The Lean Farm Follow-Up

A few posts ago, I mentioned I was reading (or was about to read) a book I’d come across, The Lean Farm, authored by Ben Hartman.  Well, I’m about two-thirds the way through and I’d recommend it even for (maybe, especially for) folks who are applying lean concepts and methods in other industries.  (Sometimes, examples and illustrations hit home better when they are just a bit outside our intellectual comfort range.)

The book is very nicely organized.  The author does a good job of breaking lean down into its most important elements.  Further, Hartman provides lots of illustrations and examples of his own application of lean tools and methods on his small farm.  Readers familiar with lean won’t learn much that’s new but will be interested in how an astute practitioner has been able to apply lean tools in an agricultural setting.  “Newbies” will get as good an introduction to lean ideas and methods as there is.

I always thought that a tough aspect of writing a book like this one is the presentation of lean building blocks and illustrations of the use of lean tools while still getting across that all those building blocks fit together in a whole system and “way to manage”.  Hartman does a decent job carrying out this task but, in his illustrations, I was reminded of why it can be so difficult to instill lean thinking in others.

One of the illustrations Hartman describes provides an example of one of the ways Hartman shortened cycle times (Tool Six in the book) on his farm.  Here’s the relevant passage:

One bottleneck on our farm used to be the filling of tanks for washing greens.  We use a stainless steel, four-bay sink. The faucets that fill the sink fill the bays in about ten minutes.  We fill the bays twice a week, so that’s twenty minutes of wasting time every week.  I replaced the faucets with high-pressure hoses that fill they bays in about two minutes.  This reduced waiting waste by sixteen minutes per week.

I’ve made these sorts of recommendations to clients and I’ve heard them made by employees to management only to get brushed off.  “So what if I’m saving sixteen minutes a week?  I’m not going to be reducing head count and I don’t use any less water.  In fact, you’re proposing to spend money on new fixtures for which their will be no financial return. ”

This gets at why managers who don’t see the overall strategy of lean won’t implement it successfully.  The replacing of faucets to save sixteen minutes isn’t that important in and of itself.  What’s important is the dozens of such ideas and improvements throughout the production cycle.  All these changes, that probably got implemented over a fairly long period of time, go together to shorten the time (in this case) between  harvesting product and depositing a check.  None of the improvements saved much, if any, money.  All the improvements taken together reduce the overall cost structure by reducing non-value added time.  But none of the improvements may provide a “cost savings” per traditional budgeting/cost accounting methods.  This gets at why I so often say, “If you’re implementing lean as a ‘cost cutting’ initiative, don’t even get started.  You’ll just FUBAR it up.”  You’ll toss aside the dozens of ideas that shorten the overall cycle time and make the work easier, looking for that ‘cost saving’ that will impress the folks in the C-suite.  Or, worse yet, you’ll implement some of the ideas, then let them fade into the sunset.  Either way, employees, lead techs and supervisors will get discouraged.  Within a year or so, you’ll be saying that “We tried that lean stuff but it didn’t work.”  Your employees will be saying,  “Like every other ‘improvement project’ they’ve tried, management gave it a lot of lip service at first, then ignored it.”

So, does Hartman do the reader a disservice by relating these small improvements?  Not at all.  He does a good job of continually pointing out that lean is a system, an overall approach to management.  It’s just that, once again, he has the problem that all lean practitioners have:  We need those examples and illustrations to better explain lean methods and tools but those same illustrations can make lean seem to be simply an assortment of methods and tools.

It bears repeating time and again: lean is a strategy.  It’s NOT, repeat NOT a set of tools designed merely to cut costs. Approach it that way and you WILL fail.