Treat Your Truck Staging and Turnarounds Like Pit Stops in a Race.

Want More Revenue and Profit? Treat Your Truck Staging
and Turnarounds Like Pit Stops in a Race.

Getting more efficient can yield more dollars with no extra costs.
By Scott Morrison.  Published in ProSales

If you watch any NASCAR or Formula One racing series, you probably know the difference between winning and losing a race often boils down to just a few seconds of lost time in a pit stop.

Earlier this year, Kyle Busch won the Toyota Owners 400 in Richmond, Va., and attributed his victory to his last two pit stops, which were the fastest two changes in the field. With 23 of the 38 drivers who started the race on the same last lap as Busch as he crossed the finish line, those precious few seconds gained in the pit gave him the edge.

When I visit lumberyards and watch delivery trucks arriving, stopping, unloading returns, getting the next order, loading/strapping, and then leaving the yard, I try to connect what I’m seeing to a NASCAR pit crew. Several questions arise:

• Does the driver know where to stop in the yard?
• Is the next load ready?
• Is there a convenient place for the driver to get the paperwork and the materials for the next delivery?
• Is there someone (or at least a forklift truck) available for helping load the next delivery?
• Is the next run plotted and the path clear for the driver to leave?

If any of the answers to the above is no, there’s an opportunity for improvement in truck turnaround time. It starts with taking a baseline measurement and then proceeding through three stages.

Most baseline measurements reveal that little time is taken to prepare the next load for delivery before the truck arrives, such as picking and staging materials and bringing the wrapped bunks to a loading area. These are called external activities, because they can be done before the truck arrives. Along with these, the baseline also seeks to measure internal activities—things that can be accomplished only while the truck is on-site, such as unloading returns, loading the next delivery, and strapping to secure the load.

In stage 1, the first step is to determine what external activities are occurring while the truck is on-site, and move them to either before the truck arrives or after the truck leaves. Often this doesn’t result in an overall time reduction, but the internal time drops by an amount that matches the time that’s been moved.

Next comes stage 2, when you should review the remaining internal activities and determine which of them can be converted to external activities. For example, accumulate materials for stops in a run and stage them in a single location before the truck arrives, rather than driving a forklift unit to several locations in the yard while the truck is on-site. Again, this doesn’t necessarily reduce the overall time between first item picked and last return put away, but it does, again, affect the internal time.

Finally comes stage 3, when, with the external and internal activities firmly distinguished and separated, you can focus on reducing the time taken to accomplish the activities. Examples include:

• Developing assigned loading boxes in the yard;
• Having a dedicated loader who is notified by the dispatcher 10 minutes before a truck arrives so he or she can inspect and prepare the materials for loading as soon as the truck stops at the designated location; and
• Having delivery paperwork at the truck for the driver to review upon arrival rather than having the driver walk to the dispatch office.

An LBM dealer now on this journey is Alexander Lumber, headquartered in Aurora, Ill. Alexander’s Chicago District has three lumberyards, with the largest yard located in Crystal Lake, Ill. In March, executive vice president Rick Vancil, district operations manager Mike Jamison, and Crystal Lake yard manager Bob Knowles conducted a baseline study. They determined it took about 50 minutes to turn around a 24-foot flatbed with a detachable fork truck, with the driver and loader going 0.47 miles per turn.

During stages 1 and 2, in March and early April, the team found that several external activities occurred while the truck was on-site, including completing and retrieving the next shipment’s packing slips, consolidating stops, preconfiguring the truck bed, and retrieving hardware. These activities were moved to before the truck arrived. Among the changes, the loader was assigned to gather paperwork from the dispatch office after receiving a message the truck was approximately 10 minutes away from arrival. In addition, the loading area was expanded and brought closer to the truck parking spot, and a pre-load box was created for assembling multistop runs. Protected/packaged hardware was brought to the loading area so it was in place when the truck arrived.

During stage 3, in mid- to late April, the team further improved the truck-turn process by designating a dedicated truck loader who became responsible for coordinating dispatch with the stagers and drivers, assigning trucks to stop at specific loading stations on arrival, and reconfiguring the steel banding and truck refueling workstation to be both closer to the loading area and more efficiently laid out to facilitate faster servicing.

The improvements were dramatic. The Crystal Lake yard’s turn times dropped to about 22 minutes (a 56% reduction), and distances traveled by the loader and driver fell to 0.12 miles (76% reduction). Over the course of a typical delivery day, with four runs and thus three turns per truck, these cuts in turn time result in an additional hour per truck of available delivery time over a straight-time eight-hour day. Each fork truck/delivery truck combination saved more than a mile.

Just like NASCAR over the years, in which pit stops have gradually fallen from an average of over 55 seconds in the 1950s to under 12 seconds today, following these three stages of improvement can get your trucks out of your yard faster, and put them where they earn money for your company: on the road.

