An article written by Forrest Richardson and Bill Yates, adapted from Club Management Magazine ©2009 all rights reserved

In the an earlier article, Reducing Cost and Improving Quality — The Odd Couple, we presented basic concepts, general steps and benefits of building and engaging your staff to help you take on the cost escalations that are affecting the golf businesses today. We challenged you to adopt a “take action” mentality, to train your staff team to have a continuous improvement focus about their daily responsibilities, and to partner with your team to reduce cost. And we made the bold prediction that you could actually do this while improving the quality of the complete golf experience at your club.

This article looks at specific steps you can take to build a culture of continuous improvement and cost reduction – one that is not only sustainable but can result in saving thousands of dollars annually. The trick in building this culture is to simply ask, “Why?”

Adopting the “Why?” Business Model

Why? It’s such a simple question, but it has a powerful reach. At nearly all golf clubs there are some practices and conventions that become entrenched over time more or less by default. Policies, protocols, rules, maintenance habits, routines and actions are repeated hundreds of times per week and thousands of times per year. We may think we know “why” these repetitions are unbroken chains, but when we take a closer look, it’s amazing how many activities are done simply “because that’s the way they have always been done.”

Tradition can be good, but not at the expense of common sense. When we ask “Why?” we are opening the door to fresh ideas and the potential for improvement, empowering our team to build a better mousetrap, to revitalize, to streamline, to improve. Asking the question and taking action on the answer can strengthen staff morale and participation, eliminate waste and refocus precious resources and energy. Sometimes taking action might mean keeping something exactly the way it has been, if there is a legacy, historic element or tradition to maintain. Asking “Why?” doesn’t have to produce broad change, but it will illuminate those areas where change can propel you toward your goals.

Here’s an example of how asking the question produced a significant cost saving for a California club. Like many, this club had its golf maintenance staff keep the bunkers meticulously edged and mowed crisp. But it took a lot of time and money to keep the bunkers in this perfect condition. When the consulting architect (one of the authors of this article) asked the Superintendent why the bunkers had to look this way, the question was passed up to the General Manager. The GM was intrigued and thought about what would happen if the crews stopped concentrating on the turf at the back of each bunker. He realized that instead of a crisp look, the turf at the back slopes would take on a more natural look, adding a new and pleasing texture to the course. Weekly grooming might become every other month. The natural look could help define the bunkers. If handled right, it could even appear as if the bunkers had been remodeled…all this without doing anything at all. The GM took action, and his next step was to decide where to reinvest all that new-found time, effort and money he had saved. (This success stirred creative thinking by crew members about mowing patterns, equipment utilization and other opportunities. The “Why?” culture was taking a foothold in the maintenance department.)

In the context of overcoming challenges in tough times, asking “Why?” and aggressively following through can be a new business philosophy for a club, revealing win-win opportunities throughout the operations. It is a healthy, proactive model that is far more effective than measures we see in clubs who address tough times by cutting back at all cost, including cutting back on getting together as a team. Our experience has been that rallying the good thinking of a team that is ready to ask, “Why?” is infinitely more productive for the bottom line that eliminating the expensive year-end party,

Building Your “Why?” Team

If you’re worried about having to turn your operations upside down to adopt this new business philosophy, don’t be. The training of your staff and the implementation of the continuous improvement and cost reduction philosophy is a stepwise process, and those steps are managed in a controlled way by you and any consultants you may decide to use. When we work with a club, we help the team develop skills and confidence incrementally, building on individual project successes. Simply pushing an agenda is not the goal. While you want “Why?” to become commonplace, you need carefully designed training and models so individuals will learn by doing. Immediate feedback is seen through results, and positive feedback will give employees the momentum and confidence necessary to continue progressing. With the completion of each small undertaking there comes an actual cost savings and quality improvement. Milestones will begin to accumulate. In no time, the cumulative successes of your efforts will repay the investment you made in training and changing. With continuous improvement, the philosophy becomes institutionalized.

If your team is like most clubs, it is made up of departments with key managers. Managers report to other executives or perhaps to one central manager. Management, of course, reports to members or owners. To build an effective continuous improvement “Why?” team, you must decide on the correct mix of your in-house skills and outside resources, if any. You might bring in a management coach, specific training, or noted professionals from other clubs. You might call on the authors of this article or other consultants. The ideal team is each department head, manager and the dose of outside help needed to bring about a cultural change. Delivered in increments that can be absorbed, a team exposed to problem-solving and continuous improvement training will learn business communication skills that will help them to understand, and begin using, the language and thinking of business. Working together in small cross-functional teams they will directly apply that thinking to improving their own performance and the quality of their work. In the end their improvement ideas are linked to a calculated savings and ROI.

