Dairy farm labor: ‘Are your systems holding you back?’

Dairy farm labor is the thing that many farms struggle with. “Do your systems work to improve your odds? Or are your systems holding you back?” asks professional dairy coach Tom Wall of Dairy Interactive LLC of his audiences, as he did recently at a dairy summit in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

“Solid systems and smart designs are among the keys to consistent employee performance,” says Wall.

Live the mission. Having a clearly-defined mission that is lived — not a statement in a binder — also improves employee success on the dairy farm, according to Wall. Using the examples of Chick Fil A and McDonald’s from the fast food industry, he illustrates how the mission, clarity, discipline and accountability in a business impact the habits of the people working there — and ultimately the results that are achieved.

Expect, not accept. Employees need to know “what you expect, not what you’ll accept,” said Wall. They also need clarity. “You’ve got to be clear in what you want them to do and how to do it. Define it. Don’t waffle,” he said. “Everything matters.”

Be decisive and specific in the steps employees are expected to perform. Avoid steps that are “either/or” and avoid descriptions that are approximate. For example, in milking prep, keep it simple and straightforward to reduce the
margin for error. Fewer steps and logical sequences.

“Think like McDonald’s,” said Wall. “Avoid having employees backtrack in the parlor when executing the steps in the prep process. Think in terms of flow. What makes sense? What makes it easy?

Live the discipline. Wall stressed the importance of dairy owners and managers “actually living the discipline they expect from employees. “There’s nothing worse than a manager who does not follow the rules,” said Wall. “No exceptions.”

This also falls under accountability. “When you do your job as managers, the employees are more likely to do theirs. If you slack, they slack,” he said. “Hold yourself and others accountable.”

Reduce conflict. While there’s nothing worse than conflict, Wall cautioned against passively letting things go until they become harder to deal with.

Firm but fair. Accountability means owning it, being firm but fair, and able to exercise tough love, said Wall. He emphasized how the best managers are the tough ones, who develop employees the most. “They are the ones who own what they say and stick to it and are able to apologize for being wrong.”

Differentiate. When managers are indifferent, actions teach that there’s little difference between doing a good job and a bad job, Wall explained. By differentiating — rewarding behaviors and performance you want and calling attention to what you don’t want — your words have weight.

Smart design. In addition to solid systems for employee success, Wall talked about smart work space design. Giving examples from the fast food and retail industries, he said the trick is to adapt smart design to the dairy farm setting.

“Start at one end of the parlor and work your way to the other,” he said, advising managers to watch the milking routine on the remote camera to see how efficient the systems and design are in the milking parlor. When he does this on a dairy he is coaching, he often sees many steps that are “out of place” where employees go “out of
their way” to do something in the protocol.

Tools, time, track it forward. “You want the tools they need to be in the right place and you want the steps in the process to move from one end to the other without backtracking,” said Wall. “You don’t want people wandering around, back and forth.

“They should how long a step takes because seconds turn into minutes and minutes make hours.”

When making corn silage in the fall, Wall gave the example of trucks lining up at the silage pile. “Get everyone in to keep that pack going so trucks can keep moving,” said
Wall. “It should be a well choreographed operation, like a dance.”

Plan it. Stage it. This comes down to knowing how long each facet of the harvest takes with the amount of equipment capability on the farm. “That silage harvest is the once-a-year process that keeps us alive or kills us all year long, so it’s all hands on deck to keep moving.”

Take out the guesswork. In the milking parlor, Wall described how smart design can be as simple as color-coding dippers and pre-measuring things like milk replacer so there are fewer details to train for. Transfer products from large containers to small ones in the parlor to avoid trips back to bulk containers and take time away from the workflow.

“How ‘color-coded’ is your farm?” he asked. “Take the tips and best management practices from the restaurant and hospitality trade to “straighten that line your employees are working as they repetitively perform the protocols you want accomplished.”

Be clear and precise. He noted that there are multiple wrong ways to do something, and managers should be clear and precise in communicating the one right way to do something.

Set up for success. The bottom line, said Wall, is that, “We need to get serious to develop our people and our teams on dairies today. By setting up solid systems and smart, well-designed work spaces, we set employees up for success.”

While the employees are held accountable to execute the system, the manager/owner is accountable for providing the systems and tools to get it done efficiently.

Wall also encourages farms to bring in employees on a trial period, to on-board them, give them the tools and smart systems to succeed and evaluate them after a trial period. Be clear, disciplined, mission-driven and have accountability from the top-down throughout the system, to “improve your odds of success.”

(By Sherry Bunting, February 2019)


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