Here Are Key Terms in Lean Management That You Need to Know

From ProSales. By Scott Morrison.

Many Lean terms come from Japan, where Lean started as the Toyota Production System around 1950. Here are some key definitions.

Lean: Eliminating sources of waste.

Muda: Japanese for waste, which has eight sources.

  • Overproduction: Producing more than is required.
  • Processing: Work that adds no value.
  • Motion: Unnecessary movement of people.
  • Delay: Idle time when you should be working.
  • Conveyance: Unnecessary transport.
  • Inventory: Excess materials.
  • Defects: Anything requiring correction.
  • Loss of creativity: Unengaged workers.

Core Elements of Lean

  • Visual management: Signage that allows understanding of what’s happening in a work area.
  • Single-piece flow: Executing a process in the same sequence every time.
  • Process smoothing: Every business process within the work area is completed within a set schedule.
  • Production smoothing: Making products within a set, repetitive schedule.
  • Error proofing (pokayoke): Devices that prevent errors prior to passing them along to your customer.
  • Versatile workers: Defining standard work, ensuring your workforce is cross-trained to perform all jobs.
  • Rapid turnarounds: Minimizing the time that any of your equipment or processes are idle between jobs.
  • 5S: A disciplined approach to organizing, cleaning, and maintaining all work areas, following a loop of Standardize, Sort, Set in Order, Shine, and Sustain.

Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) Cycle: The problem-solving process, driven by developing and executing a plan, reviewing results, and adjusting plans.

To learn more, I suggest 2 Second Lean, by Paul Akers.

Lean 201, Part 4: Four Obstacles to Crossing the Finish Line

From ProSales. By Scott Morrison.

Lean principles include keeping tools organized and in designated spaces so they’ll be easy to find every time.

Let’s recap: Part 1 of this series introduced key concepts for making Lean principles stick. Part 2 went to Curtis Lumber in New York State and showed how embracing Lean ideas boosted its performance. Then in part 3 we visited Mathew Hall Lumber to see how it handled “The Big One.” We also served up a glossary of key terms.

Now let’s turn to some uncomfortable truths that could hinder your 5S/Lean journey.

Expect Turnover
You must determine who needs to go in order to get 5S/Lean into the culture. That person who has been “indispensable” forever because he or she has a special skill? If that person isn’t on the bus, they have to go. All the bosses quoted here have made significant, and painful, changes in their teams in order to get 5S/Lean to move forward.

Invest in Training and Pilot Projects
You must spend time getting your workforce up to speed, testing changes, and revising processes; celebrate wins and move on after failure. 5S/Lean won’t work if you’re just giving it lip service. In that case, people won’t buy in.

Walk the Work Areas Daily
See what’s working and where to spend your time/effort facilitating improvement. This is not a mail-it-in step.

Investment May be Required
Remodeling an old building or erecting a new facility without a connection to the PDCA Cycle will not solve your problems. Fix the problems on paper and in pilot programs first to see if your changes can work; implement those changes with minimal investment, and monitor for performance improvement. Then approach how to invest capital to support that growth.

The true work of 5S/Lean is facilitating continuous cultural change. And that’s when you’ve graduated from Lean 101 to Lean 201. SLAM! Class dismissed.

Lean 201, Part 3: Using Lean Principles to Make Big Changes.

From ProSales. By Scott Morrison.

An old mascot greets visitors to Mathew Hall Lumber in St. Cloud, Minn.

While part 1 of this series discussed the seemingly contradictory notion behind making Lean principles stick, part 2 explored how Curtis Lumber in New York State was able to implement those ideas to improve its performance. This part of the series looks at another Lean case study.

Lean’s mantra is “continuous improvement,” but it’s not enough! Many times, the inertia of inactivity can be shaken only by something so new and different that it forces you to make a major change, followed by another change. Think of it as plate tectonics: There are the frequent rumbles along a fault line, and then every few hundred years comes The Big One.

Mathew Hall Lumber’s Distribution Center in St. Joseph, Minn., was built in 1978, and in 2014 it was laid out almost exactly the same as opening day. Loran Hall, president/CEO and fourth-generation co-owner with brothers John and Dan, wanted to improve operations. This is another yard optimization project, but the Halls took a different path.

The breakthrough didn’t come in the initial change. In that round, we moved framing and pressure-treated stock, re-organized picking and staging routes, and reduced the stock/staging zone by 50%.

Thoughts of paving the stock area were entertained, but the owners decided instead to add gravel and re-grade the surfaces. Considering virtually nothing had been done to improve the layout for 35-plus years, it was big, but traffic patterns had not significantly changed.