The “Back to Basics” Model

This entire “Why?” approach is built on the underlying management philosophy that stresses a “back to basics” approach to examining all of your processes in order that you might find opportunities to eliminate waste and improve quality. Each season, football teams revert to training on basic blocking and tackling techniques, and every Super Bowl is won by the team that does it the best. Going back to the fundamentals is always a critical element to eventually moving forward. So, what happens when your trained team begins to find improvement opportunities? We predict that when you hear the first well-documented presentation and recommendations, you’ll think, “Well of course. That’s obvious!” In his book A Passion for Excellence, management guru Tom Peters says that the” blinding flash of the obvious” is the definition of basic management. But he adds, “I guess the obvious must not be so obvious or more would practice it.” We suggest that the more you and your team feel that the proposed improvements you uncover are almost insultingly “obvious,” the faster your savings will accumulate.

Practical Applications

In working with golf clube we have given the exercise that involves having managers and staff arrive at their facility one morning wearing the hat of a first-time guest. We ask: Did you find that even the simple question, “Where do I park?” could be irritating when you don’t know the territory? Or that what’s clear to you, your staff, and your repeat customers may be obscure to a new guest? Did you have trouble finding the bag-drop or the Pro Shop, or did you experience a lack of welcome?

Who at your club is anticipating these questions and making the answers “blindingly obvious” to your customer? According to Tom Peters, this is an essential ingredient in basic management. Your customers will unconsciously view this brand of management as welcoming hospitality.

Proceeding down the series of survey questions, we hope you began to understand how your welcoming process actually looks and feels to potential new members or customers. Through the survey you’re taking the first steps to creating a process flow chart in your mind. When you and your team translate this to paper you begin to see the obvious. Each step of the welcoming process contains member and customer contact points. The travel distance, the location of each step, and the basic reason for asking them to take that step should cause you to ask a whole series of “Why?” questions. Why do they get lost? Why do they miss the bag-drop? Why do we make them walk so far? At five minutes before their starting time why does the Starter not know where the next group is on the property?

By asking why, you smooth the process by challenging each of your process steps and the reason for even having that step. Once the first reason is given, you need to ask “Why?” again. Gradually your team will eliminate wasteful steps and throw away old practices that add no customer value. Perhaps most importantly, a club that may have presented a maze to a new guest is now able to eliminate confusion, frustration and a potential negative first impression.

With a well-designed implementation plan in hand, you will follow the prescribed analysis steps for each of the main service delivery processes you have in and around your clubhouse and in your golf operations. You will organize teams to address these areas, and measure the before and after results of each study, calculate the value of the recommended improvement and the savings, make a decision and take action, and never stop this cycle.

Imagine the exponential nature of a “Why?” culture across the full width of your club. We have cited a few examples; here are two others. On the course you may be able to reduce areas of managed turf, which will lead to less water use, pumping cost, fertilization, mowing and even a reduction in annual capital expenses for irrigation replacement. Of course, to weigh a decision such as turf reduction you should consider a “TAP” (Turf Assessment Plan.) A well orchestrated TAP may involve a golf course architect and specialty consulting to look at the impact on pace-of-play and irrigation programming and short and long-term infrastructure planning. At courses with intricate property boundaries it may be a priority to look at edges – edges of lakes, edges against private property walls, edges around bunkers and tree trunks – all the time consumers that your maintenance staff spends hundreds of hours maintaining. But Why? What if some of the edging could go away? Could it be done differently, perhaps with spraying instead of trimming labor? What new equipment could make the process faster? Less labor can mean lower cost, but it can also mean a redistribution of effort. When you ask “Why?” and challenge the status quo in a formalized way, you free yourself and your resources to afford that planter of colorful flowers that takes so much time but looks so good.

Sustaining the Culture of Continuous Improvement

Clubs are encouraged to identify a continuous improvement “champions” among your team to act as your internal consultant as you move forward. For certain you need one “Grand Champion,” the senior person who will see to it that the new culture is not only given a shot, but that it is embraced from the top down. This cannot be stressed enough. Without champions you may be asking why you are asking “Why?”

Success today depends on going beyond the norm to deliver exceptional experiences. A good cup of coffee, a good golf course and a good locker room are no substitutes for excellence. Because clubs are inherently unique it is not possible to provide a complete “how to” manual for your particular culture. Hopefully the framework presented here begins your journey to continuous improvement and reducing costs through the simple, yet effective, “Why?” approach. So why not begin now?