Bringing Lean to Pastured Poultry

—Mike Badger, as presented by Nathan Bonds and Patrick McNiff

Published in APPPA Grit Issue 110, March/April 2019

Pat McNiff of Pat’s Pastured in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, started down the Lean path after reading Ben Hartman’s book Lean Farming. That’s when he reached out to the Polaris Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) in Rhode Island to begin his own journey applying the Lean manufacturing principles to his farm. 

Each state has an MEP; however, they typically focus on manufacturing. Pat was able to secure a grant through the Labor and Training Department and convince the MEP in Rhode Island to work with his farm in addition to a few others. At the Professional Pastured Poultry Conference, Pat brought Nathan Bonds, his Lean consultant, to talk about using Lean manufacturing principles to become more efficient, have a better quality of life, and be more profitable. 

The changes aren’t earth shattering, according to Pat, but cumulatively, they have been a wonderful and refreshing change on the farm. The impact has been so great at Pat’s Pastured, he lobbied to have Nathan attend the 2019 conference and share some background information and takeaways about how the pastured poultry community can use Lean.

Lean principles

Lean was made in America, but It’s been popularized and refined as a Japanese idea. Nathan explains, “The history of Lean started here around World War II, and Japan refined it.” To support the war effort, women, farmers, fisherman, and others built the airplanes and artillery. Airplane production increased from 3,000 airplanes in 1938 to 86,000 in 1944, says Nathan. 

Nathan asked the group, “When you’re making airplanes, is that “low rate of failure or a high rate of failure, if the planes didn’t work?” It’s a high rate of failure, naturally. The people had to be trained quickly and efficiently. 

Then during the rebuilding of Japan, we introduced the Lean principles to the Japanese to help them rebuild their country. “While we were rocking it with

Elvis, they were rocking it with their processes,” said Nathan. “They’ve had many years to refine it.”

How Lean can help farmers

Nathan defines Lean as a “systematic approach to identifying and eliminating waste through continuous improvement by flowing the product (e.g., chickens, eggs) at the pull of the customer in pursuit of perfection.” Perfection is unachievable, but that’s the goal.

The systematic approach of Lean will provide customers the three things they want: quality, cost, and service.  Nathan says, “As farmers, we want to meet what our customers want, but we also want to lead them to what they need. Lean is about people. We’re going to focus on the people who focus on the process. It’s about our relationships.”

Do you know the days of the week?

Nathan asked Bruce Hennessey to recite the days of the week and spell them. Bruce completed the task in 22.65 seconds with zero mistakes.

Next up, Nathan asked Christian Alexandre to spell the days of the week in alphabetical order. “It’s the same task; it’s just the days of the week,” Nathan prodded as Christian took 59 seconds to put the days in order with a misspelling. 

“They both had the same information, but something wonky happened,” says Nathan. “Don’t worry, Christian, it happens to everyone.”

This seemingly silly exercise plays out on your farm as you train and manage employees. “On my farm, this is the way I’ve always done it” is a likely familiar refrain. 

Nathan introduced the idea of a pilot—a guide, not a flyer—to help Christian go through the process of spelling the days of the week using a process. In this case, it’s the FMSTW process to help sort and organize the task because even though Christian had the same information as Bruce for his task, Christian was asked for things a different way; it was a way unfamiliar to him. You may do this with on farm with your employees.

Eight wastes of Lean

Nathan defines waste as “any activity that consumes resources but creates no value for the customer. Lean is the drive for continuous improvement with the relentless elimination of waste with priority on safety and quality.” 

Customers don’t want to pay for waste. They will pay for things that create value. They pay for clean eggs or packaged chickens that are ready to cook, for example. Nathan says, “The value add is any activity that increases the market form or function of the product or service.” If you’re not doing something that adds market form or function, then it’s not necessary. 

Here are the eight wastes.

  1. Defects: These are the mistakes and inaccurate results. Examples might be broken wings, cracked eggs, or incorrectly packed orders. 
  2. Overproduction: Producing more of something before you need it or when it’s not needed at all. 
  3. Waiting: Idle time waiting for something else to happen. Waiting for material. 
  4. Non-utilized people: People have skills, experience, and knowledge that go unused. Maybe the people you do have can’t make decisions or they’re not trained properly.
  5. Transportation: Unnecessary movement.
  6. Inventory: Accumulation of products or parts.
  7. Motion: The movement of people that provide no value to the customer. 
  8. Extra processing: Steps that are not value-added to the customer.

Can you review this list and identify waste in your daily chores, marketing, processing, or business? What about when you sit down to office time and you work through email or phone calls or other administrative tasks? If we look hard enough, I suspect we’ll all find waste waiting to suck our resources like a friend who never brings his wallet to lunch. 

