The Job Site, Viewed From a Few Rungs Up the Ladder

If we approach every job site with a laser focus to do it as efficiently as possible, then we also will be doing it as safely as possible. Photo courtesy of the author.

The job site is a unique beast to tame; it is complex and simple at the same time. It’s alive and evolving, but most of us tend to get tunnel vision on the tasks and lose sight of the beast that lies before us. With 18 years of experience from different positions in tree care, I have learned some simple absolutes about work. In this article, I’ll share the 20,000-foot view of some of what I’ve learned about job sites.

No matter what the project is, the clarity required to complete it is the same. Be it residential/commercial tree care operations, line clearance, plant health care or even maintenance of equipment, we must approach every project with the same priorities – efficiency and safety are paramount to a successful project completion. Efficient, as defined in The Oxford Dictionary, is “working in a well-organized and competent way.” Safety is defined as “the condition of being protected from or unlikely to cause danger, risk or injury.” So, why and how can these two things be connected? Well, that’s the key to success in job-site control and planning.

When we approach any project, we tend to concentrate on either the mass of the project (how much we are doing) or some detail (one aspect) of the project, but to be efficient and safe, we must focus on the mass and detail in the same line of sight. When our sole focus is efficiency, we lose sight of safety, and when our only view is safety, we lose the ability to be safe because we won’t be working in a competent manner. This might seem controversial but stay with me for a little longer while I explain how the two elements are not exclusive of each other.

In a previous career, I had the honor to serve as a full-time firefighter for the city of Durham, North Carolina. I believe we can unilaterally agree that the occupation of firefighter is full of projects that require safety and efficiency. From house fires to medical calls, our primary mission was to save lives and protect property. We spent hundreds of hours every year training on how to fulfill this mission. Of course, during every training situation we discussed safety, but the primary focus of the training was to perfect our efficiency in operations. From making critical decisions without delay to simple things such as pulling a hose off a truck, we constantly practiced how to do everything the best we could. Yet there was always one common denominator. The crews that trained the hardest and ran the most calls were always the crews that had the fewest incidents. I believe this was due to a laser focus on both the mass and the details of the projects.

Taking what I observed in the fire service, I believe we can apply the same principles in what we do in tree care, with a few modifications, of course. Every job site is both a training opportunity and the real thing, or, as we called it in the fire service, “a job.” So, if we approach every job site with a laser focus to do it as efficiently as possible, then we also will be doing it as safely as possible. Because remember, the definition of efficient is working in a well-organized and competent way.

Safety is the result of communication and a focus on the work you are doing. We are always striving to do work in a safe manner, and that comes from our work principles; it shouldn’t be our focus, because it already should be a standard way of work for everything we do. When our crews start looking at the job site in mass and detail, we begin to see how each operation on the job site affects the other. We start seeing how we can stay organized and focused on the work in front of us without the downtime that leads to loss of focus and thus complacency.

I have a personal issue with the word complacency, because at the core, complacency is just a nice way of saying laziness. That is what happens when we lose sight of the mass and detail of the job site – we find that workers are just “lost,” waiting for someone to direct them. When people aren’t busy working, their minds relax and become lazy about being competent, and that is when safety evades us and things can go south quickly. So, with all of this in mind, how do we actually focus on both the mass and detail at the same time?

To do this, we must approach the job site as a puzzle of sorts; not the kind that is 1,000 pieces with jagged edges, but more those tabletop puzzles that must be assembled in a specific order. Is that not what we are doing on job sites, working toward a common goal or product to deliver to customers in a way that requires a certain sequence to complete? Be it a removal or a span clearance, every task we perform is made up of smaller steps that must be completed to produce a result. As a crew leader approaching a job site, we must see our crew members as part of that puzzle. The way in which we keep them organized and focused on completing steps of the process will result in that laser focus and competent decisions and will drive out the laziness of complacency.

Crew leaders must see each step in the process of completing the details of the project and how those steps work toward the mass of the project. Sometimes, keeping crew members busy is about preparing for what’s coming next, like sharpening a saw for felling or staging brush to be processed. But the key is to keep crews engaged in the details of the project while you manage the mass of the project. When we are focused on efficiency on the job site, we develop laser focus, and that focus is what drives out the risks and thus creates the safety we desire.

I hope you have learned a little from the 20,000-foot view of the job site and how the ways in which we view it affect the ways in which we manage it and, ultimately, the success of the job site. Our successes are graded on how safely we operate well before how much we accomplish. But in order to operate safely, we must drive out the waiting-around-for-something-to-do mentality. Stay ahead of that problem and always give your people details to focus on that lead up to the mass of the project. Do this simple task and I believe that, as an industry, we will see the same things I saw in the fire service. The safest crews will be our most efficient and focused crews, because of the amount of work they do.

Lastly, in the words of my father, “You cannot boil the ocean,” meaning if you just have your focus on the mass of the project, you will never complete it. Get your crew working on the details of the project, and the mass of the project will boil itself.

Travis Vickerson, CTSP, QCL, is assistant district manager in the Lebanon, New Hampshire, office of Chippers, Inc., now a Davey Tree Care Company, an accredited, 48-year TCIA member company based in Kent, Ohio.

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