Grass-Cutting Excellence: Case Study in Bureaucracy Growth

 One time as I was strolling into one of our buildings I noticed that the grass was kind of shabby. It was not very healthy, hadn’t been cut in a while, and the last time it was cut was done poorly. I am not one for requiring exquisite furnishings, decor, or landscaping, but I believe most visible tasks should demonstrate a minimum level of quality. 

At a management meeting I brought this up. It turns out the landlord was responsible; and, the quality of his grass cutting was unlikely to influence his revenue. Fortunately, our leases were up for renewal with this landlord and he was proposing an increase. Our team told me that they could use this and a few other negotiation points to reduce the rent increase. So we ended up agreeing to take on the responsibility for the upkeep of the grounds around our buildings with this landlord.

Naturally, the discussion then began about should we do the grass cutting with employees or contract the project out and various combinations thereof. I generally prefer to contract out virtually everything that is not core to value delivery. But, of course, as the CEO I don’t intend to micromanage the decision related to grounds upkeep.

The team dutifully pursued both options. In fact, to effectively compare they decided to get quotes from contractors and to advertise for an employee that might take over the project. Then a great thing happened, one of the job candidates had an outstanding interview. Tom was dynamic, energetic, and charismatic. He’d love to take over the groundskeeping chores and promised that we would be happy with his work and he would take all worries about it off our plates.

The fiscal analysis showed it might be just a tad more expensive to bring the work in house, but given that he landlord had contracted out with 2 of our finalists for the groundskeeping contract, it seemed ikely that we might not be happy with the outcome, might have to change contractors, and would suffer from unbudgeted administrative overhead.

So my management team gladly made an offer to Tom. Given my penchant for outsourcing, my head of Administration arranged for the new caretaker to stop by my office for a quick meet and greet during the interview process. He was charming and sincere.

Tom did not disappoint. He worked hard, his quality of work was exceptional, and on top of it all, he was very visible. Although he always looked busy, he would take time to meet people, learn their names, greet them, and encourage them. In fact, he seemed to lead by example. He was very happy in his job and it seemed to some of us that he was working uncompensated overtime (for which he was cautioned). He was popular and clearly added energy to the organization.

We definitely had really good grass and grounds. Within a year he was nominated and received one of our monthly team awards for contributions.

We also did a top to bottom stack-up of performance across the company, which used to help with bonus pool.  We usually liked to make sure, that symbolically, a lower ranking, perhaps hourly employee, gets the top spot. He qualified and won that spot, approved by all the VPs, during his second year.

Everything was great with Tom. So naturally, when he was 6 months into the job and he asked for a new lawn-mower, it was granted. In fact, it sailed through the capital incremental acquisition process … everyone wanted to encourage him. A few months later he asked to attend some courses on groundskeeping. Easily approved by his supervisor.

He came back from his training energized and developed a plan for cutting the grass in alternating patterns, a fertilizer and weed control product application schedule, and a new watering schedule. He pulled in consultants to change out some of the plants that weren’t ideal for our locale and even brought in a landscape architect to help specify attractive and ecological planting patterns around the building. None of these expenses were much. In fact, given the positive energy he was contributing to the workforce we all felt great about supporting Tom and his work. He loved what he was doing and, likewise, we loved supporting him. I would say we even took pride in ourselves for nurturing him.

Shortly after he won the ‘top slot’ award, he arranged to have some mid-level employees teach him how to put together a PowerPoint presentation. He rehearsed it and scheduled a briefing for the executive team. We thought it was cute. Tom showed up in a suit and gave a 30-minute presentation on how he could take our grounds to next level. He could do sort of a crop rotation schedule where some of the plants would be replaced and simultaneously the irrigation systems would be upgraded during the rotations. We would use less water, but have more lush plants, be ecologically aware, and have the best grounds in the region.

Tom’s presentation was excellent. We all smiled to ourselves as our protogé was maturing. He would need some additional expense budget and capital, but it really wasn’t that much. So we endorsed his proposal on the spot, shook his hand, and rewarded his initiative and drive. It was a great example for all.

Then we re-organized when one of our executives left and Tom reported into a new director and a new VP. It didn’t take long for these managers to appreciate Tom, but also to see how highly regarded he was within the organization. So when Tom approached them about adding some staff, it received a favorable review.

Tom pointed out that his overtime bill was picking up and he couldn’t possibly keep up with all of the work. Not only was there the groundskeeping, but there was the plant rotations, new irrigation systems, and all of the capital equipment had to be maintained. Plus he wanted to be able to take some time off as his wife was expecting. He had no backup and the groundskeeping would fall into a poor state if the schedule was not maintained.

