Seven Lessons from Farming for Process Improvement

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Pratik Shah

Weeds are troublesome plants that divert precious soil resources away from more valuable crops. Sound familiar to waste in processes? Patrik Shah says that process improvement practitioners could learn a lot from farming.

Farmers have to adapt to changing conditions year on year different weather patterns, changing soil conditions, new technology, more resistant pests and viruses etc. Farmers must upgrade their processes and working methods each year to get the best outcome.

This scenario could be compared to the challenges facing global organisations - regardless of whether it’s an IT company, a bank, or a manufacturer. The core business will vary, the processes will be different, but the need to continuously upgrade existing processes and adapt to changing conditions is the same regardless of your industry.

But the problem is that many businesses struggle with adapting processes to change. Here’s what process improvement practitioners should learn from farming

1. Involve Workers in Decisions

Farm workers know the soil best. They know what is good for different seeds and how the climatic conditions will affect those seeds. A farmer would be crazy to make decisions without the input of those working in the fields as they will best understand the impact of any proposed changes.

Similarly in an organization, employees are the best candidates to suggest what sort of change they expect, what needs most attention, propose solutions, and identify unnecessary work that is a waste of time and money. We must not forget that processes are human driven and engaging workers is the key to successful process improvement.

2. Pick Out Weeds

Weeds are troublesome plants that divert precious soil resources away from more valuable crops. They are often fast growing, hardy, and pop up just about anywhere at any time. A farmer will invest considerable effort in removing weeds because he realizes that unless he weeds his field regularly, they will diminish the success of the overall crop.

So it goes with companies – there will always be unwanted waste that crops up in the processes of a company - processes can become redundant overtime, or include unnecessary steps that eat up time, resources and concentration.

Organizations need to carefully identify what is needed and what is not needed. But tinker at your peril - some processes that may look unnecessary in one part of the company could be crucial for another. A farmer won’t pull anything that’s green and growing out the ground and neither should you strip out everything that looks wasteful without first understanding why it exists.


3. Prepare the field

Once the weeds are picked, the farmer tills the field, confident in the knowledge that he has removed the vast majority of weed seeds that would interfere with the success of his crop. Now that the weeds have been picked he is sure that his labor and other inputs are going directly to improve the prospects of the desired crop and not to weeds. He tills the field in straight lines as he understands that this is the most efficient way of farming, enabling access to the crops while they’re growing, and making it easy to harvest the crop.

Similarly in a company, once unwanted processes are identified and removed, you want to make sure that the remaining processes are organized in the best way and aligned with the overall goals of the company. If not, restructure them, make changes, until they’re aligned and ready for further improvement.

4. Choose Treatments Carefully

Farmers use fertilizers and other chemicals to boost harvests and ward off pests. Selecting the right product for the climate, soil and seed is essential to its success. Similarly, organizations need to leverage technology to make substantial efficiency improvement in processes. Evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of each option according to business requirements.

5. Understand What You're Trying to Achieve

What is the farmer hoping to achieve from all this work? That’s probably fairly self evident – a successful crop. Other outcomes – like improved soil quality and reduced weed growth – are mechanisms to achieve the overall outcome.

If the farmer was not clear on the fact that his success would be determined by the abundance of his overall crop he may make different decisions along the way. For instance, if he defined and measured his mission as "reduced weed growth" he would observe that he could achieve this by not applying fertilizer – but in doing so he would harm the success of his crop.

In business, clearly defining and understanding the objective of process improvement is essential. What is the overall outcome that we are wanting to achieve? What are the smaller outcomes that will help us get there?

If you are not clear what your process improvement is trying to achieve you may be focusing on the wrong processes and achieving outcomes that do not contribute to what actually matters most.

6. Maintain the Crop

Would a farmer ignore his field for a month? Of course not, weeds would start to crop up all over the place, pests could attack, and the entire crop could fail if he did!

Processes - new and existing – must be monitored to ensure that they continue to function as designed. Keep an eye on them and set up a governance system that overlooks all processes and makes sure they are being followed appropriately.

7. Have Patience & Measure Your Progress

The final thing that process improvement practitioners can learn from farmers is the importance of patience and measuring your progress. Process improvement is not a one-off activity or not something which can be rushed through in a couple of days. It is an ongoing activity.

That's why it is important to measure your progress. You want to make sure that you're heading in the right direction (i.e. is the farmer's crop growing and how quickly?). As improvement is a long term activity, you want to baseline your measurements and review them often to see how well - or badly - you're doing.

Prepare the ground well, don’t neglect your crop while it’s growing, keep an eye out for recurring and perennial weeds but no matter how well you’ve prepared the soil don’t expect your seeds to mature overnight into a fully grown plant.