The First Wave
Then co-owner Dan Hall and yard supervisor Neil Schneider went further. All stock locations were moved again to a reorganized pair of sheds on pavement. The gravel area is now used only for staged loads, cutting 50% of space utilized and avoiding paving over any gravel. The result: An original 100,000 square feet dedicated to stock storage is now down to 22,500 square feet (that’s almost 80%), with no reduction in the number of SKUs.

“It all started with knowing we had to change,” Loran Hall says. “First I hired Casey Mason to get us collecting operations data to look into our processes. Then I had to fight for a year with the management team to accept culture change.

Lean principles include keeping tools organized and in designated spaces so they’ll be easy to find every time.

“The pushback from them was that the change wouldn’t work because ‘we do it a certain way.’ Then a couple of the managers who were so overwhelmed and unprepared for change bought into it … and from that point 5S/Lean worked. We made it through, but we had to quit doing it the way we always did it. We’re taking the grill out tomorrow to thank everyone.”

Loran, Dan, and John Hall put in place the attitude, invested in education/training, and set aside time for managers to roll out 5S/Lean. “Lean is about getting the buy-in from the employee,” truss plant General Manager Calvin Fischer says. “The only way to do that is to encourage and recognize them when they have a good idea. The first idea may not be the final idea, but it is the start to improving flow within the facility.

Let ’em Run
“You cannot force an idea on a person,” Fischer adds. “The best thing to do is give them some things to try and let them run with it. You will be amazed with what they come up with. If you force it on them, they will shut down and your chances of success will dwindle.”

For example: In Mathew Hall’s truss plant, there’s a rope to open a garage door on the left side of the path where employees push their carts. “Most people are right-handed, so every time we had to open the door we would have to stop the cart full of lumber, and then go and pull on the string, come back to the car and push it out,” Fischer says. “One of the sawyers, Dalen Kittelson, came up to me and asked, ‘Why don’t we have a pull rope on the right side as well?’ So, we added a rope. Now, no matter if you are right-handed or left-handed, you do not have to stop … you never have any down time in the process of pushing a cart.”

Lean 201, Part 2: How Curtis Lumber Embraced Lean Principles to Boost Its Operations

From ProSales. By Scott Morrison.

Lean principles include keeping tools organized and in designated spaces so they’ll be easy to find every time.

In part 1 of this series, I said making Lean principles stick requires you to promote two seemingly contradictory ideas at the same time: Promoting ideas and responsibility-taking from below while imposing principles and standards from above. Now let’s look at an example.

When working with clients to assemble a kaizen (continuous improvement) team that has been charged with identifying the root causes of a problem, I urge the client to pick people who know the current process but, more importantly, work hard within the process and want to improve it. A yard layout optimization project I did with Curtis Lumber in Plattsburgh, N.Y., illustrates the point.

One key team member was John Lavalley, the yard foreman. Lavalley has worked in the yard for 25-plus years. With some training and coaching, and by going on several walks through the yard, I got Lavalley’s critical input on what prevented trucks from getting out of the yards in a timely manner in the morning and then achieving fast turnarounds during the day.

I worked with Lavalley and the team to couple this information with Lean analytical tools like visual management (clear and precise labeling of inventory, traffic lanes, and storage locations), minimizing waste (placing supplies at point of use based on frequency and volume of usage), and single-piece flow/process smoothing (assigning specific zones for stagers and trucks). By relocating the highest frequency/volume materials and using a centrally located paved apron as the staging/loading area with dedicated zones for trucks, we reduced overall travel distances by 25%.

The Importance of Teamwork
Sometimes the first pass at beginning the 5S/Lean journey stalls. This can occur because the two sides aren’t aligned: Management pushes without confident receipt by the workforce, or the workforce gives 5S/Lean a start without bosses recognizing and reinforcing early effort.

You get improvement from teamwork, then you get improvement from individual effort, then you get improvement from teamwork … and so it continues.

Lean thinking revolves around a Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle. Here, Lindsay LaRuffa, director of sales and operations for the central division at Curtis Lumber, confers with Bill Cairns, manager of Curtis’ facility in Delhi, N.Y.

At Curtis Lumber’s yard in Delhi, N.Y., Site Manager Bill Cairns and his staff have three corporate-driven Key Results to deliver: sales growth, profitability, and be the local employer of choice.

Curtis’ executive team created an environment for each of their locations to excel by establishing a set of personal accountability principles based on The Oz Principle: Getting Results Through Individual and Organizational Accountability. Everyone at Delhi is expected to look at each problem/issue from the perspective of “See It” (recognize a problem exists), “Own It” (take responsibility to determine the root cause of the problem), “Solve It” (formulate an appropriate corrective action), and “Do It” (take that corrective action).

