Lean in Farming? Part 1 of Jim's visit to a Lean farm
This is Ben and Rachels farm in Indiana
Lean in agriculture might still be in its infancy but there is a small farm in Indiana that is already proving how valuable Lean principles and techniques can be to this industry.
This article first appeared in the 2016, June 28th issue of Planet Lean - a monthly commentary on advanced applications of Lean Thinking, edited by Roberto Priolo.
If we have the interest, there is so much to learn by looking at, and questioning, how other sectors, colleagues, or competitors apply some of our tools – in this case – Lean. Taking the time to examine and understand their interpretations could provide big value. If innovation is becoming a more critical competitiveness factor in your world keep in mind that the more perspectives you have to consider, the more likely a new and more innovative opportunity may visit you.
It does not matter if your focus is in manufacturing. There are things one can learn from other sectors like agriculture or healthcare. In this issue, let’s take a look at what Jim Womack (the pioneer of the Gemba Walkand leader of the MIT investigation that brought us Lean in 1990)learns when he visits a farm.
Of Hunters & Gatherers – And Lean
Taiichi Ohno, the architect of the Toyota Production System, had a problem with farmers. In his essay "Agricultural People Have a Penchant for Storage" in his book Workplace Management, Ohno noted that farmers invented inventories. The hunter gatherers who roamed the earth before farming practiced pull production: When they were hungry they pulled some animal out of the woods or swamp and ate it, with some berries pulled from a bush or tree for dessert. Farmers, by contrast, with the annual crop cycle and living at densities that hunting and gathering could no longer support, needed to store food to get through the year and even more food to deal with bad harvests. The birth of inventories.
Even worse, farmers tended to produce as much as they possibly could during good years (a form of overproduction) to keep their workers and equipment busy and then stored it for future sale because a good harvest always caused prices to plummet. As a result, inventories and overproduction came to be viewed as good things. Part of Ohno's life work was to countermeasure the penchant of that ancient farmer lurking somewhere in our psyches to create excessive, just-in-case inventories in every human activity, no matter how far from the farm.
But farming wasn't all bad from a Lean perspective: I remember visiting Honda's Marysville complex in Ohio as it staffed up in the early 1980s and hearing that farmers were the ideal folks to hire as production associates because "the cows have to be milked every day and farmers need to repair their tools in real time to keep the farm running smoothly." So transferring farmers to factories – which also happened at Toyota in the early days – seemed like a win-win: Workers with the right attitudes and skills who were no longer needed on the farm (where agricultural employment as a percentage of total employment in the US was falling from 41 percent in 1900 to 2 percent in 2015) could work instead in Lean manufacturing, and later in Lean services.
The combination of the falling agricultural workforce and the inherent inventory requirements of large crops grown in annual batches on modern, mass-production farms far from consumers made me think there wasn't much role for Lean thinking in agriculture. So I gave...farming no further thought until...
...a copy of Ben Hartman's The Lean Farm appeared in my mail box this spring.
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