Like their counterparts in manufacturing, today’s farmers know that efficiency is the ultimate controllable factor in commodity margins.

Young businessman looking at his growing share. Healthy and succDoing more with less – and doing it better – is the name of the game, and while it has traditionally been gained through scale, science and innovation, farmers are also beginning to see the merit of using process improvement methodologies like Lean and Six Sigma. The issue is overcoming a culture that is traditionally more in tune with using their hands than employing specific, strategic business methodologies.

Between risk mitigation and the benefits to be realized with the identification, evaluation and implementation of operational efficiencies, developing SOPs (or Standard Operating Procedures), either in written or video format, is taking on new allure for farmers as their starting point.

In an article in Country Guide, a Canadian farm business magazine, Idaho farmer and consultant Dick Wittman discussed the use of process mapping and SOPs as key to overall process improvement among farmers. The point was brought home at his own diversified family farm when one of his partners rolled a tractor and was severely injured. It showed that orally communicated safety standards were insufficient and led to the immediate development of a safety procedure and policy document that each new employee now reads and signs.

SOPs are the links in the chain of business processes, helping reduce variability and errors. Wittman considers written safety policies the necessary mortar for SOPs: It’s the cost of things going wrong, combined with the benefits of superior planning, that motivates many farmers to develop and then improve them.

Among the facets of farm operations where SOPs are beneficial:

  • Office functions
  • Crop agronomic practices
  • Equipment operations and maintenance
  • Supply and storage practices (e.g. fuel, crops)
  • Worker and food safety guidelines and practices
  • Procedures for handling herds, stock.
  • Market access and certification procedures

As either a backup or alternative to written SOPs, some farms are also recording their SOPs to video to ensure they are utilizing all the right channels and devices to keep their workers in the loop. Some have even gone the extra mile in that they record them in a second, regional language.

Either way, they are finding good use with SOPs as a vehicle to train new employees and a basis for performance reviews and job descriptions. They also are valuable as a record for occasional tasks (to guard against having to reinvent procedures) and a basis for rewards and consequences.

Wittman pointed out that SOPs should ideally be measured and used daily to yield performance improvements, and reviewed and updated at least annually.

It’s a short hop from SOPs to process mapping that defines what’s done and who owns it, a basic underpinning of process management. Once outlined, the natural next step is to investigate ways to make the process more efficient and whether new products or technologies are called for.

And that’s how many farms are starting on the path to process improvement for enhanced efficiencies and margins.

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