In an industry all about growth of product, growth of people is important too

I recently had the opportunity to conduct a value stream mapping exercise with a wholesale nursery to help identify constraints in their processes. They have millions of items to deliver in a year – an incredible operation. So, we are dealing with a perishable product with a finite time frame for delivery. Significant challenges exist in this situation because of the seasonal nature of the operation, both in product and staff. 

The challenge

Value stream mapping empowers businesses to identify challenges within their processes and then brainstorm ways to overcome these challenges.

This particular challenge was to address the large quantity of inventory stuck at the transplant stage resulting in it being manually transplanted, or discarded. Scrap rate in this industry can hover around 30% and the window for transplanting by machine is narrow, as the plant can get too big for the machinery very quickly. Ironically hand transplanting becomes a more flexible and viable option, despite the cost. Transplanting, therefore, becomes a constraint, thereby exacerbating the situation.

That’s the amazing thing about value stream mapping- it tells us very clearly where the problems are. I was able to map that out for them, help them understand this and then ask them some very important questions around what they did. At this stage, they knew where the problem was occurring but they didn’t know why. This leads to the next stage of the value stream mapping exercise.

The cause  

Value stream mapping was able to identify the constraints that existed due to the seasonal nature of the business, and unique conditions in this industry. In addition, value stream mapping was also able to clearly identify constraints existed within the movements of their people around the nursery.

So, within this nurturing context, I thought I might further elaborate on Lean manufacturing from a growth point of view. It turns out growing plants is like growing people. Of course, nurturing people is a longer-term more emotionally involved process. This is one of the absolute strengths of this particular business- they take seriously the development and consistency of the growth of the knowledge and skill of their people within their roles at the nursery. This is particularly challenging given the seasonal nature of their workforce, but a challenge that is met, nonetheless.

At first glance, it would be reasonable to assume that the production of a fragile living product, the successful nurturing and growth of the seedlings themselves would be the biggest focus and challenge. Value stream mapping was able to identify that in actual fact, the greatest challenge and need was for the continued nurturing and growth of their people.

With people, you teach them and they develop and get better in their role. But at some point they’re going to want to change things up, they are not always going to want to do the same thing. In a process driven environment, it can be very healthy for people to try out other roles, within the scope of their training and abilities. For example, it can be helpful to rotate roles, particularly in a manufacturing environment, so that everyone gets a healthy level of exposure to a variety of processes and settings. A bit like the seedlings themselves, at some point they are going to want to get out of their pots in the greenhouse, get into the ground to grow and develop to their full potential.  The other thing that is very important when it comes to developing and growing people is that a more sustainable business model will be fostered if people get to try new things, even if it is not their core competency. This nurtures a more sustainable work environment for the employee.

Lean consulting promotes growth

The solution

One of the most important things to an effective process is that most processes involve people, and people also have the potential to be the weak points in the process. So, if you have a strong people-focused culture that values consistency in process and having people well trained and getting them up to speed, even giving them personal coaching, you are much more likely to have a successful, sustainable business. Because they are trained well, because you can rely on people to be doing what they should be doing, you have the opportunity as a business to conduct continuous improvement every day while following your processes.

This particular operation already has someone in place who can lead people development and continuous improvement for the business. The big advantage they have is that with that kind of focus on people development they can, in spite of dealing with a high turnover of seasonal workers, get their workforce up to speed at a rapid rate through the maintenance of a strong people focused culture. They take that very seriously and I think that is their competitive advantage.

In effect, when it comes to growing a seedling and an effective team member in a nursery – links can be made between their same milestones of growth and development. This is in the respect that milestones of growth which are reached over many months or years for the plants are equally relevant, and sought after, to the people in the workplace. People also need to reach milestones, experience growth and develop. If you stagnate someone in their role in the workplace they are going to wither and die as a vital member of your workforce.

When people are empowered to grow and develop, learn new things and are challenged, they become more satisfied in their job. A key motivator to come to work every day is job satisfaction. Good job satisfaction goes a long way. We want to build motivation, interest, and a sense of ownership of the vital parts our people play within an operation.

I recognise that sustainable operations in a nursery environment are in many aspects like sustainable operations in any business. Your people are your biggest asset. You’ve got to develop them, you’ve got to challenge them, make them feel valued, and give them a change of scenery on a regular basis to promote and sustain maximum growth and satisfaction for the individual. If you have those things in place, they will move mountains for the business. They’ll be super engaged and display way more potential and growth than you might have otherwise expected or seen, because they feel like they are contributing, having input, helping the team, working towards a common goal, achieving more. They are making a difference.

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