Trail grooming is more art than science. It is a craft that takes years to develop and tune in the never-ending pursuit of perfection. This characteristic of the profession can make it difficult to develop objective key performance indicators (KPIs). However, there are common metrics that all ski areas can easily track using an Excel spreadsheet to produce their own KPIs.
Implementing a KPI tracking system has several benefits, doesn’t take much work, and is practically free to do. If implemented well, a grooming KPI tracking system can:
- provide an objective, precise way to track production AND quality;
- improve department performance and identify top performers;
- show grooming machine performance;
- improve department morale, generate stoke, and instill pride;
- build an objective case for replacing machinery, raising wages, etc.
Here, we’ll go through the steps of creating and implementing a KPI tracking system. Let’s get started.
What You Need
You can acquire very good data using basic resources. A good crew and a supportive leader help, too (more on that later). The other ingredients needed are:
- a computer with Excel and basic Excel skills;
- the acreage of each “named thing” (trail or area) that is groomed;
- a way to measure fuel consumption;
- a way to track time.
Many resorts already have their acreage documented, broken down by trail and/or area—what I refer to as a “named thing.” These include ski trails as well as other areas that are groomed, such as work routes for snowmobiles and larger “beach” areas at the base, for example. You’ll need the acreage for all, so if it isn’t documented already, you can hire a company to measure it for you using LIDAR. You can also use Google Maps and create custom boundaries for all the different areas and calculate the acres that way. If the area is smaller, you could walk it and measure by hand.
Any area that is groomed needs to be named on your Excel sheet and have an acreage applied to it—it’s work that is getting done, so it should be measured.
Measuring fuel consumption and time are straightforward: You need a fuel counter at your fueling station, and a watch or clock in the cat.
First, it doesn’t require Excel wizardry to pull this off. It takes little time to learn the basics—and it’s well worth it.
Excel spreadsheets are used for two things: a nightly slope log, and your KPI sheet.
Nightly slope log. This is a simple sheet, printed out, that operators fill out each night (along with their typical snow cat inspection/maintenance log) as they go through their shift. The key here is to make it EASY for them to do so. If it’s not EASY, it won’t get done.
The nightly slope log has the following fields for operators to fill in:
Snowcat: typically, the cat’s number.
Hours: the number of hours the cat spent actually grooming snow that shift.
Fuel used: number of gallons put in at end of shift.
Project time: used for plowing projects, rebuilds, etc., not producing the finished groomed product. The operator enters the total time spent on each project. Later, the person entering the data into the KPI sheet can deduct that time from the grooming, thereby keeping the acre/hr accurate for each cat and each operator.
Acres groomed: for each named thing and total of all the completed areas for that shift.
Organize the spreadsheet with each named thing in the left column, its corresponding acreage in the next column over, and a blank field in the next column for the operator to populate with the acres he or she groomed. Bonus points for the manager who lays out the sheet so that it roughly mimics the layout of the trail map with trails listed in pods on the sheet. Imagine overlaying the spreadsheet on the trail map. This makes sense when you look at it, and most typical tracking is appropriately clumped together, just like the work itself.
KPI sheet. The data from the nightly slope log is inputted into the KPI spreadsheet. The sheet calculates all the data and produces the KPI results, accrued for each cat AND for each operator.
Some basic but helpful results that a KPI sheet could show are:
- acres per hour: average for a shift, week, month, year;
- acres per shift: average for a shift, week, month, year;
- gallons per hour: average for a shift, week, month, year;
- gallons per acre: average for a shift, week, month, year;
- quality: based on guest satisfaction surveys or other evaluations.
How It All Comes Together
After getting their assignment for the night, the cat operator grabs a blank slope log and starts by putting his or her name and the cat name in the appropriate fields. Then, the operator fills out the slope log as his or her shift progresses. If he or she grooms an entire five-acre named thing alone, for example, the operator inputs five acres in the blank field for that named thing. Operators do this for all of the named things that they complete through their shift. Easy.
If they have a partner, they simply divide the acres in half, and write that number in the blank field. If they’re gang grooming with eight cats, divide the acreage number by eight and input that number in the box.
Also, if they make meaningful travel passes to/from their assigned workload, that is grooming that’s done and should be documented. The math doesn’t need to be exact for this; a good estimate based on the number of passes and the size of the area will suffice.
Now, this is key: if conditions are tough and the operator needs to double pass a five-acre run to get the quality right, it’s still five acres groomed—not 10—so that’s what is inputted to the slope log.
At the end of the shift, the operator totals up all the acres recorded, and writes that number in the “Total Acres” field. After fueling the cat, the operator writes the number of gallons in the “Gallons” field. Check the clock for hours worked that shift, and plug that number into the “Hours” field. Time spent pushing or doing projects is recorded in the “Project” box. (Note: Project time is deducted from total hours grooming to keep an accurate measure of acres per hour). The operator then turns in the completed slope log along with the maintenance log to the appropriate person at the end of the shift. Done.
The entire process of completing the sheet shouldn’t take more than a minute or two. Initially, some operators may not like it or view it as more work, but it doesn’t take long for them to realize how easy it is to do, and how important it is to get that information. The data are far more valuable than the minute or two consumed documenting it.
The next morning, the appropriate person—grooming manager, operations admin, etc.—grabs the stack of nightly slope logs and enters the data into the KPI sheet. For a fleet running 10 cats per shift, for example, this part of the process takes about 10 to 15 minutes.
