The Power of Process

Nursery Management magazine, June 2016.

The sun is not yet up, and a small group of professionals from nurseries and greenhouses in Oregon’s Willamette Valley have gathered before the work crew arrives, for an activity that will change the way a nursery does a business process…for the better.

A new consortium has been launched in which nurseries and greenhouse operations work together to deploy Lean in their businesses.

Leaders with the Oregon Nursery Lean Consortium have committed to learning and applying the principles of Lean together for one year. Top practitioners from each company meet for one-day sessions at a hosting nursery. Each involves brief training, followed by immediate application and improvement to an area of the business.

Why Lean?

Lean is a proven method for eliminating waste in processes that results in more value to customers, delivered at a lower cost, in a shorter time, with fewer defects and less human effort. The principles of Lean come from the Toyota Production System and were developed over decades as the company worked its way out of the devastation resulting from the Second World War.

Lean practitioners seek the “least waste way” to perform tasks and processes. It is a never-ending quest. The improvements made today become the baseline for future improvements. As people learn to see and eliminate as much waste as possible from processes, they discover still better ways of performing the work, and the cycle repeats.

The target of Lean is waste. Waste is defined as activities that do not add value to the product or service delivered to the customer. There are seven wastes identified in the Toyota Production System:

  1. Transportation of raw materials, products, or information
  2. Inventory or build-up of materials, products, or information
  3. Motion of people
  4. Waiting for people, product, raw materials, or information
  5. Overproducing – making more than the customer requires
  6. Overprocessing – doing more to the product than the customer requires
  7. Defects,rework or scrap

“By looking at the seven wastes—and working to remove them—we are definitely more productive and we give more value to our customer today than ever before,” says Mark Montville, nursery manager at PRT Oregon. “By looking at value and waste from this perspective I see new opportunities to improve this business every day.”

The focus is on the process, not the people doing the work. Respect for people is foundational to the Toyota Production System, and staff are highly valued by the company and never considered waste. This process focus squarely places the responsibility for waste on leaders of the organization, who are expected to approach improvement with humility and respect for workers.

Results from applying Lean

Initial results of Lean application are often dramatic. It is common to see productivity improvements in triple-digit percent gains the first time Lean is effectively deployed in an area. Setup and changeover times are typically reduced by 50 percent or more.

The first consortium session this year was held at Smith Gardens in Aurora, Ore. Two teams focused on a planting process, targeting the time it takes to change from one product type to the next, and the time and steps starting up the line at the beginning of each day. Company leaders determined to cut these times in half. The teams exceeded these expectations within the day, reducing changeover time by 67 percent and startup time by 56 percent. The company will benefit from staff-time savings equivalent to $16,000 within six months.

Robinson Nursery, a wholesale grower in McMinnville, Ore., is a consortium participant that has benefitted from Lean principles. In Robinson’s most recent event, which focused on its #3 Grow Ready Liner planting, the company increased units per worker hour by 49 percent.

“These results are not uncommon,” says nursery manager Chris Robinson. “We’re convinced that Lean not only helps with productivity, but also improves how we do business overall. In one event we had a 37 percent improvement in processing and grading of our bareroot nursery stock. At the same event, a team reduced bareroot tree harvesting time by 87 percent. We have also seen a 40 percent productivity improvement on netting and processing of our Grow Ready Liner material.”

On April 1, the consortium focused on hanging baskets at Smith Gardens. Three teams sought the “least waste way” to select hanging baskets from different greenhouse environments. By day’s end, all three teams exceeded event goals in nearly all metrics tracked including: Productivity(units per labor hour) increased by 104 to 261 percent; crew sizes were reduced between 25 percent and 50 percent; crew members walked 35 to
90 percent less distance; and cost per unit dropped 50 to 79 percent.

Such gains don’t happen by accident. Many factors go into a successful improvement activity. It can take several days to capture and document important data and insights, and the company must follow through on changes made by the team.

Teams must understand “value.” This is viewed from the customer’s perspective and is created only when three criteria are met:

  1. The customer is willing to pay for the product or service, and
  2. The work transforms the product or service, and
  3. The work is done right the first time.

Any one or more of these criteria missing introduces waste, or “non-value added” activity.

In the hanging basket example mentioned earlier, crews had been handling product eight times before plants were loaded on their final shipping racks, creating significant overprocessing and motion waste. From the customer’s perspective, the only value-added steps were attaching a tag and fertilizing the product. None of the sorting, batching, transporting, handling and re-handling added value.

