. We purchased some new winter weather equipment that markedly improved our capabilities for snow/ice operations. We have also been able to obtain new replacements for the myriads of smaller and handheld tools used by our staff. This significant investment by our leadership is obviously beneficial operationally but demonstrates to our team the importance KU places on our success.

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The investment in professional equipment improves productivity and sends a clear message to the team.

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It Shows in The Field
Several weeks back I was inspecting campus when I noticed something significant. One of our employees had been tasked with cutting back a naturalized area that was severely overgrown and looked out of control. This employee was instructed to rough mow (slightly better than brush hogging) the area to make it presentable. The result was far better than my expectations. The 6.5-acre area was mowed at 8” and looked clean. The ditches and obstacles had been weedeated and the walkway through had been blown. It clearly reflected an employee that had gone above and beyond. This resulted from several positive factors coming together. Upgraded equipment, the buy-in of a new management regime, better team communication, plus an improved commitment to quality, all played a role. But, most importantly, this employee chose to implement them in his work. Even further, this isn't an isolated one-off, but a sign of progress reflected by the entire team. Results are the ultimate arbiter of progress, and we are seeing results in the field. 

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Field work that goes above and beyond expectations reflects both the individual and team commitment to quality.

More Successes, Fewer Failures
Success and failure often go hand in hand in any operation. The hope of any team is that successes increase in number and frequency while failures decrease. That was the case for KU Grounds in 2022. We had quantifiable data on how quickly we responded to formal service requests and a decrease in unplanned absences by staff. We had empirical feedback with fewer complaints to our bosses and increases in followers to our social media. But mostly, our team had less infighting and backbiting and more camaraderie and mutual assistance. Maintenance staff saw how they could positively assist Horticulture while helping manage their own load. Hort teams paid back in kind. For the broken backflow due to delayed winterizing, we had improved seasonal color and efficient leaf removal. For the broken cab hit by low hanging limb, we had a consistent mowing route/schedule and better weedeating around obstacles. Success breeds success and positives drive momentum to our work.

2023... What Does the Future Hold?
2022 was a success for our team. But what can we expect in 2023? First, we hope to keep improving. Training, including hard skills such as turf management, pruning skills and equipment maintenance will be a focus. Additionally, training will focus on soft skills like teambuilding and communication. Turning to large scale field efforts, we will continue to increase plant diversity vertically via trees, shrubs and flowers, and horizontally by adding genus and natives to our mix. KU is proceeding with a 10-year review of the Master Plan helping guide our efforts in branding and design for landscape improvements and enhancements. Our final large-scale strategic effort must be the continuance of replacing large equipment such as trucks, a new chipper, etc. Some intra team efforts will be implementing an arboriculture team and continued refinement of monthly expectations/scheduling. Of course, filling all available staff positions, retaining staff, and improving staff satisfaction will be vital. 

My hope is 2023 will be a great year for KU Grounds. This is not a naive aspiration or ill-conceived belief. As a seasoned Groundskeeper in a very challenging and fluid profession, I temper my hopes and expectations. But 2022 was a year, and I trust 2023 will be too.

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From our team to yours, Happy Holidays and a very prosperous New Year to my TurfNet community. May you all keep the green side up!

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