Liz Irish, vice president of information systems, emphasizes, “We’re not focused on personal accountability to just drive change. We are focused on personal accountability to empower our employees to help us as an organization move to the next level via continuous improvement and, most importantly, drive and achieve our Key Results.”

These principles are a perfect fit with 5S/Lean. Lindsay LaRuffa, director of sales and operations for Curtis’ central division, says Yard Foreman Brian Utter and his team “really embraced the program, and what I see the most is that they have picked up the teamwork and ownership, but also creativity. Utter and Cairns have empowered the workers to take responsibility for improvement, and now every visit they challenge me to determine what’s new and what’s changed.”

Accountability chart at Curtis Lumber in Delhi, NY

Within the store, William Cash, senior counter salesperson, took over the daily improvements, allowing Cairns to go on the road extensively and focus on the Key Result of sales growth.

As the cultural change began, emphasizing the positive results and the people who drove those results convinced others to get on board. LaRuffa says others who were negative at first now embrace the change. Irish adds: “Employees are no longer settling for status quo; they jump in, take initiative, and assist in driving positive organizational change.”

Lean 201, Part 1: How to Make Lean Management Principles Stick

From ProSales. By Scott Morrison.

Lean principles include keeping tools organized and in designated spaces so they’ll be easy to find every time.

SLAM! My junior year high school English teacher, on the first day of class, would walk into the classroom after slamming the door as hard as he could. His purpose was to galvanize our attention and eliminate all distractions.

This achieved, he began to teach critical thinking. His tool was to have us read a classic, split the premise of that book into two ways of thinking about the same observation, and then draw two different conclusions. He taught us how to hold differing, perhaps even contradictory, premises in our minds at the same time.

Where is this going? Welcome to Lean 201. SLAM!

Let’s Get Beyond the Basics
I assume you’ve heard about the basics of Lean management techniques. Lean tackles the systematic reduction of waste, and key Lean practices include disciplined housekeeping and organization, reducing truck turnaround time, and implementing single-piece flow in a door/millwork shop. (Need reminders? See this glossary for key terms.)

That’s Lean 101. I want to discuss what to do after the basics are implemented, and this brings us back to my teacher’s lessons.

Here’s the key: In order for Lean to flourish, ownership and management must allow contradictory concepts to co-exist. You need to balance top-down, command and control management with bottom-up, employee-driven change, pushing decision-making responsibility and authority to the lowest organizational level.

This approach attacks what may be the worst waste of all: loss of creativity. Anyone in a position of authority (perhaps most of all, ownership) should routinely approach everyone in the organization and ask, “How can we make your job better?”

This doesn’t mean the owner/manager is abdicating authority and responsibility. There’s still a top-down element required. Your challenge is to get your workforce to embrace what you want them to do: continually improve their performance.

Brian Utter, yard foreman at Curtis Lumber, Delhi, N.Y.

Start from the Bottom and Walk Around
How do you use your top-down energy to inculcate bottom-up thinking? Spend time—a lot of time at first—informally going to the workstations (please don’t drag anyone into a conference room!), and talking to your workers. Why? Because they perform that job day after day, and they are a lot smarter than you may think.

They know where problems happen and have ideas on how improvements can be made. But if no one asks them, unless they are not bashful you won’t get their input. Many won’t volunteer what they know, not every suggestion will be a good one, and many won’t be feasible. Ask anyway!

They could see opportunities for improving tools, such as your software. They’ll see friction any time two or more groups are involved in the same process. Many times, information between groups doesn’t flow as freely as bosses assume. And they’ll spot communication errors occurring between levels of management.

These problems can be costly. Consider if an incorrect stock SKU is recorded on an order. Should that error get all the way to the jobsite, it leads to a dissatisfied customer, a delivery truck making a second or third trip, and sales staff and/or ownership having to repair customer relations.

What can be done to counteract the loss of creativity? Pickers, stagers, loaders, and drivers should be taught about product features and purposes, then encouraged to ask if an order doesn’t make sense.

Take a daily walk somewhere in your store, yard, and/or production area(s). Talk to whoever is working in that area. Ask them what they’re doing, what works well, and what doesn’t work well. Act on what they tell you, and ask them to be involved as much as possible.

Have a five to 10-minute daily stand-up meeting covering issues everyone needs to know about, such as watching for a certain delivery or a salesperson bringing a new customer on a tour. Most important, talk through ideas and improvements. If you don’t want to plunge into daily meetings, start by meeting weekly.

Give private positive feedback immediately upon hearing of or seeing a “good deed,” such as turning around a complicated special order with an on-time and in-full delivery. This reinforces what happened and encourages repeat performances. Follow up occasionally with public acknowledgement of good work that occurs “behind the scenes.”

