Although setting the tone for innovation is important, the production process is where the action takes place.
Companies like Alpha Nurseries of Salem, Oregon; Robinson Nursery of Amity, Oregon; Woodburn Nursery & Azaleas of Woodburn, Oregon and others have realized great savings from revising their production processes to make them more efficient.
At Alpha, manager Josh Zielinski estimates that labor makes up close to half of the company’s production costs. “Any really small change that saves a couple of minutes an hour starts to add up,” he said. “It has a big effect on our bottom line efficiency.”
Zielinski noted that Alpha used to hire people to solve a problem before spending money on automation or equipment, because equipment is, by its nature, specialized. “We saw labor as flexible because it can do something else,” he said.
Now, there is no longer that presumption. “It’s difficult to find quality labor, and it’s expensive,” Zielinski said. “It used to be difficult to justify equipment that will save money, but now it’s getting easier and easier.”
Removing slack from the chain
A key Lean precept is that the pace of work matters, and is especially critical with processes involving multiple employees.
Corey Hill, operations manager at Skagit Horticulture, recalled a struggle for moving batches of plants on trailers in the field. The leader of his move crew remedied the issue with a simple analogy: He drew a visual diagram of a chain on two side-by-side sprockets, pointing out that if one sprocket turns faster than another, the chain bunches up and comes off the system.
The broken chain concept works just the same for the move crew — if the pick-up people work at a different pace than the set-down people, there will be slack in the chain.
Next, the leader created a new series of laminated task sheets showing the standard work. It gave everyone their set of tasks and, most importantly, a time limit.
It was a big change for the laborers who just want to work as fast and hard as possible. The goal of labor revision was to equalize the speed of the work and level out the pace of production. Managers carried stopwatches and taught the staff, “If you need a water break, work faster for a minute and then take a drink. This is a comfortable pace for you to work.”
By giving everyone the big picture, staff understood why one side of the field had only one staff member, but another had two staff members. They could see it as a fair distribution of work, and this in turn improved outcomes and reduced
Seeing with fresh eyes
Robinson Nursery revised its process of coding trees. The nursery color-codes all of its trees with a dab of paint near the base. For employees, this was backbreaking labor. They had to bend over for long periods of time — long enough to code the hundreds of thousands of trees the nursery raises each year.
According to general manager Chris Robinson, it took a new employee with a fresh set of eyes to see a better way.
“One day about ten years ago, a new employee taped their paint brush to the bottom of a piece of bamboo,” Robinson said. “This extended the brush so that a person could be standing all day painting instead of bending over.”
Any improvement than makes work easier and more comfortable for the employee is a good idea.
Building a better trimmer
Trimming of nursery material is an important, but labor-intensive, task. Woodburn Nursery & Azaleas automated this process, inventing its own pruning machine for pot-in-pot production areas. Spanning 60 feet, this giant machine trims row upon row of material with only a single operator.
The machine has lawnmower and sickle bar attachments. The cutters can move laterally and vertically, and can also be rotated. The machine itself has rotating tires so it can move forward, backward and sideways.
The machine, which was inspired by a cauliflower harvester, is an effective way to prune anything that can be flat on top. Some manual touchup is usually required after the machine has made one pass over an area, but it still saves time over doing it all manually.
Similarly, Eshraghi Nurseries uses a shaper/trimmer that runs on conveyors and is used to trim containerized plants one at a time. They use it on conifers, deciduous shrubs and evergreens. According to Terry Menninger, plant maintenance and plant health manager, one chief advantage of the machine is that it keeps the process moving — which, in turn, keeps production humming.
“Plant in, plant out, trimmed and set down,” he said. “It’s a pace setter for how people move.”
Letting machines do the digging
Of course, mechanization can also help improve efficiency at a nursery operation. Van Essen Nursery is now using mechanical digging for a much larger percentage of digging than it used to. Not only is the process more efficient, but it reduces the pressure on the nursery to find hand diggers.
“We are able to use more of our regular crew for the digging process,” Van Essen said, adding that the nursery plans to look at improving its potting process and plant moving operations next to find more efficiencies.
Realizing that more might be more
Potting machines have been around the nursery industry for a long time. However, there’s a new awareness that automating a process won’t necessarily make it more efficient.
After Eshraghi Nurseries put in a new potting machine for large containers from #10 to #25, it initially processed 900 plants per hour. Although that is excellent, the nursery had the Oregon Lean Consortium help review the potting process, paying close attention to the interaction between crew and machine.
The surprising conclusion was that one additional worker was needed. Upon implementation, output doubled from 900 to 1,800 plants per hour.
“With a crew of three, the people had too much work to handle,” Menninger said. “With a crew of four, it worked. The flow was better.”
Results may vary. Woodburn Nursery & Azaleas also took a look at its potting process with help from the Oregon Lean Consortium. For them, the conclusion was different. “The decision was to slow it down and use one less person,” general manager Tom Fessler said. “Productivity is up.”
Each nursery must look at its own specific potting process and products to determine the optimal crew size and assigned tasks for each job on the line.
Cutting one’s losses
JLPN staff budgeted for expensive laser counters for a fabrication line, which were installed without testing. However, the counters did not work as efficiently as needed, and there wasn’t time to try and make them work while production was underway.
“We found they didn’t do an effective job, and our best option was to redesign the counting system with a person using simple hand clickers to count bundles,” John Lewis said. “In the end, we got the job done for the cost of about $50, and shelved the lasers for the time being.”
Although the money was spent on the laser counters, Lewis didn’t feel the need to keep using them.
“We have no use for keeping a ‘monument’ in our nursery, just because we’ve paid for it, and aren’t willing to cut our losses,” Lewis said. “My manager even said, ‘I guess we missed on that one.’ However, we made the decision as a group, so we made the mistake as a group. I consider that true success.”
|Explore the EFFICIENCY ISSUE
Rising costs, labor scarcity and competition create challenges for growers. Greater efficiency can be the answer.
We talked to more than a dozen growers and industry colleagues who have become more efficient, and increased their bottom line, by improving their management, workflows, inputs and workspaces