Eliminate the Gray Areas

1/18/2014 7:00 AM

Look for those “gray areas” that may be costing you<\n> money and workers. Taking steps to eliminate the gray — creating SOPs that are used and having good conversations daily — can be two steps forward toward a better environment for you and your workforce.

One recent discussion with some dairy producers turned a bit philosophical when it came to workers on the dairies. One said, “You’ve got to keep things simple, otherwise you can create too many problems to manage.” A fellow producer agreed and emphasized the need to keep good workers rather than risk turnover and retraining. The conversation ebbed and flowed and eventually moved on to other topics, but a few questions remain.

1. Should producers change management practices to accommodate employees?

2. Are good workers such a hot commodity that producers trade high expectations for worker longevity?

3. Is a stable, skilled workforce out of reach?

Dairy owners and managers have an enormous amount of information at their fingertips, and they develop sets of “best practices” for various areas of the operation based on this information. For example, parlor routines are based on the basic biology of oxytocin release created by a good prep procedure, appropriate prep-lag times, etc. The research data is available; the understanding of that data is useful at the farm level, but what about the implementation — putting it into practice? It’s the gray area that is the hand off between manager and worker. The manager has the information, knows the proper methods, understands the importance and the economic implications of good versus bad practices — but how does that get translated to the front line workers? Gray areas allow for interpretation — sometimes incorrectly — of how to complete a task, even those seemingly simple tasks such as milking, feeding or cleaning up.

So what’s the answer to question No. 1 above — should we adjust management to make it easier for workers? Isn’t this lowering the bar? Would it be better to set the standard based on current knowledge and best practices, then train and enforce that standard? By eliminating that gray area with a good standard operating procedure, or SOP — maybe with some photos, bilingual with correct wording — managers can better define correct and incorrect practices. Training workers for correct ways with an SOP and building understanding within the workforce will allow for better enforcement when workers may be moving back to old habits or incorrect practices. With some time and effort, it can be both simple and effective.

What about the second question — keeping good workers? Would you be likely to stay at a job where what you were doing and how you were expected to do it were unclear (those gray areas again)? We have all heard the phrase that “cows crave consistency”; well, so do people. Good managers create good workers by letting them know what to expect, what is important, and also what is not acceptable or tolerated — often before those problems arise. Communication is likely the biggest gray area on the farm. Often workers may be unsure of how to complete a task, and rather than ask questions, they use the knowledge that they have to complete it as best they can. Their methods might not be correct, or the task might not get done at all. Managers are then faced with costly mistakes, doing or redoing, and correcting workers — frustrating for both managers and workers. A better approach would be to anticipate problem areas — find the gray — and explain, break down steps, use SOPs and have detailed conversations. If you ask, “Do you understand?” — I will say yes. If you ask, “Can you show me how you do this?” — we will both learn something. Workers want to stay out of the gray, so better conversations and more clarity can result in more skilled workers that want to stay on your dairy. Simple, yet effective.

So that stable, skilled workforce may not quite be within reach, especially given the current climate for immigration reform, but look at the workforce that you have. Look for those gray areas that may be costing you money and workers. Taking steps to eliminate the gray — creating SOPs that are used and having good conversations daily — can be two steps forward toward a better environment for you and your workforce.

Editor’s Note: Lisa A. Holden is a Penn State associate professor of dairy and animal science.

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