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Continuous Improvement: From the Farm to the Conference Room

Continuous Improvement from the Farm to the Conference Room

Posted By: Asha Bianca
Updated: November 8, 2018

Lean principles are key to any successful business. We know this intrinsically, but quantifying and procreating it is a more difficult exercise. I recently toured a completely organic and biodynamic farm. It struck me how incredibly good they are at this topic of continuous improvement. And this is for one key reason—their very survival depends on it.

For example, it takes several years to even qualify as an organic farm. This means that similar to the journey many companies are on to permeate the lean culture throughout every level of their organization (refining who you’re going to be, how you’re going to be it, and obtaining any type of title associated with those efforts), the endeavor is a marathon...not a sprint.

Another example is the term biodynamic, which in the sense of farming, observes treating the entire farm as one ecosystem. They must understand how one influence (pigs for instance) impacts and affects another (apple orchard soil). This enterprise-wide view is key to continuous improvement, because a company is a living breathing organism where every part affects another.

Bold Decisions

The tour hit home when the farmer explained they had to tear out an entire section of a particular crop variety because it didn’t work well with the farm’s overall objective. The cost of maintaining it would have been simply too high, taking the entire farm into account. This bold decision to conserve the main goal, even if it caused a temporary loss, was inspiring. The practice of lining up products, work, and resources to really see how they are benefiting the primary goal, and then having the courage to take a loss in order to focus on the greater good, is an exercise every great leader should utilize more often.

Continuous Experimentation

My final observation from this tour, and how it relates to our business world, is one of continuous experimentation. This goes hand in hand with continuous improvement. The rigor with which they tried new things continually struck me. There was a growing tunnel built purely for experimentation, and it was used to test new ways of doing things...and often, those experiments failed! However, sometimes a success turned into the next big thing that led to another season of earnings. This commitment to innovation is a big one. The time, energy, and resources involved in testing something every single day of the year is a discipline that many companies could learn from.

Continuous Improvement Takeaways

Following are some key continuous improvement takeaways from farming that also apply in the conference room:

  1. Don’t be hasty. Behavioral, and cultural change in particular, takes time. Make sure you are planning and investing in the long haul. For any real change in problem solving and innovation to stick, it needs to have deep roots throughout all levels of the organization.
     
  2. One world. Although your efforts with continuous improvement may be departmental, your measuring of it needs to be company-wide. Thinking of behavioral or cultural change in silos works best with coaching and specific corrective focus, but it shouldn’t be used as the example for how to measure your total company’s progress. Lean toward thinking of the progress report as the slowest adopter. Once that group is making progress, you’ll see the ripple effects increase. The term tilth in farming comes to mind. Tilth is used to describe “the general health of the soil including a balance of nutrients, water, and air. Soil that is healthy and has good physical qualities is in good tilth.”
     
  3. Be a bold pruner. If one crop, product line, resource, and so on, is causing a detrimental outcome for the whole farm, it's time to take the short-term loss and invest in the long-run. This takes far more courage than we often realize.
     
  4. Try something new everyday. We can’t be certain what the next high yield or greater efficiency is. Therefore, we need to continually be on the lookout, investing in testing strategies, asking questions, and trying new techniques. In the interest of leading well, be sure you are as diligent at learning from your failures as revelling in your successes. There is great benefit to both.

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If you are interested in more of Asha Bianca's unique perspectves on leadership, check out her other articles: The Critical Business Leadership Trait Nobody Talks About, How the Most Effective Leaders Master the Art of Followership, and Can You Effectively Lead Without Coaching?