When you hear of or see a negative event—something that adversely impacts customer relations, safety, or teamwork—privately interview the person(s) involved to find out the circumstances, ask how the situation could have been handled better, and then mutually determine a corrective action to minimize recurrence.

Curtis Lumber promotes accountability at all levels of its staff, including team member William Cash.

Reinforcing Continuous Improvement

Let’s put this concept into practice. At The Building Center of Gloucester, Mass., if someone needed a screwdriver for store use, that person would just go to the hand tools aisle and take one.

“We had six screwdrivers spread around the store when we only needed one,” CFO Tim Huff says. Huff made people stop and think about that, and by doing so he set the table for how he and the management team implemented culture change.

“Find the people who get it and work with them, and allow the people who don’t to be influenced by those who do,” Huff says. “Identify the people who see the value in 5S/Lean as your champions. Managers need to lead by doing, especially at first, not delegating.
“Investing in the employees to work with you is like generating compound interest, but it’s with time, not money,” Huff adds. “With 5S/Lean, you’re investing your time on the right things. Patience is very important! … You’ll really improve your bottom line if you’re focusing on long-term efficiency gains.”

Jim Sobeck, CEO of New South Construction Supply in Greenville, S.C., and author of The Real Business 101: Lessons from the Trenches, states, “You can’t just work smart or hard; to be really successful, you have to work both smart and hard.”

Fueling the Farm-To-Table Movement, with Lessons from Toyota

From the Boston Globe

Sarah Voiland weeds at Red Fire Farm, which she runs with her husband. They are employing lean farming techniques that help farmers expand efficiently.

On a quiet February afternoon, Ryan Voiland wandered through the mid-winter muck on his farm, pushed open the door to his barn, and found himself awash in a bounty of lettuce. All around him, farmhands scooped and sprayed leafy greens just plucked from his greenhouses, before drying and stuffing them into plastic baggies.

The scene was anything but efficient. The washing bins were too far apart, the farmhands forced to walk the produce from one bin to the next, switching out washing bins as they went.

But for Voiland, there was opportunity in the chaos.

He set out to answer one critical question: “How can we set up the area to be as efficient as possible?”

Since he first began selling produce from his family’s garden in a roadside stand at age 12, Voiland has strived to make a living growing organic food. He’s spent the last 27 years poring over books and trade magazines to build his Red Fire Farm into a 200-acre operation that employs more than 60 people in Granby and Montague. But those small farm principles were also preventing him from growing.
After decades of intentionally operating outside of the industrialized food system, independent organic farmers such as Voiland are being squeezed by large corporate growers that have jumped into the market, putting pressure on prices. And that’s led a crop of small growers to begin adopting efficiency principles from an unlikely source: Toyota factories.

Dubbed “lean farming,” these techniques seek to increase production while removing muda, the excess waste, effort, and overproduction that breed inefficiencies. Farmers hope it will help them cut costs, while letting them compete in an increasingly crowded market.

That starts with trimming the time it takes to get from field to farmstand.

“If the turnaround takes a long time, then we’re not making money. You want to be in here like a NASCAR pit crew,” said Scott Morrison, a consultant who has begun working to train farmers in lean principles.

The concept of lean manufacturing was first introduced to America in the ’70s, after a team of MIT scientists was dispatched to Japan to sort out why US automakers were losing market share to foreign imports. MIT had a stake in the industry — its business school’s founder, Alfred P. Sloan, had run General Motors during four decades of remarkable growth. And so they went in asking, “How come the home team can’t play this game anymore?” Jim Womack, who led the group, recalled.

The researchers quickly learned that Toyota’s factories were constantly striving to reach peak efficiency. Every step in the manufacturing cycle had been measured and ergonomically designed so workers would expend as little effort as possible. And the Toyota employees, many of whom were former rice farmers, were given a degree of latitude within the factory to help identify inefficiencies whenever possible.

Womack brought these lean manufacturing ideas back to the United States and in 1990 coauthored a book, “The Machine that Changed the World.” Since then, he’s led the Lean Enterprise Institute in Cambridge, helping to streamline industries like health care and law enforcement. But he’d never looked at agriculture.

“From our standpoint, it wasn’t very interesting,” he said, bemoaning the homogeneity involved in processing endless rows of corn or wheat. And the disorganization that plagues a typical barn gave him hives. “If you’ve been on farms, one of the things that really strikes you is that farms are just a complete, utter mess.”

But that changed when he received a copy of the book “The Lean Farm” in the mail last spring. It was written by Ben Hartman, a farmer in Goshen, Ind., who had applied Womack’s research to his 7-acre vegetable farm, winnowing his workload such that he is now able to sustain his entire operation by farming just a half-acre of land.

Scott Morrison, a “lean consultant” who has begun to focus on farms, paid a visit to Red Fire Farm and asked its operators to walk him through the production cycle to help them make improvements.

