We can think of no more effective way to optimize a nursery than to remove waste. To explore this, The Peters Company visited JLPN, Inc. and spoke with owner John Lewis and his leadership team about the transformation of this third-generation tree seedling and liner grower. Lewis was joined by shipping/propagation manager John Pedersen, field manager Jeremy Powell and Lean manager Carlos Vergara.
Here are highlights of the interview. For the full case study, visit https://bit.ly/JLPN-lean.
How did JPN get started with Lean?
Lewis: Six years ago, a customer came by—Chris Robinson, Robinson Nursery. I showed him a new piece of equipment that would be a major labor saver. As I showed him the machine he said, “You're basically doing Lean.” And my response was “What's Lean?” He explained the concept and said Robinson was part of this group called the Oregon Lean Consortium with Rick and Liz Peters. Within a week we were in the Lean Consortium.
How did your team respond to that?
Lewis: They probably thought, “Here we go again. John's got a big idea.” And I was like, “No, I mean it this time. We’re doing this to stay competitive. We have fewer people every year. We need to figure out how to do more with less.”
Pedersen: My first reaction was “Here it goes. Something new–and more work.”
Powell: There's fear of not knowing what we're doing when we start. You'll automatically try to protect yourself from the unknown, right?
Vergara: When they started talking about making the job easier and getting more product out without being tired at the end of the day, I was like, “Oh yes, we need that here!”
Lewis: While they were all, “Here we go again,” I didn't waver one bit. “No, we are doing this.” And then I had to prove it. The kaizen events started getting people on board.
Talk about your first Lean event.
Lewis: Processing cuttings took six weeks to do and was a 20-person job. It was slow. It created a ton of waste. We walked across the top of our flats and broke them. The material went all over the floor.
Pedersen: We were harvesting first, then going back later and picking up the flats. I guess we were so excited about how fast we were that we had never looked at it and realized we're not being efficient.
Powell: We would go in there and make a humongous mess and wouldn't come back to clean it up for two or three months. When we did come back, it was because we were planting again, and we were emptying greenhouses and planting them the same day. After the kaizen event we got more done and we weren’t working as hard. We thought our numbers would fall, but when we totaled it all up, we saved all this time and money. By then we were asking, “what's the next event?”
Lewis: So, in one event we eliminated $15,000 worth of broken plastic annually. Our labor reduction was around 35-40%. And we didn't stop there. We continued readdressing that same process and cut production time by 50%.
Powell: We went from sending a mass of people into the greenhouse to sending in two at a time, getting the product out of there, leaving almost zero mess. We also eliminated a horrendous amount of lifting.
Lewis: Our cleanup time went from four hours per greenhouse to 20 minutes. With 60 greenhouses it was 400 hours of labor down to 25. We now process twice as many plants with half as many people.
You say people are your greatest asset. That sounds nice, but what does it really mean?
Lewis: Everybody needs to be engaged for Lean to work. The only way to give everybody that opportunity is to give them the same education. So, I made it available to anyone in our company.
Powell: The quicker you get on board — and the more people you get on board to support it — the faster you see changes. I wouldn't hesitate to put your whole crew through Lean training, not just your managers.
Pedersen: I agree with that. If you get the buy-in of the crew, you'll see your Lean journey go a lot farther than if it's just your managers.
You now have a staff person dedicated to Lean.
Lewis: I set this up as a position, the same as my production manager or sales manager. Carlos is the Lean manager. I needed someone who was willing to educate himself to a point where he could educate people who had more seniority. He’s done great. It’s been an investment in his career and education, and the return has been fantastic.
Vergara: I thought this program was just going to make things easier. But it's a lot more for me. I'm learning more with Lean than just being a regular employee. I’m creating value for the company. I am growing in a good position.
Where are you spending the most money? That's your first target. That's where you’ll make the biggest wins quickly. It will show your people that Lean works.
What advice do you have for other growers?
Lewis: Look at where you're spending the most money. I’ll admit when I saw the improvement numbers of others, I thought, “These are made up. There's no way somebody saved 75% on a process.” How wrong I was. Our tree seedling grading involved 36 people and took three months. We went to 27 people and increased production by 40%. We cut defects. Quality of our grade became better. So, my advice is to go after the big numbers. Where are you spending the most money? That's your first target. That's where you’ll make the biggest wins quickly. It will show your people that Lean works.
Powell: I think the biggest thing is keeping an open mind. I've seen that person who puts up the wall, like they're being judged. Go into it with an open mind.
Pedersen: When you get a group of colleagues together and look at a process and listen to everybody's view — with no judgment — that's a big win. Maybe you’re thinking, “There's only one way to do it.” That’s not true.
Lewis: Waste is everywhere. That’s why we did the same process three times. Continuous improvement is just that: you always improve.
Another critical concept is that you will fail without leadership. We've been in the Lean Consortium six years and seen hugely successful Lean companies. We've seen others create success then go back to the way they did it before, because leadership wasn't there.