Small margins and lengthy production timelines at nurseries mean that small changes can add up to a huge difference, while better protecting workers.
About a decade ago, while working on improving the efficiency of its operation, managers of liner grower JLPN Inc. in Salem (JLPN) realized the company was spending “a massive amount of time grading containers,” according to owner John Lewis.
The company moved its grading from tables in a greenhouse onto conveyor belts, which provided significant improvement, “But the process was still an orchestrated mess.” he said.
Lewis then brought in Rick and Elizabeth Peters of the Peters Company, a Wilsonville, Oregon-based consulting firm that specializes in Lean. Collaboratively, they began employing Lean methodology, also known as the Toyota Production System.
Employing Lean helped JLPN identify the seven most common wastes in production: transportation, inventory, motion, waiting, overprocessing, overproduction and defects. And through Kaizen Events, or waste-elimination events, which JLPN employed multiple times for processes involved in growing, grading and processing its container crop, it was able to dramatically improve efficiencies.
“It would seem ridiculous to go back and do a Kaizen on the same process so many times, but we knew it was still one of the highest labor processes in the nursery,” he said.
Prior to employing Lean, to grow, grade and process its container crop, JLPN required around 15 touches a season. That included lifting a 30-pound flat 10 times a year, which added up to roughly 26 million pounds of lifting. By itself, a decision to automate the planting portion of its operation dramatically reduced efficiencies, eliminating more than 13- million pounds of lifting.
Other improvements followed. Eventually, the nursery was able to increase its production from 20,000 plants a day with a 12-person crew to 50,000 plants a day with a 12-person crew. “Those are massive efficiency gains,” Lewis said.
According to Rick and Elizabeth, Lewis’ experiences with Lean are not unusual. “The whole idea is to minimize the seven wastes,” Elizabeth Peters said.
Scott Cowan, West Coast container manager for Bailey Nurseries, who has incorporated Lean in his department for the past four years, said applying Lean involves constantly looking for improvements in efficiencies. “The mentality that we strive for is continuous improvement,” Cowan said.
“I continually ask my crew leads and other folks who work in the nursery for ideas and suggestions,” he said.
When he began incorporating Lean into his department, Cowan started by looking at the bigger jobs. “The bigger the job, the better the chance you have waste in it, just because of how many hours you have in that task,” he said.
Cowan first looks at jobs that have historically been sources of injuries. “What I’m seeing is the more you can eliminate the physically demanding jobs, the ones where you have had injuries, the more buy in you get out of your crews.” he said. “The heavy-lifting processes are usually the most arduous on your people, which can result in injuries. Mechanization or simple process changes sometimes can accomplish that.”
Asked to identify the most common problem in an outdoor operation, the Peters pointed to the time and energy spent searching for items, whether that be a plant, a tool or something else.
“One of the biggest mistakes growers make in field operations is assuming their people know where things are,” Rick Peters said. “Crew members need information and clear, visual controls to find what they need with the fewest steps possible.”
Locating plants becomes particularly difficult given the length of a growing cycle in a nursery operation, according to Rick Peters.
“When you are talking nurseries, we aren’t talking a few weeks or months. You could easily be into years to complete a product,” he said. “So, keeping track of those products throughout its life cycle becomes problematic.”
Also, when misplacing a plant, the repercussions can be significant.
“Unlike a bolt or something that you might find in a parts warehouse, if you misplace a living thing, you can be lucky if it survives while you are trying to find it,” he said.
“One of the first things we do is we have leaders think about visual controls, such as locater signs in growing areas, to help people find what they need,” Elizabeth Peters said. “Having things visually organized is a big part of a successful outdoor growing arrangement.”
In addition to signage, arranging inventory into smaller blocks also can cut down on wasteful searching. “Organizing your product in smaller blocks so they are more manageable is another thing people can do to reduce time and steps,” Elizabeth Peters.
Another key to eliminating waste in outdoor production is processing products as close as possible to their growing space. “If you are hauling product to some remote machine, that is all waste,” Rick Peters said. “It is all overprocessing, extra handling, a lot of transportation, which is particularly wasteful right now given the price of fuel. Whenever possible, being able to process it right where it is, is ideal. And it typically requires fewer people to do that.”
One mistake that nurseries make that inhibits their ability to process products where they are growing is buying large equipment, according to Elizabeth Peters said. “We see that a lot, where a general manager will buy a big piece of equipment for a warehouse, and then people end up having to bring plant material to the warehouse to process it and then take it back out to the field,” she said. “That is really costly.”
“The bigger-the-better approach is definitely not always the case,” Rick Peters said.
The Peters also pointed out that it is important for outdoor nursery operations to prepare for unusual weather events, such as last summer’s heat dome that drove temperatures up to 117 F in some areas of the Willamette Valley. “It is important to standardize the process of mitigating those issues,” Elizabeth Peters said. “Some just kind of say, ‘Okay, it is all hands-on-deck’ without talking through the process with the team. The countermeasure would be to standardize those processes ahead of time.”
Matt Gold of Everde Growers in Forest Grove, Oregon, who took a course in Lean from the University of Kentucky taught by ex-Toyota executives, no less — believes that it is important to start slow when bringing Lean into an operation.
“We do some work with Lean at different company sites, but we haven’t done a lot yet,” he said. “We want to make sure we have a good program in place that we can effectively deploy it and not have a false start.
“That is a big problem a lot of companies have. They put a little effort into Lean and it doesn’t work out or they hit some stumbling blocks and they kind of chalk it up to ‘Lean didn’t work for us.’ We want to avoid that pitfall.” he said.
At this point, the nursery is evaluating its different processes and identifying areas of improvement, as well as conducting some Lean leadership training with employees, including its executive team. “Any project that we have, we are identifying where we are at today and what our target should be,” Gold said. “And then we will come up with a plan to get to our target.”
The company also is using that strategy to determine whether to invest in new machinery, he said. “Take, for example, a canning system,” Gold said. “We ask ourselves what is a canning system doing for us today and what can a new and improved system do that is better: what kind of results can it provide?
“So, we quantify that and based on the number of units that go through that machinery in a 12-month period, we can put that difference in a dollar amount,” he said.
“Then, when you start working with that machine, you don’t always hit your target, so you have to work through some action items to overcome obstacles. You understand where you are today and where you want to be and identify obstacles that are impeding your progress toward that goal, and then you take a disciplined approach to remove those obstacles through a systematic cycle,” Gold said.
For many who utilize Lean on a daily basis, it has become an invaluable resource, particularly in the current market, with labor at short supply and demand up.
“We would not be a growing business if we hadn’t got serious about Lean.”