Do your production plans include Lean Flow? (they should)

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The end products are way different, granted, but when it comes to methods for maximizing efficiencies and eliminating waste, growers need to think like the Fords and John Deeres of the world.

December 5, 2014

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on Lean. Part 2 will address supply-chain management techniques.

As we’ve traveled the world implementing Lean Flow across different industries and product lines we seem to hear the following from the majority or our customers: “We’re different,” or “We’re unique.” To which I say, if I may paraphrase, ‘If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a manufacturing company.’

Those in the horticulture industry say they are unique because they are not building cars, computers, or widgets. A common refrain goes like this: “Lean is for manufacturing companies. We are not manufacturing products; we are growing plants.”

But when growers compare what they do to what manufacturing companies do, growers come to realize that in many ways, they are manufacturers. Quack! Every manufacturing company buys raw material, adds labor and overhead, and sells a finished product. Growers buy raw material (plant material, soil, hard goods, etc.), they add labor (sticking, fixing, pulling, watering, etc.), and add overhead (greenhouse expense, management salaries, utilities, etc.).

Then you, as the grower, sell your crops as finished product (though, granted, in various stages of growth). This reality may lead you to think of your greenhouse more like a factory. In fact, your operation in some ways, isn’t that much different from a Ford or John Deere plant.

From Model Ts to bedding plants

When we look at Lean in greenhouses, we look at setting up processes as assembly lines, or progressive work. Henry Ford took this assembly line (progressive technique) and successfully implemented it in his Model T factory. The focus of progressive work is not to teach you how to build the entire car, but to show you how to put on the wheels, the door, the hood, etc. This technique increases productivity, improves quality, and also reduces the time needed to train employees.

There are several areas in growing operations where this progressive work has yielded tremendous results. These include sticking and planting.

In sticking, the normal thought process is to have a person stick an entire tray. In Lean we take the tray and split it into equal chunks of work. Let’s say we are sticking a 72-cell tray. We take and split the tray into thirds, where three stickers stick 24 cells. You are probably saying to yourself, “Why are three people touching the tray? I thought in Lean we were going to reduce touches?”

It may seem counter-intuitive that three people touching a tray compared to one person will be more efficient. This technique is more efficient because each person on the team is dependent on one another. The first person on the line has to keep the second person busy, and the second person has to keep the third person busy. The three people on the line (some will be quicker than others) will produce stuck trays at the average speed of all three. The quality is improved because if a person on the line is sticking the cuttings wrong, the next person on the line will catch it. We refer to this technique as check, and double check. The person doing the work checks the work, and the next person double checks the work. Since they are only doing a third of the tray, the entire tray will not be bad.

In planting, we apply progressive work in the same fashion as we do in sticking. When you are planning a shuttle tray of six or eight pots, we break the work into shorter tasks. The first person on the line plants three or four pots, the second person plants the remaining three or four pots, and the last person puts the stick tag on. Depending on the work, sometimes the pots may require a UPC/barcode sticker. The work is balanced across the three stations ensuring that all stations have about the same amount of work. Similar to the sticking line, our goal here is to have a person do one-third of the work. In some cases it may be that two stations is a better breakdown of the work. If this is the case, then all of the work content is split into two stations. During an implementation, the number of people and stations required to do the work is calculated based on FlowVision’s mathematical equations.

What is Lean manufacturing?

Lean manufacturing is a production philosophy – a way of mapping the overall manufacturing process from raw material, to finished goods, all the way to the customer.

It is called “Lean” because these principles help a manufacturer to produce more with less: less time, less inventory, less capital, and fewer resources. Lean accomplishes this by highlighting what needs to be changed to streamline the overall production process.

The core philosophy is focusing on continuous flow of materials – from raw materials all the way to the customer, and eliminating anything that gets in the way of doing that. Anything that gets in the way of accomplishing that flow is defined as waste. Waste is anything that prevents value-added flow of material through the enterprise.

Source: Society of Manufacturing Engineers

Progressive work also carries over to the shipping and packing process. When the product is brought to the shipping dock, it sometimes needs to be cleaned, tagged, or labeled. This work is a perfect candidate for progressive work. We have set up processing tables (cleaning, tagging, labeling) and split up the work into two or three stations.

The first person cleans, the second person tags and labels, or if a third station is required, it puts on the label. To some people the passing of the plant seems to be adding touches.

Although it is true that it is more touches, and that one of the focuses of Lean Flow is to eliminate touches, in some cases adding an additional touch helps improve the quality and increase productivity.

Part of setting up a progressive assembly line is to try and achieve a one-piece flow. One of the hardest parts of getting a company Lean is to change the way they process their products. We now have a progressive assembly line; the next thing to change is the number of plants that we are working on at a time. In Lean Flow, the goal is to flow one product at a time. This one-piece flow concept is another key part of achieving better quality. When the first employee finishes their portion of the work they pass it on to the next station. They don’t wait to do the entire, rack, wagon, bench, etc. One-piece flow reduces the amount of time it takes to get the product through the process. One-piece flow also reduces the amount of floor space that is required to process the products. A progressive line that flows one product at a time will require a fraction of the floor space.

Progressive work creates many benefits for growers:

Improved quality. Work is checked and double checked as the product progresses through the line. “I can train an employee off the street to do quality work on any workstation in 30 minutes. This is one of the benefits from progressive work,” says Joel Turk, shipping manager for Flowerwood Nursery.

Increased productivity. Work is balanced between stations allowing for better flow, which in turn increases productivity. Typical productivity improvements range between 20 and 40 percent.

Less floor space. Eliminating the batch processing and flowing one product at a time reduces floor space. Increased output of 100 to 400 percent in the same floor space is common.

Seville Farms in Fort Worth, Texas, recently consulted with FlowVision to develop and implement and lean flow system, according to Seville President Billy Brentlinger. “We believe availability of labor to be one of the largest hurdles to success in the horticulture business moving forward.  Because of this we chose to pursue a lean flow model to our work processes.”

Today, having just completed the final implementation of lean at its Schulenburg facility, Brentlinger is pleased with the success of the system. And why not?

“We’re running a facility that has nearly doubled in size this year with a 25 percent lower head count.”

At SunBulb in Arcadia, Fla., CEO Rod Hollingsworth has a similar Lean success story. “The implementation of progressive work in our packing process allowed us to produce 25 percent more product in the same floor space. We were able to flow one plant at a time, reducing the batch sizes we were doing before, which optimized our floor space.

“Lean Flow helped us avoid spending money on the expansion project we were planning for our packing and shipping process.”


Gerson “Gary” Cortés is a partner with Dillon, Colo.-based FlowVision, LLC,