Efficiency begins at the top. It starts with company leadership setting an expectation and empowering employees to contribute their ideas and expertise. It’s about encouraging dynamic, back-and-forth conversations in the workplace.
Companies such as wholesale propagator JLPN Inc. in Salem, Oregon; wholesale grower Skagit Horticulture in Mount Vernon, Washington; Eshraghi Nurseries in Hillsboro, Oregon; wholesale bedding plant nursery Peoria Gardens in Albany, Oregon; and wholesale plant nursery Van Essen Nursery in Lebanon, Oregon and others have taken numerous steps to set the tone for efficiency and innovation from the top to the bottom of the organizational chart.
Checking in often
Skagit Horticulture holds a morning managers’ meeting, which provides a regular outlet for discussion across departments.
Similarly, Eshraghi Nurseries holds a 9 a.m. production meeting every day to go over what will be happening across all departments. It streamlines communication, keeps everyone accountable and sets a productive tone for the day.
“Mentally preparing our day saves us a lot of time in the long run,” said Chris Lee, a manager at Eshraghi.
Looking everywhere for ideas
Jerrin Victor, general manager at Skagit, also looks to people from all levels of the organization. He knows ideas to make things better can arise at any time.
“Idea gathering starts out as casual,” Victor said. “When going through the greenhouse, someone will ask me ‘Why do we do this?’ or I will say ‘Why are you doing it this way?’ These simple conversations are sometimes the most valuable.”
Victor often visits employees who are following an established process to achieve a certain task. He asks them, “Do you think we can do it better?” The answer is usually yes.
It comes down to realizing that people care about what they do, no matter what that is, Victor said. A part of providing a creative environment is putting the accountability of group success back on the team members. Give employees a sense of ownership over what they’re doing, and impart that they are trusted to know what is best for the business.
Putting creativity before capital
John Lewis, owner of JLPN Inc., operates under the precept of “creativity before capital.”
Although equipment upgrades can boost production, he encourages employees to get creative and suggest time-saving changes to routine that can be made for little or no cost. These are often right in front of one’s face, and employees are the ones best positioned to see them.
“[Our Lean events] taught us to draw more from the foreman, and crews as a major wealth of knowledge,” Lewis said. “We found that many crew members had amazing insight to what we were doing, but they never voiced them until we got them in a large group to voice their ideas, and give input.”
Being generous with credit
There are no scorecards at a managers’ meeting, or in a JLPN brainstorming meeting. “I give [my employees] credit that they know more about their job than I do,” Lewis said. “That system works very well, because it promotes and encourages organic thinking, and gives people a sense of ownership in their job.
A part of the sharing spirit involves making sure people are proud of their ideas. Even if their suggestion fails, it can be a springboard for the next ideas. The culture of a creative company is one that tests new ideas, talking about them thoroughly.
“Once you shut an idea down, you greatly reduce the number you will get in the future,” Victor said. “There are no tally marks for winning comments, but rather just a group of invested people saying ‘Hey, let’s stop and think about this for a minute.’”
Sharing the rewards
If seeking input from employees sounds like a radical step — something that might trigger an onslaught of employee complaints — well, Lewis takes things a step further. He shares the company’s savings from Lean events with his employees.
“I make sure to reward my crew for their efforts by calculating our savings on a Lean event with my Lean manager,” Lewis said. “I give that money back to them in the form of a Lean Bonus at the end of the year.”
It’s one more way he can reinforce Lean methodologies and practices. “Any money that JLPN saves through the crew’s creativity, goes back into their pockets at the end of the year, not mine,” Lewis said. “That inspires creativity, and keeps us continually looking and making improvements in our process and adding value to our product for our customers.”
At Skagit, Victor rewards employees for sharing their ideas on the spot. “I have a bunch of gift cards in my desk,” he said. “That brings a lot of good ideas forward.”
Skagit has also built bonus programs into certain projects they work on to recognize employees for their contributions. At the completion of a large project, the company holds a group lunch to celebrate successes and recognize particular employees.
Hiring carefully for need
Although employees can be a source of new ideas, management is responsible for sizing the workforce and matching it to needs. Eliminating positions midstream is a preventable mistake that adds stress and financial hardship to employees.
“The saddest thing is hiring 15 and then you realize in the middle that you are overstaffed,” Victor said. “Let’s spare people’s feelings, and get the process right from the beginning.”
Ben Verhoeven, president and general manager of Peoria Gardens in Albany, Oregon, said his nursery has seen “some difficulties” as a result of the labor shortage that plagues the industry, “but not yet to the degree that many other nurseries have.”
Hiring the right number of employees also helps cut down on overtime costs, he noted.
At Van Essen Nursery in Lebanon, Oregon, owner Dave Van Essen said he’d used a contractor to help ensure the nursery has the right number of employees for peak season. That has worked well, as has hiring locally and also identifying what Van Essen described as “hidden talent” that enables the employees to move up into higher-skill jobs.
One worker has worked her way up to lead the nursery’s perennial growing operation, while another has progressed up to the role of equipment operator.
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