Improving labor efficiency on farms

To sustainably achieve improved labor efficiency, begin with changes in leadership by farm owners.

A man standing in a cornfield.

Farms vary widely in measures of labor efficiency. In my previous article, “Dairy farm labor efficiency” from Michigan State University Extension, data from 20 dairy farms over a wide range of sizes showed there is opportunity at any size to improve efficiency. Highly functioning teams are not limited based on size of farm, and when they function, efficiency is greater. Achieving efficiency starts with the owners.

Based on work we have been doing with employee management on farms, we believe the key to improving labor efficiency begins with recognizing workers as colleagues and working together toward goals. How can you lead the effort in improving labor efficiency? Here are a few points to consider and to evaluate on your farm.

Treat employees as colleagues. It is a mindset - a frame of reference that impacts how you interact with employees. Consider your workers as partners with you in the success of the farm. Teach employees not just how to do a job, but how to evaluate it as they go, and consider what will happen in various situations. Teach them how to make management decisions, thinking through alternatives and consequences. Engage employees in problem discovery and identification of waste. Brainstorm together on solutions, and recognize their ideas, good or not, as gifts to the business. Truly consider their ideas and if they cannot be implemented, use their ideas as teaching opportunities. Be as transparent as possible about decisions, problems, management choices, and even financial impact. When you respect your employees as partners in the success of the farm, they will be more loyal and more valuable, because they respect you.

Set Expectations. Quality should be defined and expected. If it is expected, then it is the baseline, not something extra. There should be an expectation (written and communicated) of how long tasks should take. Involve your workers on setting that time. Make allowance for someone who is learning the job, but reinforce the expectation that the task can be done within the specified time without shortcuts. Review protocols and standard operating procedures (SOPs) to make sure they are designed to get the desired result as efficiently as possible. For example, it may involve repositioning supplies to where they will be needed.

Train and Coach. Training teaches people how and why to do something. Coaching helps keep them engaged in becoming better at their role for the benefit of the business. We have been impressed with the need for continued coaching. Every sports team member experiences ongoing coaching to improve and help the team win more. Every work team member should also receive continued coaching so that the farm team can succeed. Repeatedly, we hear about employees who want to learn more about the animals they work with. Provide them with the education they desire and they will be more likely to make better decisions. Training and coaching have no end, because learning has no end.

Yield autonomy. Autonomy can be defined as the need to perceive we have choices and control of our actions. It’s the freedom to do the right thing and it is one of the basic psychological needs of people according to the book, “When motivating people doesn’t work . . . and what does,” by Susan Fowler. Your employees should feel that they have independence to accomplish goals, be competent in knowing the why behind protocols, and what to do when the “what if’s” occur. They should be trained to become specialists in their roles. The feeling of competence is another basic psychological need. They should be trusted and expected to cover their job and be held responsible for the results.

Provide Leadership. When you lead, you show the way, encourage, and equip. Having a good relationship with employees generally results in higher productivity. Take time to get to know your team members. The third basic psychological need is relatedness. Relate to your employees in a professional and equal manner. Regularly provide them with specific performance feedback, whether it is positive, corrective, or re-directive. People thrive on feedback, especially positive feedback. Talk to employees about their work. Help them to think about it. We will never make employees who are not mentally engaged more efficient. Your job is to help them be engaged.

Develop a productive work shift structure. Even though employees may want to work long shifts or many shifts a week, it doesn’t mean they will be productive all that time. Studies have shown that providing employees a meaningful work break improves productivity and accuracy. Employees will also want to have a break with their colleagues, rather than alternating breaks. Evaluate how many hours per week employees are working and whether it is sustainable. If they live on-site, offer them opportunities for their free time, such as a soccer field or workout room. As the farm grows, reconsider each job function to make sure that labor efficiency increases and work is streamlined.

Maintain an organized work environment. Don’t cause employees to waste time by searching for a tool or supply that should be easily found. Make sure the inventory of tools is stocked and they are in an easily identified place. Clearly label tools and their locations. Tools need to be in proper working order and the work environment should be free of clutter. In addition, make safety and the well-being of people a priority. Recognize “close calls” and make changes in protocols and equipment to prevent a future accident - accidents ruin labor efficiency.  

Observe routines and work practices. It is good to watch employees in action with labor efficiency in mind. Many farms have cameras but don’t use the footage to look for waste in routines. Evaluate not just performance, but the flow of work. Find areas of systemic inefficiency. Determine how employee time is spent and what impacts it. Conduct process analysis to see where time goes and eliminate distractions and waste.

Reduce employee turnover. In a study of 12 dairies, we found employee turnover ranged from single to triple digits. We recognize that there are multiple reasons for turnover, but longevity should help you improve efficiency. You really can’t improve efficiency when workers are continually changing. Therefore, review your hiring practices, your plan to prepare employees for the job, and development in their roles.  When the above things are done well, these should reduce employee turnover. 

Efficiency begins with you, as the farm’s leader. Your workers will not become better if you stay the same. Become a leader of people and show them that you respect and value their lives. Develop employees to become valuable teammates to work with you to solve problems, make the farm better, and improve your farm’s labor efficiency.

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