Soon after entering the golf business, I realized that the performance of each golf facility is largely a direct derivative of what occurs (or doesn’t occur) in golf course maintenance.
Although very few golf facilities use statistical methods to track grounds staff efforts, superintendents perform quality control every day whether they realize it or not. For instance, when sending mowers to cut putting greens in the morning, the superintendent has a pretty good idea of how long it should take to complete the task. If the mowers come in too early, one might ask, “Are you sure nothing was missed?” Or, if they come in later than expected, the question might be, “Why the delay?” This is a means of quality control, and it is true for every task performed on the golf course.
Whereas knowing the time required to complete golf course maintenance tasks is one aspect of quality control in its most basic form, a formal measure of quality control has been in place at Hinsdale Golf Club in Clarendon Hills, Ill., since 2005.
In 2003, there had been discussions about performing a complete bunker renovation. The project morphed into what would become a complete reestablishment of the greens with Penn A-4 creeping bentgrass combined with newly reconstructed bunkers and teeing grounds. The renovation would close the course for the better part of nine months and bring with it a price tag of more than $1.5 million. The club has been in existence since 1898 and it had never seen a project of this magnitude. So, to ensure the perpetuity of the members’ investment, the Visual Improvement Program (VIP) was born.
Bob Maibusch, CGCS, MG and the Grounds Committee Chairman at that time, plus former assistant superintendent Chad Kempf, put together a comprehensive program that would standardize, rate, and communicate daily golf course tasks. Knowing that maintenance expectations would be exceptionally high after the renovation project, they also knew there were no plans to increase the maintenance budget to account for the additional maintenance activities or the heightened expectations. The VIP would have to assist with these concepts.
The first task in formulating the VIP was to create standards for 12 areas of maintenance. The management team worked together to develop written standards for each of the following areas:
• Greens mowing
• Tee and collar mowing
• Fairway mowing
• Bunker raking
• Hole and tee marker changing
• Banks and surrounds mowing
• Equipment care
• Maintenance facility care
• Lakes and ponds
• Cartpaths and footpaths
• Practice facility
These standards outline expectations required to complete each task. As you will see, the hope is to educate, communicate and train everyone involved with the VIP. Being shown in both paragraph and outline form will help those who learn differently as well. That includes ALL club staff and members who choose to be engaged. As you can see, the standards for Hinsdale Golf Club specify items like mowing straight lines or spreading grass clippings in an out-of-play area that is a significant distance from the green.
In an effort to get everyone on board with the VIP, the team garnered input from the crew to help develop the standards. What better source of information is there than the people who perform the tasks daily? Additionally, because our crew is primarily Hispanic, it made sense to translate the standards into Spanish. These written standards eliminate any misinterpretation or confusion as to the minimum expectations upon completion of the task, and could also be used as a training tool for new employees.
Next, to make this program work, we needed to measure our level of success and shortcomings. We used the standards to create a list of criteria. This list was used as a basis to measure, on a scale of 1–10, how well each task was completed. Members of the management team review the course weekly and complete internal ratings. Ratings are compiled into a spreadsheet to tally weekly averages. These findings are then posted in the form of bar charts in the maintenance facility to show the level of maintenance accomplished for the 12 maintenance areas each week.
Ratings are the most important part of the program because they provide a measurement of how we are doing, and specifically if there is a particular item within a task that is not meeting expectations. These ratings also allow us to create a visual representation of our progress through the bar charts. Our goal the first year was to have continual improvement throughout the summer.
With improvement being a focus, the individual weekly ratings are not as important as the overall goal of achieving an upward trend in ratings. There are weeks where one or several maintenance criteria are down from the prior week. Such hiccups in ratings are OK because, again, the overall goal is to keep improving and develop an upward trend in scores. We also rate our staff weekly, which admittedly can be difficult given the emotion and subjectivity involved.
With these tools in place, we brought the crew together to discuss VIP, how we planned to use it to increase our maintenance level, and to talk about goals. Because this is a visual improvement process, we set up glass-encased poster boards on the wall where everyone on the crew could monitor the level of our progress, as well as anyone who enters the maintenance facility.
Additionally, we added photos to the poster boards. Pictures were taken of work completed correctly as well as incorrectly to emphasize expectations. This created a simple, easy and effective way of communicating to the crew what needed correcting as well as tasks performed correctly. Also, simple phrases or graphics were added to clarify what the photo was showing. An effort to post new pictures weekly helped to keep the crew interested in our progress.
Results and Benefits
The program took a bit of training and adjustment on the part of the management team as well as the crew and members, but the results have been positive. Most important, the membership has noticed a difference in the level of maintenance we have been able to achieve. The program also has become an invaluable tool for the management staff for several of reasons.
- First, it is an effective yet simple way to communicate to our staff. The grounds staff understands expectations, and they can visually check if they have been able to maintain or exceed them.
- Second, it helps us understand the areas in which we need to focus more attention. If the grounds department struggles with a particular task, lower ratings will identify this so that it is clear what needs to be done differently to increase ratings.
- Third, it is a tool for the board of directors, Grounds Committee and membership to visually see how we measure and evaluate our own efforts. In this industry we are oftentimes guilty of being perfectionists, so it is not surprising when most of the membership feels you are doing better than you think you are doing.
- Finally, at Hinsdale Golf Club, a byproduct of the VIP has resulted in reduced staff turnover (average tenure for staff at Hinsdale Golf Club has risen to 12.4 years). This saves money, minimizes ‘rookie’ mistakes and reduces time in training and retraining.
The renovation at Hinsdale Golf Club was a large undertaking, but creating and implementing the VIP beforehand was truly a success. Once golfers returned to play the course, we all knew expectations would be very high. This program allowed us to increase our maintenance standards more efficiently, effectively and consistently without increasing the budget. It has been an important tool for management to sustain a high level of maintenance performance and identify where remedial efforts are needed. Furthermore, it helped develop a way in which to measure our maintenance standards and improved the quality of our work. The membership noticed.
Creating Your Own VIP
Interested in starting your own Visual Improvement Program? Briefly, a few items to consider include the following:
- Start small. Do not create all of these items and programs if there are areas of course maintenance in which those at your golf facility lack interest. Since matters of importance will be different at each golf facility, the VIP for each will not be the same. At Hinsdale Golf Club there are 12 areas of interest, but there could be more or less at your facility.
- Begin by simply utilizing pictures. If you do nothing else, take photos of positive results and those that need revisiting. Post pictures by the employee time clock for easy viewing. You might be surprised at the power of photos to communicate and reinforce high-quality results.
- At the very least, use this as a training tool for your staff. Standards and expectations clarify to your staff what is desired from them.
- Eventually, and through collaboration with course officials, a rating system can be developed and applied to written maintenance standards. (Note: To learn more about written maintenance standards view the article Setting Standards by Todd Lowe)
JOHN EKSTROM is the assistant superintendent at Hinsdale Golf Club. Through collaborative efforts among course officials and the grounds department, he has seen the Visual Improvement Program improve the quality of work and performance of the grounds department while also increasing membership satisfaction with course conditioning.