Process improvements

Features - Next Generation

Chris Robinson, GM of Robinson Nursery, turned to Lean to improve efficiencies and engage his staff.

March 7, 2017

Courtesy of Chris Robinson

On any given day, up to 20 employees stake trees at Robinson Nursery in Amity, Ore.—and each one has a slightly different technique. General manager Chris Robinson realized the variability had a negative impact on productivity and set a goal of developing a standardized process.

“The goal is to add value to the product by making the process faster and cheaper,” explains Robinson. “Using the collective knowledge of our employees, we can come up with better, more efficient ways to do things.”

Robinson started focusing on process improvements six years ago.

A second-generation nurseryman, Robinson learned about Lean through the Oregon Association of Nurseries (OAN) and believed the disciplined structure for eliminating waste could help him make his mark on the 600-acre nursery.

Robinson visits with Elizabeth and Rick Peters of the Oregon Nursery Lean Consortium, about Lean principles at the nursery. His involvement in the Consortium has helped make several production practices more efficient.
Courtesy of Chris Robinson

“My parents have a great team of employees and built a very good company,” he says. “I was trying to figure out where I was going to fit in; Lean was a good opportunity to look at things differently and for me to bring value to the company.”

Robinson, 33, grew up in the family business. His parents, Rick and Roxanne Robinson, opened the nursery in 1984, and Robinson started doing odd jobs to earn an allowance when he was just eight years old. After graduating high school, Robinson joined the crew full time and hoped that spending years pruning suckers, propagating bare-root trees and shipping stock would earn him a spot on the management team.

“It was my dream to manage the nursery and I thought I was on a path to do that,” he recalls. “I had no plans to go to college but my mom and dad said, ‘If you want to manage our business, you have to get a business degree.’”

Robinson spent the next four years at Linfield College. Upon graduation, he was promoted to inventory manager. The promotion came during the height of the recession and Robinson felt pressure to figure out how to do more with less. Embracing Lean, he decided, was the answer. Robinson signed up for a Lean training program through OAN.

“I was young enough to think I could do anything,” he quips.

Although Robinson believed Lean could be transformational, convincing his team was difficult. He cites a language barrier (most of the employees speak Spanish and Robinson is far from fluent) and an unwillingness to change old habits as major barriers to Lean adoption. Robinson persisted.

By applying Lean principles at the potting line, Robinson and his team increased production up to 50 percent.
Courtesy of Chris Robinson

“I spent five years trying to make it happen and there were some bright spots,” he says.

Shrinking the area for bare-root processing from 30,000 square feet to 5,000 square feet helped increase production from 32 plants per man hour to 52 plants per man hour because staff spent less time moving bundles of trees around the building. Similar gains were achieved in the potting area.

With the help of the Oregon Nursery Lean Consortium, a team of horticulture industry companies that work together to drive innovation and process improvements, Robinson recognized that the person performing the planting stopped an average of eight times per hour. The team applied Lean principles and helped increase production up to 50 percent.

“We were happy with production because it was so much faster with the machine [than doing it manually], but Lean helped me see that we could further reduce waste,” says Robinson. “We attacked every single reason the planter was stopping and fixed it.”

Lean is about continual improvement, and it involves getting feedback from employees.
Sheldon traver/Mid-Valley Photography

The results of implementing Lean have made Robinson a champion for the approach—and helped him earn the respect of his employees.

“In a traditional management system, the manager tells you what to do but Lean management uses collective opinions to come up with the best ways to do things,” Robinson explains. “It gives everyone a voice. Our employees are our best appreciating asset and when the team is on board, we can accomplish great things,” he adds.

In 2016, Robinson took an important step to transform Robinson Nursery into a Lean organization: He promoted two bilingual employees; both underwent Lean training and helped deliver the message to all employees. The new trainer conducts Lean education for all new employees and the quality control manager works on process improvements in all areas of the nursery.

“We’re trying to create a Lean culture within the company and we expect people to develop processes the Lean way,” Robinson says. “It’ll never be easy but we’ll keep driving toward it every day. Lean is about continual improvement.”

Robinson and his brother, Josh, are preparing to take over the nursery when his parents retire in 2018.

“Both my brother and I want to make sure that my parents’ legacy lives on,” he says. “We also want to be prepared to create our own legacy.”