Sam and Jean Kawahara opened their nursery in San Lorenzo, Calif. during the 1940s, specializing in jumbo pack varieties. In the 1980s, sons David and John Kawahara expanded the business to a second site in Morgan Hill, Calif., broadening the company's offerings to include premium annuals, perennials and organics.
Now, spurred on by third-generation grower Josh Kawahara and his team, Kawahara Nurseries has grown into a leading wholesale supplier of high-quality nursery plants for the California region. They supply big box stores, so their workflow is geared toward volume and speed as well as quality. Hard work has evolved into smart work, where effort needs to go hand in hand with efficiency to ensure continued success. To stay competitive, Kawahara wanted to streamline every aspect of the operation, so they hired consultants.
Consultants can be helpful to many companies, providing an outsider’s perspective on workflow. Often there are no profound problems, just different points at which efficiency can be improved. In Kawahara's case, it was several bottleneck points where workflow could be streamlined.
The consultants suggested Kawahara correct these issues with “lean flow” principles. Popularized through use in Toyota's automotive factories, lean flow calls for every action in production to be reduced to the minimum required, leading to increased productivity and elimination of non-essential activities. But like any theory, lean flow only works with the right logic to drive it in practice. How does a busy nursery incorporate lean flow into their process? Josh Kawahara recognized the answer: technology.
Kawahara had been running SBI Software’s business management system since 2011, but it wasn't until 2014 that the two companies partnered with the specific goal of turning lean flow from concept to reality. Together they isolated three challenges: streamlining and simplifying multi-site order fulfillment, racking, and labeling steps.
Shopping with a purpose
Kawahara’s 140 acres are spread across two growing sites so product needs to be moved from one site to the other for staging and shipping. SBI’s cross docking made pulling the necessary product and combining it more efficient. Each week the Kawahara team builds retail availability using the mobile inventory apps. After total availability is created, product is allocated into availability buckets designated for a specific mass merchant or for a specific customer type like independent garden centers. Orders are generated against this available inventory. Order fulfillment goes faster because availability is immediate and accurate, which lowers fulfillment costs.
To fill their high order volume quickly, Kawahara runs a sort of “supermarket” which consists of aisles of racked product. “In grower's terms, a supermarket is a staging area full of plants for that day's orders,” says Tim Morita, partner at SBI Software. “Kawahara treats all those orders — an entire day of shipping — as one huge pull order, bringing all the plants to the supermarket area for racking, tagging and shipping.” Staff then walk through and “shop” for what's on each order, filling shipping racks according to each order's specifications. “Shipping racks are routed through the supermarket in reverse order so Kawahara can build and route them to customers in a single step,” says Aaron Allison of SBI.
Racking up efficiencies
To maximize shipping efficiency, it's vital that racks and the trucks carrying them utilize every possible inch of space. SBI Software’s racking logic is driven by multiple product criteria including height, rack type and grouping rules (such as organic or succulent). The software dictates the rack contents so the Kawahara team doesn't need to think about racking — they just place the product as the rack label shows, removing the guesswork.
Labeled for success
Label printing was another bottleneck, increasing both fulfillment times and cost associated. SBI wrote label printing software for Kawahara that reduced the process to one simple step: scan the rack label. The software keeps inventory and racking in constant sync; the software knows which product is on the racks because those racks were built based on product availability. “One scan of the rack label activates multiple printers, reducing what used to be a slow, time-consuming step to one scan,” says Allison.
Increased efficiencies in cross-docking, racking and labelling product have helped Kawahara ship 20 percent more inventory with the same size team as the year before. By using technology to drive process, Kawahara and SBI Software transformed lean flow from philosophy to reality.