An increasing number of growers, farmers and ranchers are using lean thinking to fine-tune their operations and improve efficiency.
The lean manufacturing philosophy lets employees – those who know the systems best – have input into processes, with the main goal of reducing waste in the organization. Proponents have found that a focus on sustainable production often follows.
“Within agriculture, processors started the wave, and now we’re seeing interest from growers,” says Jeff Mackey, senior lean consultant with Fujitsu Consulting Canada.
Dave Van Belle, owner of Van Belle Nurseries in Abbotsford, B.C., was an early adopter. He supplies young plants to wholesale nurseries across North America, and provides potted plants, trees, shrubs, perennials and vegetables to independent garden centres and mass retailers.
Van Belle employs 50 year-round staff and up to 100 people in the peak season. Six years ago, he connected with a lean consultant after reading about a grower from Florida who had increased production by 50 per cent while improving employee morale. Today, he credits his nursery’s success to the culture created by lean thinking.
“The whole idea is to make more efficient work processes – to make workers more productive not just with their hands, but with their heads as well. We get way more productivity, and it’s an appealing system for employees because they have more control over their work environment and are more self-managed,” Van Belle says.
Lean manufacturing principles revamped the nursery’s production process for plant propagation, as well as administrative functions such as billing and freight co-ordination.
“Everything is controlled, planned and measured. It’s much more organized and calm. Without the lean system, we wouldn’t be executing nearly as well,” Van Belle explains.
The nursery also used lean principles to implement a pull-driven system able to respond quickly to the needs of the customer. This is a critical factor in their ability to stay ahead of lower-cost competitors, particularly from the United States.
“We do custom tags and next-day delivery,” Van Belle says. “Costco orders for next-day delivery to their stores across Western Canada. They’ll send us their order by mid-morning, and we will have it on the truck by the end of the day to get it there on time. If I couldn’t do that, they’d be buying somewhere else.”
Tamara is a freelance writer and communications consultant based in British Columbia. She’s passionate about helping people understand agricultural issues and giving voice to farmers’ stories. Tamara contributes to publications in B.C. and across the country.