Ben and Rachel's Thinking: Part 2 of Jim's visit to a Lean farm
This is Ben and Rachel, practitioners of lean thinking
Ben and his wife Rachel are the sort of folks I most love to meet: They are self-educated experimenters who talked to a few people, read a few books, and then set out to apply Lean thinking (ploughing new ground, so to speak) on their small vegetable farm near Goshen, Indiana. Recently I rented a full-sized pick-up with a stretch cab (the most American, most farm-like, and most energy-intensive vehicle there is) and drove over from the Detroit airport to see their Lean farm in action.
When I examine experiments with something new I always start with purpose. In this case, "What problem with traditional agriculture were you trying to solve by applying Lean principles?" The answer was that after generations of big farming on family farms nearby, Ben and Rachel wanted to try a new approach in their generation that would provide better work/life balance while still achieving an income target and that would be better for their customers, including the planet. They were looking for a combination of fresh, high-quality produce at reasonable cost with minimal use of fertilizer, pesticides, and fossil fuels. So they started a small (seven acre) vegetable farm that sold directly to a few "foodie" restaurants and to local customers in nearby towns through the Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, which signs up customers for a year of deliveries of boxes of produce directly to their homes.
The problem was that it was very hard work. Using conventional small farm methods, it took 60 hours per week to make a go of the farm. As they thought about starting a family it was hard to see how everything could get done on the farm with any time left for the family and any money left over for other needs.
Fortunately, one of their CSA customers owned a nearby manufacturing business and reported that he had transformed it through application of Lean principles to create more value at less cost. Why not apply these ideas to farming? But, of course, there were no books on Lean farming and no fancy consultants to provide advice. So the Lean farm would have to come into being the old-fashioned, self-reliant way of the farmer: through experiments. These were initially inspired by Ohno's seven wastes including, of course, overproduction, excess movement, and excess transportation. An examination of the movements of the farmer and the flow of produce from seed to shipping immediately showed that much of the "work" on the farm was actually waste – searching for tools and supplies, walking long distances due to a poor layout, "re-working" crops that had been improperly planted, over-producing due to poor communication with customers about what items they wanted and when.
In addition, intense discussions with customers showed that they wanted more than good produce. They wanted to be directly involved with their supplier in deciding what type of produce should be grown and how it should be delivered at what time in what way. They even wanted to discuss recipes and suggested that the farmer provide advice on how to cook and present unfamiliar items. In short, they wanted goods plus services developed in collaboration to address their food problems, not just whatever vegetables appeared in the market at the lowest price from unknown vendors.
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