Are You Keeping Up?

Kodak had a monopoly on film and invented the digital camera.  They are out of business.  Blockbuster video changed the way people received their entertainment.  They are out of business.  Ever heard of Compaq computers, Polaroid, Radio Shack, Pan Am, MCI, Standard Oil, or Woolworths?  They are out of business.  How can these behemoths of industry and retail disappear despite their strength and position?

Simple answer is that they were not able to or refused to change as the world changed around them.  One of my favorite quotes is from Eric Shinseki, General US Army, retired who said, “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.” Agriculture is changing today (It has always been changing) but unlike change in the past it seems to be happening quicker so it is perhaps more obvious.

I watched a video of a young man this morning talk about how difficult the farming environment is and how farming families are struggling.  I myself went through the struggle of closing a family farm in the early 90s and I can empathize with his feelings.  I have come to understand the truth in the last 20 years that change is inevitable and time wasted on holding onto the past is in fact wasted.  Your focus needs to be on how you are going to change with the environment.

I know many of you reading this have heard me talk about the need to change before.  I will likely continue to talk about change because I want you to succeed.  I continue to see farmers focused on how the outside environment might change so they don’t have to. If only inputs went down and prices went up, is the opinion of so many people.  That would be easier but who said it should be easy. 

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Seize the opportunity of crisis

My observation of farms is that they are ridged environments. Change is slow and painful. Change is resisted by owners and employees. The hardest thing we do is change. The word ‘change’ strikes fear into a lot of people and organizations.

There is a time however when ridged environments become malleable, when the fear of change is overrun by the need for change. That is during a crisis. It is the effect coaches and CEOs capitalize on when they take over a failing team or desperate company and turn it around; succeeding where others failed.

It is during a crisis that we are open to change. It is so powerful that successful CEO often prolong the appearance of crisis to receive the maximum benefit. in “The Power of Habit” author Charles Duhigg talks about Paul O’Neil’s time at Alcoa (later he became Secretary of Treasury) and how he took advantage of their crisis to modernize the dinosaur of a company Alcoa had become. Alcoa was a segmented and territorial multi-national company with layers of politics that made it impossible to succeed. O’Neil quadrupled earnings during his tenure by using crisis to tear down old ways of thinking and old processes.

Crisis are difficult, but they happen. You can use the opportunity of crisis to change your farm for the better; to become more profitable and resilient while people are open to change. Go for it.

Tribal Knowledge

Tribal Knowledge is the information that employees acquire over time but is not documented or easy for new employees to obtain.  As employers we should be striving to eliminate Tribal Knowledge completely as quickly as we can. 

There is a tremendous amount of waste involved in bringing people up to speed with all of the information that they need to be successful at a new job. At the same time that you are trying to indoctrinate these new team members into your culture they are trying to figure out such trivial items as where to take the garbage, how to use the fuel pump, or whether they can use a wrench out of a tool box.  These are perfect examples of items that visual management can improve. 

My suggestion is to interview new hires often and keep track of questions they ask, then come up solutions to bring tribal knowledge into the light. For trash put a map in the break room with dumpster locations, make all of the trash cans the same color, and mark on the side a mark to show that they are full enough to be emptied.  How about an organized tool area with all of the tools in a designated space and a sign that says “Please return these tools when finished”? Laminated signs on the fuel pump designating the type of fuel, the way to use the pump, and having each machine clearly labeled to where and what fuel to use.

The best part about getting Tribal Knowledge into the open is that you only need to set up a system once and then take some small effort to maintain it. Once things are documented you will be saving money and burden for each new employee that you onboard.

Is It Too Late to Change?

This showed up on my Facebook page the other day.  It is a reminder of the choices that get made and never revisited.  Farmers tell me "we have always done it that way" or "we spent a lot of money on those so we have to use them", what they might as well be saying is we are married to our mistakes and unwilling to change.  

People don't want to admit they made a mistake (that goes for me too, ask my wife).  So what we need to do is use a more analytical style of decision making.  Processes change, our operations change, markets change, so why shouldn't we change?  Likewise the information we have changes; when new information is presented to make us look at a decision in another way we shouldn't view it as a mistake in the past but rather an opportunity for the future.  

Let's not let the actions of the past hold us back today and tomorrow.  You may be missing an opportunity to really excel with something new.