Production efficiencies: Lean into the changes

Features - NGBC

Nurseries use Lean Flow processes to improve efficiency.

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During discussions on automation and production innovations, NGBC participants learned how North Creek Nurseries and Carolina Native Nursery adopted Lean principles in parts of their operations.

It was 2009, and North Creek Nurseries was looking for an edge, any kind of edge. Sales and revenues were down, and though the recession was the main cause, Steve Castorani, the nursery’s owner, thought inefficiencies were partly to blame.

It was then that Castorani heard Gary Cortes of FlowVision LLC, speak at an IPPS meeting. He was intrigued by the idea of incorporating Lean principles into his Landenberg, Pa., nursery. He spoke with general manager and COO, Tim McGinty, about it and they decided to contact Cortes.

After a consultation, the nursery leaders decided that the shipping facility was a prime target.

“We were building inventory, moving a lot of product too much and having people move too much,” McGinty says. “Sometimes we were overprocessing the old way. They helped us drive that waste out. And we did. We got a 60 percent increase in productivity.”

The goal was to increase shipping capacity and make better use of the vertical space in the facility, as well. Before reorganizing the shipping area, the nursery used to lay product on benches then assemble orders off benches.

“We’d have to fill it four, five or six times at peak,” McGinty says. “This enabled the facility to cut that to two fills at peak demand. We just flow it in, because now we assemble off of carts.”

The carts are organized into what the nursery calls a “supermarket,” which is alphabetized by location, to match the nursery’s shipping tickets. Instead of 15 to 25 employees moving through the nursery picking product and hauling it back to the benches, that task is now handled by four employees, even at peak times.

“FlowVision flips that because all of those people moving through the nursery that many times is motion waste,” McGinty says.

Bill Jones, president of Carolina Native Nursery in Burnsville, N.C., learned that any size nursery can use Lean principles to their advantage. Jones learned about Lean from North Creek’s Castorani during a visit to Pennsylvania.

“We were sitting at his dining room table and he was telling me about the changes they made. Then I went out and read all I could about Lean,” Jones recalls.

Jones adopted a Lean technique in the potting area, which increased efficiency by some 30 percent. The key: everything needed to pot up liners is put in one central location, which is as close as possible to where the plants will stay during production. A crew of four and sometimes five uses a hopper filled with growing media and equipped with four working stations. Next to the hopper is everything the crew needs — liners, pots, labels and fertilizer. A forklift brings all the supplies to the work station. The hopper, also called the potting wagon, has sockets that fill 1-, 3- and 7-gallon pots. The pots slide into the sockets and the soil comes out of the bottom of the hopper and onto a table of sorts.

“We’re trying to touch the plants as few times as possible,” Jones says. “Actually, we’re really only touching them once until it’s time to ship them. We pull them out of the flat, sweep the soil into the pot and pop in the plant and top dress with fertilizer, label it and water it, all in the spot where it will remain until it’s sold.”

The nursery adopted the same practices in the propagation area.

Besides lowering the number of touches to the plant, the system lessens the amount of steps the crew must take. And that equals labor savings and more profit.

“It’s not down to a science like a Ford manufacturing plant. But it works and we’re not a big nursery,”’ he adds. “Lean is about constantly looking at procedures and making them more streamlined and quick as possible.”

Lean also provides opportunities for automating processes, and Jones is researching ways to automate parts of the nursery.

After the success of incorporating Lean into the shipping facility, North Creek is experimenting with ways to use it in production. The nursery built a new greenhouse and set up a production line with six different propagation types. Castorani and McGinty have been collecting data this spring to determine how much time it takes to produce their plants using those six different methods. So far, some methods have shown more promise than others.

“Some of the methods we’ve made a 100 percent efficiency improvement increase on transplanting,” McGinty says. “Others, we’ve seen 40 percent, 62 percent increases. But for a couple of the propagation types we gained nothing with the production line.”

Making major operational changes like Lean isn’t always a smooth process. When North Creek implemented Lean in 2010, four key employees walked out in April. Each had 10-plus years with the company.

“They were key guys, but they weren’t going to conform,” McGinty says. “I think they saw the writing on the wall and left. We replaced them and never skipped a beat.”

The nursery expected a period of transition, which is why it got involved in the Working Smarter Training Challenge, a program developed by Jim Paluch, president of JP Horizons. The program, developed primarily for landscapers, helps workers focus on learning and applying Lean Flow principles. McGinty says North Creek was the first nursery to use its principles.