Today, Hartman serves seven or eight high-end restaurants, between 40 to 50 community-supported agriculture, or CSA, programs, and one farmer’s market. He works with his customers to determine exactly what they want and grows nothing more than what they ask for. In the peak summer months, when large farms’ crop yields are highest, pushing prices down, he differentiates himself by catering to chefs and planting hard-to-find vegetables.

Hartman has begun giving lectures on his techniques and is developing a following among small farmers. “The reality in US agriculture is that we’re addicted to producing a few commodity crops,” Hartman said. Instead, he tells growers to “find a niche and focus.”

“The thing about lean is that the principles are universal, so they can apply to any size and type of farm,” Hartman said. And those farms seem to be responding: In the year-and-a-half since it was published, the book has gone into its third printing. Hartman is now writing a follow-up.

Ryan Voiland of Red Fire Farm had read Hartman’s book and began researching lean techniques after last year’s harvest, the worst on record since he first started farming. “It was like a double whammy with the terrible drought in 2016 plus increasing wage rates,” he said.

Through a grant program funded by the Mass Growth Capital Corporation — one of several initiatives now working to connect New England growers with productivity specialists — Voiland hired Morrison, the consultant who has begun to focus on farms.

In late February, Morrison paid a visit to Red Fire and asked the team to walk him through its entire farming production cycle, using Post-it notes to break down every step. Each time they saw an opportunity for improvement — or a Kaizen Burst in lean parlance — he slapped a bright red Post-it on the wall. They told him about the daily scramble to get to farmers’ markets because the tables and signage were scattered throughout the barn. Morrison suggested the simple idea of stashing the items together.

“If you have to spend time looking for it, it’s wasted motion,” he said.

In all, they identified 17 bursts in just an hour.

“A lot of farmers are feeling the squeeze,” Morrison said. “There’s a lot of competition, and they’re saying, ‘I’m not making a lot of money from farmers markets anymore, and my CSAs aren’t growing as much as they used to.’ And the reason for that is there’s now five CSAs you can choose from. The market is saturated.”

The all-too-common circumstance, says Daniel Keeney, business adviser for the Center for an Agricultural Economy in Hardwick, Vt., is farmers “working in their business, not on it.” Most farmers undervalue their own work, working 18-hour days and paying themselves as little as $3.50 an hour, he said. And after subscribing to an ethos of working harder, rather than smarter, many experience burnout.

Keeney typically helps small farms to secure grants or bring in consultants to help balance their books. But in early March, Keeney hosted Hartman, “The Lean Farm” author, for a series of discussions with local growers about production efficiency. He said he grew interested in lean principles after reading Hartman’s book and began interviewing veteran farmers about the lessons they’ve gleaned about streamlining production.

He tiptoes around the phrasing, opting not to rely on the “lean” moniker so as not to evoke images of big business. “We don’t want to turn people off in a visceral way, who might say, ‘That’s not for me, that’s not the farming that I do,’ ” Keeney said.

But he says the message is resonating.

“All the case study farmers were sort of jealous,” he said, telling him, “ ‘I wish I had someone to sort of talk me through these aspects of the farm business five or 10 years ago.’ ”

Growing concerns

Ben Hartman, author of “The Lean Farm,” offers these tips for improving small-farm efficiency:

■ Put every tool in its place: Better organization saves time.

■ Farm for your customers: Only grow what they’ll buy.

■ Cut production waste: Minimize manual labor and movement, reduce produce packaging, and use equipment that can do more than one thing.

■ Reduce management waste: Replace low-profit crops with high-profit ones, don’t overbuy supplies, and spread the workload and sales throughout the year.

■ Simplify farmers market sales: Don’t bring too much produce and replace weighed items with ‘buy by the bag’ or ‘grab and go’ options.

A Leaner Bean: CDC Helps Montague Farm Cut Costs

From the Recorder.

The same cutting-edge efficiencies that helped Toyota retool its
manufacturing are taking root on the farm.

With labor costs rising, as they are for other businesses affected by the minimum wage increase, Red Fire Farm is getting help from a consultant through a Franklin County Community Development Corp. program.

A $2,500 grant from Massachusetts Growth Capital Corp., a state-funded technical assistance program aimed at farms affected by last summer’s drought, brought the Community Development Corp. to look for ways to help the farm in Montague and Granby address what farmer Ryan Voiland says have been dramatically increasing labor costs that hit his operation as a double-whammy with lost income because of the drought.

“We’ve been financially on a shoestring as long as I can remember,” Voiland said. “But it’s gotten worse in the last two or three years, particularly as the minimum wage has increased, pushing up our floor (pay) for entry-level workers. We’ve seen our labor bill go up more dramatically, 10 to 20 percent a year, even though we’ve been able to maintain our hours and remain as efficient as we used to be.”