“Waste is time that is trapped in the process. Time is perishable. If you can recognize the waste, you can find the root cause of your problem,” say Nathan. “The waste fundamentally affects the people, and a bad process will beat a good person every time.”

Daily meetings to improve communication

When Nathan started working with Pat, he set up a daily morning meeting with the team. Pat gets to talk to his employees and tell them one thing, one time. The daily meeting must happen every day, even when you’re not present. It establishes consistency and relationships.

The meeting fundamentally improves communication and establishes the direction and tasks for the day. The meeting also allows for a review of mistakes, achievements, sales numbers, product updates, processes, safety, or more.

The daily meeting was an initial challenge for Pat because there was no time. Or so he thought.

As the meeting happens at Pat’s Pastures, it’s 15 minutes every morning and includes everyone from field to office on the farm. The bottom-line benefit is a continuous improvement as a farm team. This is not a meeting where everybody gets their way, but it is a way to receive and provide feedback and consider new ideas. 

The daily meeting also provides a way to provide customer feedback to the employees through a “raving fans” concept. If a customer ate the best chicken of her life, tell your employees about it because they will appreciate it. Let them enjoy the ownership of pleasing the customers through their daily work. 

Small improvements make big results

When Pat started working with Nathan, he tackled the entry area of the kill floor in the processing facility. Pat processes 425 chickens at a time, and Jason Escobar mans the kill floor himself, finding it exhausting at the end of the day. There was a lot of extra movement with the crates because they often had to be moved and spun around to get access to the crate door. 

They improved their throughput of the processing plant to over 200 birds an hour with two simple process improvements. They put a yellow mark on the crate to identify the correct position of the crates. Now the crates can be loaded on the trailer in the right position, and they can be unloaded on the kill floor in the right position. This means Jason does not have to constantly reposition the crates, so the door faces his work area. They’re set from the time the trailer is unloaded.

The trailer also has marks to identify where the crates go. Anyone can look at the trailer and the crates and identify whether they are in the correct position.  

They also changed the number of birds in each crate to match the batch size that went through the scalder and plucker at one time. If the batch size is eight birds, then the crate would hold eight birds, not six or ten. And even though this required more crates, it made the crates lighter for the field crew, which means everyone could lift a crate by themselves. Before, they may have needed two people for heavier crates. The result was a faster load time in the field and unloading time on the kill floor. 

Pat encouraged us in saying we can all do this evaluation, regardless of whether we have a Nathan intervening in our processes. Anyone can do it. Simply ask, “Why?” Then ask, “Why?” again. Then ask, “Why?” again. Figure out why you do the

process the way you do and look for improvements. In the case of evaluating the loading area of the kill floor, Pat and the team spent a full day evaluating the process.

The second Lean process example Pat provided was washing eggs. He started with a goal of 400 dozen eggs per hour, and the Lean process walked him and his team through the steps needed to build the workflow and identify the obstacles to achieving the goal. After you know the goal and the obstacles that stand in the way of the goal, you can solve one problem at a time. 

In two iterations of improving the process, Pat’s Pastured improved from 80 dozen eggs to over 230 dozen per hour washed and packed. Each iteration of the process solved one obstacle. 

Two second lean fix

Nathan describes the two second fix as “fixing what bugs you.” 

Pat has a solar-powered layer house that gets dusty, and on occasion, they need to sweep the solar panel off. That means someone had to go track down a broom and bring it back to the layer house. The quick fix was to attach an ice scraper to the egg mobile so that there was always a brush available to clean off the solar panel. 

Pat chose an ice scraper because he lives in Rhode Island, and they’re common. Most hand-held brushes would accomplish the same thing, but the important thing here is that the tool is not the answer. Identifying the problem and implementing the fix is the goal. 

Then Pat added a tool board to the house to hang a hose and a shovel. Now, within 30 seconds, anyone can find a shovel, and the hose doesn’t get trampled in the dirt.

With regards to hammers, Pat bought a bunch of hammers from Harbor Freight. Each one is painted and can easily be matched to the correct storage location.

Attendee, Kristen Caserta shared a two second fix from her experience. As a shorter person, stepping over the portable fencing nets was a challenge. Adding gates into the fence improved access to the paddock. It wasn’t hard, and the fencing companies sell gates. It is a matter of fixing what bugs you. 

More Lean resources for farmers

I’ve provided enough information from Nathan and Pat’s presentation to give the theoretical feel and practical outcomes that are possible with Lean. Though I think you can take this information and use it to achieve good things, it’s not a tutorial. 

If you want to go deeper into Lean on you farm, register for the Professional Pastured Poultry Conference in Jacksonville, Florida.

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