Naturally, the new managers wanted to ‘join the parade’ in support. So Tom was promoted to manager of landscaping services and allocated 2 slots with the proviso that he and his employees cross-trained in both the maintenance of the equipment and in the landscaping duties, which was viewed as a clever anti-bureaucracy pre-caution. Tom did an excellent job of hiring and brought in 2 good people to support his department. Tom signed up for both company manager training but also some support courses outside the company including computers and computer applications like Microsoft Office.

Within several years from the time Tom’s employment start, he had grown his landscaping department to included four people, a fleet of equipment, advanced methods, and was regarded as one of the best in his field. However, he now spent the majority of his time at a desk scheduling his team and their activities, managing budgets, and preparing presentations to defend his department, a task for which he was exceptionally qualified. In fact, during one belt tightening exercise he was so compelling he actually ended up with an additional headcount.

Unfortunately, one reason we valued Tom was that he was that he had always been out and about doing the landscaping and had become a fixture and focal point of positive energy. As employees walked by he would engage them and have a kind word for almost everyone. Now, he had an office and was stuck behind a desk grinding away on his budgets and charts. He gave great engaging presentations, but that was the only time we saw him.

Tom also was invited to give presentations in the region as we had by far the most impressive landscaping program for a company our size. As one would expect, it wasn’t long before Tom was offered a terrific job by a much larger firm to manage their grounds and building maintenance programs across a multi-state area with a nice bump in salary and benefits. Given his young family, he accepted, and we all congratulated him, taking pride in the individual contributions we had each made to our protogé.

Naturally, he was replaced by one his direct reports, after an appropriate HR process. That person was almost as good as Tom and wanted to make a mark so he proposed new programs to his managers. Eager to foster their new manager they approved several of his programs which included bringing in some contractors to off-load the landscaping work to allow his team more time to plan their next set of improvements.

Interestingly, one area of ‘improvement’ was the installation of little chain fences around the patches of grass and signs that said keep off the grass. They determined that a portion of their budget was spend repairing turf where employees had cut corners and created ‘deer trails’ between buildings and to parking lots. This caused quite kerfufle amongst the employees.

Also around this time we had both a fuel spill and failed an internal audit assessing OHSHA rules (protection for employees and contractors performing the task) and EPA (related to the fuel spill and in appropriate fuel storage). So we had to make more upgrades to our physical plant, develop a full notebook of processes and procedures to protect our assets, our employees, and the environment. The new team did an excellent job responding to each of the issues but they contracted out more and more of the landscaping so they could spend more time insuring we were totally compliant with all federal, state, and local rules and regulations and that the department was compliant with our ISO 9000 processes as well.

Let’s recap the events:

  • We started out wondering if we should take on the responsibility of landscaping and, if the answer was yes, should we bring it in-house or not.
  • We decided to bring it in-house, partially influenced by the talent of the person we found to do the work.
  • We made several decisions to grow the activity and turn it into a department with an increased budget, capital, and headcount mostly because of the talent and energy of the person leading the activity.
  • As the activity grew it needed to spend a considerable amount in overhead for compliance functions as well as in defending itself against raids on its resources (for less worthy activities like R&D, sales & marketing, and customer support).
  • We ultimately lost that person, but the department was now fully established and had begun to implement new rules and procedures to make its job easier. Unfortunately, those rules were not well received by the rest of the employees.
  • It seems that although the department was originally created to improve the environment (better grounds) and as a reward for employee initiative, it had grown to be an impediment to morale and an example of bureaucracy run amok.

What are some of the lessons to be learned:

  • Spend considerable time deciding what are core responsibilities of the enterprise for value delivery and avoid taking on ancillary tasks. No matter what the original intentions, every department naturally tends to grow and spawn bureaucracy.
  • Talented employees in non-core functions are likely to accelerate the growth in bureaucracy. Ways to confront this issue might include:
  • Move talented employees, once identified, into core functions as soon as possible even if the fit is tenuous. Let them spark growth where it’s needed.
  • Put strict limits on the growth of budget, capital, and headcount in non-core functions and be miserly in any exceptions.
  • Consider encouraging the talented non-core employee to seek employment at a firm where his skills are core.
  • If that employee has a spark of entrepreneurship, help that employee to spin-out and start a business perhaps with an initial long-term contract back to you.

Note: Actually, this is not a true story, but is a parable based upon a collection of many similar examples. In this fashion, I can protect many good employees and colleagues with the best of intentions but who might otherwise self-identify with this case study.

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