Amy Shapiro, the CDC’s business development director, said, “By becoming more efficient, that helps (Red Fire) control their costs.” Shapiro helped identify Concord, N.H. “lean-manufacturing” consultant Scott Morrison who was brought in to help. Red Fire will match the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corp. grant with its own funds, said Shapiro, who hopes to work with Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) to help other farms make use of the same efficiency approach.

Morrison visited the Montague farm for two days last week, offering an overview on how to reduce and eliminate various kinds of waste, which he said can result in a 25 to 30 percent savings for the operation.

“Thinking about the waste that happens on a farm, from the produce that doesn’t get harvested because you’re unable to sell it, to all of the wasted time and effort,” Voiland said. “A lot of these principles can be applied all over our farm, if we can get everybody thinking in that way.”

The first tasks examined at Red Fire, though, were the processing and packing of salad greens at the Montague farm’s packing barn. Using sticky notes, the examination looked at each step from taking orders to how they are tracked and communicated to the packing staff and then delivered. Each of the roughly 15 management staff members were asked to identify where they saw any potential for improvement.

A second round was following how eight to 10 workers packing greens set up pallets, various pieces of equipment, bagging stations, washing tubs and other stations, and how they moved through the process to see where things or people in the way were slowing the process.

“Salad greens are one of the most time-consuming processes we have,” Voiland said. “He really tried to help us hone in on that as a starting point, and see if we could figure out improvements in our process. We mapped that out and talked about future ideas,” so that by rearranging the layout, Voiland and the staff were able the following day to reconfigure the space for what would work best.

“Just by being really conscientious about trying to reduce wasted steps as we move back and forth carrying everything, so that we make as few wasted motions as possible and the ergonomics involved. If everybody’s thinking about how we can make two seconds of improvements in just their process, for tasks we’re doing every day, on a regular basis, there are incremental improvements like having the right supply in the right place and not having the wrong supply in the way, we can help get our staff thinking about these efficiencies in a more serious way.”

Time-motion studies may seem incongruous with Franklin County farms, but Voiland said, “If we’re going to remain in business, we have to figure out how we do what we do, doing more with less labor. We’re trying to think if there’s machinery we can use to replace some labor in some places, if there are changes in methods or anything else we can do to make our labor go further, so we can get more done with the same amount of labor.

Voiland would like to see if it’s possible to shave as much as 90 minutes from each four-hour process, so that he can trim 80 to 90 workers at the peak of harvest between the Montague and Granby farms to 70 to 80 workers.

Unlike lean manufacturing, Morrison said, “I can’t just pull a carrot out of the ground and drive it to the store. Every time that product changes hands, it’s put down and stored and picked up and put down, that’s adding cost and time … to the process. My role with the farm is to help them find the fastest, most efficient, safest, cleanest method of getting the produce out of the ground and into containers to go to the store. All I’m trying to do is say, ‘How many steps do you really need to accomplish this process?’ If you spend 10 or 15 minutes setting up the packing area, and five times over the course of the day I have to move my packing area so someone can get into and out of the warehouse, that’s waste.”

Phil Korman, executive director of CISA, said that for farmers, who are unable to control everything from the cost of their raw materials and labor costs to the weather itself, looking carefully at ways they can cut wasteful parts of their operations can be a way of making their farmers succeed.

“We’ve heard from a lot of farmers that it’s an ongoing challenge” to pay for rising labor costs, said Korman, adding that many of them have always wanted to pay more. “A farmer may say that my fuel costs have gone up, my labor costs have gone up, seed costs have gone up, I have unpredictable weather,” he said. “It’s another challenge that keeps seemingly to make it a little bit harder to be a small local farmer in a global market. It makes sense for farmers to think about lean agriculture, something they have control of, making increased efficiencies in their operations to lower their costs.”

One of Voiland’s hopes at Red Fire Farm, which has a lot of turnover for entry-level jobs, is to improve its standard operating procedures and develop training materials using pictures to show exactly how to set up areas for different processes, with floor markings to show exactly where certain equipment need to be placed for peak-efficiency operations.

“It’s exciting,” he said. “There’s great potential. There’s a lot of work in the short term to think through all these processes and get our things organized, but the hope is if we do a good job at it, we’ll really save time.”

For the Love of a Business

From the Central Penn Business Journal.

Barbara Costik, left, administrator at Middletown Lumber, jokes with Pat Carney, who runs the company’s woodworking shop

Barbara Costik grew up with Middletown Lumber Co., a business that has been in her family since her late father, Edward, bought it in 1955. She’s not about to let it down.

During the 2008 recession, which fell particularly hard on construction-related companies, the team at Middletown Lumber tightened expenses, shopped around for insurance, added new products and kept a close watch on overtime. They also had to lay off a delivery driver.