Lean applied with a bias for action

Preparation for Oregon Nursery Lean Consortium events begins several weeks prior. Companies identify a specific process at their site for improvement. A one-page scope sheet is prepared, briefly describing the current situation and problems to be addressed during the event. Video gives participants coming from other sites an idea of the process and its associated waste.

Improvement objectives are set and team members with a “bias for action” are selected for the event. Each team includes experienced workers who normally do the job; this shows respect for those doing the work and promotes buy-in from the crew.

Once a target of opportunity is identified, pre-work begins. A number of tools such as stopwatches, spaghetti diagrams, time observation forms and sticky notes help pre-work teams document critical information. This is referred to as “documenting reality” because the goal is to record only what is happening in the process, not what is supposed to happen. When information is captured and recorded prior to an improvement activity, it is often called “documenting the current state.”

“Pre-work is key to a successful improvement event,” says Andres Alamillo, inventory manager and Lean team captain at Smith Gardens. “In order to visually understand the gains achieved from the Lean activity, one must understand what the process looked like before.” Alamillo stressed three factors that must be in place to effectively gather current state data.

“Meet as a team beforehand to understand what will be measured based on the type of waste in the process. Team members must be trained on how to perform time observations and to create spaghetti diagrams. Before measuring, let the people you will be observing know what you are doing and thank them for their time.”

Consortium participants are Lean practitioners with both experience and a bias for action. There are no bystanders; everyone participates.

Event Day

The day of the event, the team arrives early and refresher training is provided if needed. The scope and objectives typically have gone through several revisions by this time to narrow the scope of activity. After final briefing and team assignments, the teams go to war—a war on waste.

After seeing first-hand how the process currently is done, team members gather to brainstorm ideas for removing waste. Teams narrow the list of ideas from their respective brainstorming session and then go out and test them within the process.

Consortium members often become the work crew to test ideas with minimal disruption to those doing the actual work. This is especially helpful for events scheduled during busy seasons, when waste is most visible, offering the best opportunities for improvement.

When a process change occurs during this trial time, metrics are tracked and documented based on event objectives. These data are compared to
current state metrics. Positive results become the basis for creating a new “least waste way” of doing business.

Sustaining the Gains

After the event, the hosting company is expected to complete a to-do list the consortium put together and report on progress within 30 days. Visual controls, documentation, training and support from leaders sustain this positive change. Organizations who short-circuit this step find improvements are lost over time due to a tendency to drift backwards to a prior, more wasteful state.

The challenge of Lean is sustaining the gains over the long term. Some resist change because it’s uncomfortable—it’s human nature. The consortium spends a lot of time working to help leaders drive a culture of continuous improvement, which is key to making it work. It takes strong leadership with vision and tenacity to make significant, ongoing improvements in an organization.

Consortium Benefits

With so much talent to draw from at one time, each team on a consortium event has Lean veterans working alongside less experienced personnel. The learning curve drops dramatically and a great deal can be accomplished in a short time.

“Every individual in the consortium brings a new set of strengths that help propel the team forward,” says Alamillo. “It is very helpful to have trained people who are able to see waste quickly and have bias for action to eliminate it.”

Working with a consortium is also beneficial for peer support and accountability, as leaders work to develop an improvement culture in their businesses.

“The best part of the consortium is the ability to create trusted partnerships in the profession,” says Joe Wolf, project manager at Woodburn Nursery & Azaleas of Woodburn, Ore. “Everyone on the team is committed to an open-door policy, freely discussing process dynamics, and even financial, labor, and market constraints to that particular process. This allows us to all grow in depth as lead growers, producers, and leaders
while maintaining accountability to the observations and recommendations made by the consortium.”

Businesses often start the Lean journey on their own. They may read books, invest in training and have a consultant come in to run Lean events. Members of the Oregon Nursery Lean Consortium have found that a trusted group of peer companies, working together on Lean, not only brings results, but delivers a strong, positive message of long-term commitment to employee development and continuous improvement.

The Payoff

At the end of the event, teams assemble for the final report out. The site manager, often an event participant or sponsor, invites as many staff as possible to attend. Participants are tired but exhilarated after hearing the reports from each of the teams. Collectively, their efforts have saved the site many thousands of dollars, improved worker conditions and safety, reduced lead times and defects, and increased productivity while reducing crew size for a process. Not a bad day.

“I am continually impressed with the quality of people in this group and their ability to get results,” says Robinson. “Every time I do one of these events I think there is no possible way we’ll meet our goals – and sure enough, we exceed them.”