How to Use It
The manager can use the results how he or she chooses. One option is to print the KPI sheet daily and post it for the crew to review at the start of their next shift. Initially, this may be a turn-off for some, but consider this: People talk about and scrutinize sports statistics all the time, right? Here, we’re providing “sports stats” for a team of snowcat operators to scrutinize, debate, think about, and even brag about.
Getting operator buy-in is really important. If they hate it, dragging the crew into it will be a terrible experience and may not work all that well. Like all management tasks, getting operator enthusiasm for the posted results can be handled different ways:
1. Generate “stoke” by relating it to sports stats.
2. Play on people’s curiosity. How much time is consumed on “projects?” Or moving food/garbage? How does cat A perform compared to cat B? We think we know, but do we? How does swing do compared to grave? Are both crews pulling their weight equally? Now we have an easy tool that clearly breaks all of that out for us.
3. Explain how the data has value to the grooming department.
4. Explain how this data could build a case for newer, more efficient machinery. You can track the same data on any demos, too, to help make this case.
5. Point out that the data can be used to see trends over time. A self-audit, of sorts.
6. It’s not necessary to require operators to look at the data. Spoiler alert: they’ll look, eventually.
7. Do NOT weaponize the data for poorer performers. This will kill the buy-in quickly. Use it as a diagnostic tool, to then ask and coach. Make data a positive thing for everyone.
Quality vs. Quantity
It’s important to place a value on the quality of the daily grooming and to include it on the KPI sheet. There are a variety of ways you can do this.
1. Guest surveys. If your resort conducts guest experience surveys, grooming quality should be one of the survey questions, and the daily results should be plugged into the KPI sheet.
2. Employee assessments. No surveys? Perhaps get patrol or ski school to provide a daily assessment of the grooming quality using a quantifiable system, such as a 1 to 10 scale with 1 being the worst and 10 being the best.
3. Self assessments. Another option is to have the cat operators themselves go out and ski and grade themselves. Operators are oftentimes their own biggest critics and seek perfection nightly. Could you create a “grading form,” pay them to ski and rate the groomed product?
A combination of the above may help you get input from differing levels of “groomed surface” expertise, and that, too, can be valuable.
Whatever the source of your quality control data, it’s needed to balance the production aspect and to show the staff that quality matters. The scores allow operators to make their own decisions as to how to balance production vs. quality. The daily scores are just one more tool for them to consider.
Checking for Accuracy
Hopefully, managers can trust that the crew won’t BS their nightly slope logs to make themselves look better. Fortunately, there are two easy ways to check. First, after doing this for a while—less than half a season—the data starts to develop norms and patterns, so it’s very easy to see a slope log that has been embellished. If that happens, ask the operator about it, and have a good discussion.
Second, and perhaps better, you can audit the night’s results by comparing them to the grooming plan acreage. I always expect the results to vary from the plan by 5-15 acres. A plan with 350 acres/night yields about 4 percent error. Again, if you see some meaningful variation, ask about it at the next pre-shift meeting. No need to bring the hammer down. After all, this information is as valuable for the operators as it is for management.
There are a handful of comprehensive, technologically advanced snow-depth and fleet management systems on the market today. ICON Alpine Solution from Leica Geosystems, SNOWsat from PistenBully, SNOW HOW from PRINOTH, Arena from RDO, SnowGage from Juniper Systems, and Snowright are the major players.
All of these systems are designed to make grooming operations more efficient by using technology to gather data and provide operators with real-time feedback. No question, these systems are highly useful. They might be out of reach for some ski areas, though. This DIY KPI tracking system can’t really compare to any of them, but it is an affordable and effective alternative for ski areas that don’t have the budget to invest in such tech.
Benefits of the DIY Approach
1. Cost. After determining the acres of each named thing at your resort, the cost is virtually nothing—some paper and maybe 30 minutes of wages per day.
2. The staff is involved in producing the data. This is huge. The crew is free to get the job done however they please—and they’re accountable for the results. No “big brother.”
3. It tracks actual acres produced for your guests, on a per cat basis. You’re only recording the acres groomed, even if a named thing needs to be groomed twice. With this system, we know the acres of a named thing and we know the time.
Drawbacks of the DIY Approach
1. No snow depth info. Other than jumping out of the cat and probing, of course, which many operators aren’t fans of doing. But that isn’t nearly as accurate or comprehensive as the tech systems.
2. No real-time data. No engine stats, cat locations, movement, etc.
3. Getting operators to do the paperwork. This takes some diligence and persistence in the beginning. It’s a culture change, it does take some work to get momentum at first, but it is SO worth it. In the end, I think many operators like to be involved in the process.
Hopefully this helps improve your grooming operations. As a bonus, if you can implement it and create stoke with your crew, you can boost morale and pride all at the same time. That’s a recipe for a high performing grooming department.
Vehicle Maintenance Bonus
Tie in these performance stats with vehicle maintenance data. With this system in place, you can measure real snowcat costs. You know a cat’s purchase cost, have a good idea of trade-in value—there is your depreciation cost. Now, throw in maintenance costs, fuel, wages, and acres produced. You can now calculate cradle-to-grave cat costs on a per-acre basis.
Our guests pay for acres groomed, not hours groomed. Which cats provide the most acres for the least dollars? Now we can find out and not spend a lot doing it.