These days, they are looking for a formula that will boost sales and ensure the company’s future. That search has led Middletown Lumber to reach out more aggressively to potential customers while sticking to the niche it knows best, wood, and remaining open to other business possibilities.

“I think we do have a lot to offer, and I want to share that with people,” said Costik, who serves as the company’s administrator.

Her mother, Jeannie Zelda Costik, known affectionately as Jay Z, is the owner. Her older brother, Eddie, worked in the business, but retired in 2011, leaving something of a hole.

“He was the spokesperson,” Barbara Costik said.

Success won’t come easy. Big-box chain stores dominate the building materials industry, selling to both contractors and handy homeowners, the same customers served by Middletown Lumber. Amazon and other online retailers also take a growing share of business.

Family-owned lumberyards, meanwhile, have become a rare breed. And there is no guarantee of survival, no matter how deep their roots. Nearly two years ago, the family-owned Eberly Lumber Co. in Mechanicsburg shut down after 155 years in business.

Costik and her colleagues are confident there is enough business out there for Middletown Lumber, which does between $1.5 million and $2 million in annual sales. But they aren’t waiting for it to walk through the door.

Over the last year, they have been seeking it out, combing through lists of customers they haven’t heard from in a while and reaching out to win them back. They also are dialing up new contractors whose online reviews catch their attention.

Middletown Lumber is especially interested in small remodeling businesses that can appreciate the higher-grade wood products sold by the company, said Chris Nagle, Middletown Lumber’s manager.

“I think that’s where our future is,” said Nagle, who has worked at Middletown Lumber since 1994 after being laid off from Hechinger’s.

Nagle spends a portion of his time on the road visiting contractors and rekindling relationships. “These guys don’t have time to come here,” he said.

It is a formula that has worked for other family-owned lumber yards, said Scott Morrison, a New Hampshire-based consultant in the lumber and building materials industry. His clients are primarily family-owned companies, and they are in an expansionary mood following the retrenchment of the recession.

But growth takes work. “You can’t sit back. You’ve got to get people pounding the pavement and making the phone calls,” Morrison said.

It makes sense to start with contractors who have been customers in the past, he added. But it also is vital to ensure product quality and customer service remain strong.

“This is a very high-touch industry,” Morrison said. “You’ve got to work extremely hard to earn the client and earn their business and then to maintain it.”

Knowing the job

Chris Nagle, top right, is manager at Middletown Lumber. Clockwise from bottom right: Hardwood samples on display at the company; the warehouse office; exotic woods, including leopardwood and purpleheart wood. – (Joel Berg)

It’s not the kind of warning that would seem to put off the seven-person crew at Middletown Lumber. When I visited one morning in January, they left little doubt about their willingness to go the extra mile for customers.

“Everybody knows their job and does it well,” Nagle said.

Their operation, a block off the main drag in downtown Middletown, consists of four basic parts.

There is a retail storefront, where customers can find displays of hardwood flooring and contractor-quality, German-made Festool power tools, among other items.

Along one wall are planks of more exotic woods, including leopardwood and purpleheart wood, which is truly purple. Costik said she is considering adding an antiques section to the sales floor.

Behind the retail front are sheds stocked with two-by-fours, plywood sheets and other materials. Across the street is the warehouse, laid out so that delivery trucks can pull in one door, load up, and then pull out another.

In a separate building sits the company’s woodworking shop, overseen by Pat Carney, who takes pride in tackling the many challenges that customers throw at him. They have included requests to make replacement table leafs and fireplace mantles.

About 60 percent of customers these days are do-it-yourself homeowners, Nagle said. They select the wood and Middletown Lumber cuts it to requested dimensions – using equipment that is decades old but lovingly maintained.

Most customers are within driving distance, but many come from farther afield thanks to the internet, Costik and Nagle said. Middletown Lumber is known for its cedar products, and has gotten calls from as far away as California from people Googling the term.

For the last 20 years, the company also has delivered wood to Connecticut-based World Wrestling Entertainment, which uses the limber to make support structures for wrestling rings. The work came courtesy of a WWE employee who lived in Middletown, Nagle said.

Business also comes from contractors who occasionally descend to do work on the nuclear power plant at nearby Three Mile Island, Nagle said. The contractors call for supplies and Middletown Lumber tracks down the goods, even if the company doesn’t carry them itself.

The challenge, of course, is to keep the phone ringing. Nagle acknowledges that he still often talks to people locally who have never heard of Middletown Lumber.

But it is a situation Costik, Nagle and their colleagues are working to change – not because they want to be the biggest business on the block, but because they love the business they have made their own.

“It’s my family legacy,” Costik said, “and I want to see it succeed.”