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Case study: Delegation dilemma

October 22, 2014 -  By
Lawn Butler has grown from 25 to 38 employees since Seth Kehne, owner, added a management structure. Photo: Lawn Butler

Lawn Butler has grown from 25 to 38 employees since Seth Kehne, owner, added a management structure. Photo: Lawn Butler

The problem: Seth Kehne, owner of Lawn Butler in East Tennessee, started his company in 1999 in his senior year of high school. He watched it grow slowly and steadily over time; looking back, he compares the growth to the boiling frog metaphor. Translation: It crept up on him. One day it was a small side business, then suddenly he realized revenue had doubled. But because the growth was gradual, he never took steps to put a management system in place for a larger company. With everyone reporting to Kehne, he was stretched thin. It limited the company’s growth because managers didn’t feel they had the freedom to do their jobs without input from him. Plus, Kehne was working too many hours “managing instead of delegating.”

The team: Kehne; Brian Sprowl, maintenance manager; Eric Hill, landscape manager; Brian Lowery, hardscape manager; members of his peer group and consultant Jeffrey Scott.

The solution: In the beginning, operations at Lawn Butler ran smoothly without structure. As the company grew larger, that was no longer the case. With everyone in the company reporting to Kehne, there was no clear organization chart and it took a toll on the company as a whole. Unfortunately, challenges like this are hard to recognize when you’re in the thick of it all, Kehne says. The “outsider looking in” perspective he got from his peers and from working with Scott helped him realize his problem, which came to a head at a peer group meeting in December 2012.

“Deep down I knew what the problem was, but when I heard it spoken aloud from someone else it became real and my call to action was elevated,” Kehne says. “By failing to delegate, I’d been holding back my managers. They didn’t have the complete authority they needed to do what they needed to do.”

Part of the solution was to implement an organization chart. It included managers’ new duties and responsibilities. It also reduced the number of people reporting directly to Kehne from more than 20 down to four—three production managers and an asset manager.

“To be honest, I thought I had already delegated a lot of my responsibilities, but once we had this organization chart in place I realized that I really hadn’t,” Kehne says. “Suddenly my stress level was way down and our efficiency was up. Jobs were able to be done correctly without everyone reporting to me. And I was no longer stretched too thin to take care of my own responsibilities.”

Kehne says the change was similar to ripping off a Band-Aid. It was a bit painful at first. He acknowledges he was worried the company might lose employees due to the potentially jarring effect of an overnight restructuring. In fact, he didn’t lose anyone, but it took about a month for staff to adjust to their new roles and get the business running smoothly, Kehne says. As managers and employees assumed their new roles, operations became increasingly smoother, allowing for even more growth. Today, the company has expanded to 38 team members, up from 25 when these changes took place.

“Things just operate better now,” Kehne says, adding sales are up 50 percent since he implemented the change two years ago. Other improvements include better work hours thanks to more efficient operations (at least five to 10 fewer hours per week), positive customer response and better employee job satisfaction.

“It’s something we should have done a long time ago,” Kehne says. “Personally, my stress level is at an all-time low despite the fact we’re doing more work than we’ve ever done.”

Payton is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.

About the Author:

Payton is a freelance writer with eight years of experience writing about the landscape industry.

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