Why an Unmowed Capitol Lawn Could Be a Sign of Good Management

Sometimes the most efficient thing to do is to not do something.
by | June 23, 2016
A groundskeeper outside the Washington state Capitol. (Washington state Department of Enterprise Services)

When groundskeepers on Washington state's capitol campus were asked how they would improve efficiency, they came up with an unorthodox idea: Stop cutting the grass.

The grounds crew explained that by spending less time mowing, they would have more time for other things, like making the rest of the state government campus more sustainable. Letting the grass grow also helps carry out Gov. Jay Inslee’s goals for improving the state’s environmental practices. Cutting back on mowing and other maintenance could reduce the amount of water used as well as the amount of fertilizer, pesticides and fossil fuels required for the upkeep.

So starting this spring, workers got the go-ahead to test the idea at a few out-of-the-way places around Olympia’s state government complex. In some fields, the grass is now knee-high. In others, the crews replaced grass with a special mix of durable wildflowers.

Signs with QR codes explain why the patches are unkempt, and people who scan the code can let the state Department of Enterprise Services know what they think of the changes. The responses show a clear love-it-or-hate-it divide, with two-thirds reacting positively.

The operational benefits are clear: Crews are using just one-tenth of the fertilizer and pesticides for the unmowed areas as they would normally; they don't have to irrigate the unmowed patches; and they expect to free up 115 hours this year that were previously spent mowing.

That’s crucial as Washington, facing tight budgets like other states, reduced the number of groundskeepers in the last decade from 21 to 16.

The experiment is an outgrowth of Lean, a management process championed by the governor and based on a system for manufacturing improvements developed by Toyota. It has gained popularity in both business and government because it’s a collaborative, incremental way to improve quality and increase efficiency. The Lean approach is a departure from the traditional approach of leaving decisions to top staff.

“The employees are the ones we depend on to really put forward the ideas,” said Chris Liu, Washington’s director of enterprise services. “Instead of having just 10 percent of the people participating, we wanted to have 100 percent of the people participating. This project is one of the outcomes of having everyone participate.”

In fact, the decision to let the lawn grow is only one of many new practices suggested by employees since Lean practices were adopted three years ago. Groundskeepers at government properties around Olympia are now mulching trees and scouring for cardboard in dumpsters to produce weed- and erosion-preventing coverings for its gardens. They replaced roses with hundreds of dahlias in one place because dahlias are less susceptible to bug infestations and less attractive to deer.

Grounds crews have also introduced mason bees to help pollinate the capitol campus’ flowers. Mason bees sting less than honey bees and work better in cool or wet weather. The agency recently also helped the governor install two beehives to house 30,000 honeybees on the grounds of the executive mansion, which are believed to be the first in the country placed at a governor’s residence.

“These trials are not happening in isolation,” said Brent Chapman, the horticulturalist for the capitol campus, whose position was created just two years ago.

Indeed, the improvements have opened the door to lots of collaborations with nearby organizations. A Kiwanis group, for instance, started a garden on the capitol campus to grow vegetables for a food bank. The volunteers farm 26,000 square feet and generate 11,000 pounds of produce a year. Meanwhile, local beekeepers are working with the state to maintain the hives at governor's mansion

Even the governor has taken an active interest in the new projects. Inslee sent a letter of thanks to the grounds crews for their innovations and met with some of the workers to talk about future plans.

“I’ve worked for a lot of governors,” said Liu. “This is the first time I’ve ever had a governor meet with the groundspeople, get their ideas and laud them for coming up with new innovations.”