Lessening Labor Pains At Four Star Greenhouse

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Slideshow: Four Star Greenhouse

Jeff Back wants his production line supervisors walking the lines, encouraging employees and making sure cuttings are stuck at the correct depths. Back when Four Star Greenhouse used hand scanners to track inventory, some supervisors were preoccupied scanning trays as they were loaded on carts and spending less time working directly with employees.

But ever since Four Star invested in stationary bar code scanners that track inventory and employee efficiency, supervisors are freed up to ensure quality cuttings are produced and employees are working at a more efficient pace.

“There are a couple different reasons why we went with stationary scanners,” says Back, who serves Four Star as general manager. “First, we wanted to free up some labor. We had been using one of our supervisors to do the hand scanning as the product came off the belt. As carts were loaded, supervisors would scan trays on the carts to capture the actual product ID and the employee number.”

Four Star, located in Carleton, Mich., still tracks product ID and employee numbers as trays are scanned. But trays are now scanned on a conveyor belt immediately after they’re moved off the production line. The information pulled from the scan is then projected live on nearby screens that hover from the ceiling.

“We’re able to accurately record the output of each employee as [product] comes off the line,” Back says. “Then, as an enhancement with the fixed scanner, we can display actual employee rates. When we were hand scanning before, trays might not be scanned until 20 minutes later.”

Four Star Greenhouse

Owner: Tom Smith

Headquarters: Carleton, Mich.

Size: 1.3 million square feet indoors

Crops: Plugs and propagation, ornamental bedding plants

Now, employees keep a watchful eye on their productivity as their trays leave the production line. Nobody, after all, wants their supervisor and colleagues knowing they’re bringing up the rear in regard to productivity. So employees work at an even quicker pace to make sure they’re sticking cuttings at the base expectation Four Star sets.

“On the screen, one thing that’s really cool is if employees are under the base (expectation) per hour, their numbers will show up red. It’s a very quick indicator of what employees are producing.”

Screens are also useful for supervisors, who can simply look up to see who might need a hand. “Maybe there’s something that an employee doesn’t understand,” Back says. “Supervisors can encourage them to scan faster and do better work.”

Employees are also extra motivated because they earn bonuses based on their productivity in addition to their standard hourly wages. Each genus has a different productivity rate, and there’s a different base expectation set for each genus Four Star employees stick.

“The display screen also shows the bonuses for each genus we do,” Back says. “We set up our bonuses based on the different genera of plants. They can see what the base is for what they’re sticking, how many they’ve stuck per hour and how many they’ve stuck for the total time they’ve spent working with that genus.”

Small delicate cuttings can be troublesome, and the bonus for every tray produced over the base is 50 cents per tray. Four Star pays 25 cents per tray for other genera, so employees can pad their paychecks with a little extra cash each pay period. “Some people get as much in bonus as in pay,” Back says.

Quality is just as important as ever, though. Employees can’t simply race through their assignments, sticking as many cuttings as they can get their hands on to earn bonuses. That kind of performance defeats the purpose of quality, as does a piece-rate system, which opposes the standards lean flow consultants like FlowVision set.

“FlowVision is really against piece-rate (bonuses) due to the lack of quality,” Back says. “Quality control needs to be in place. We’re very efficient and we also have quality control on the back side, making sure a crew leader inspects trays once they’re set.”

Four Star employs 240 people during peak season, and Week 9 is now the busiest week of the growing season for the company. Weeks 3 and 4 used to be Four Star’s busiest.

This year, Four Star ranks 19th on our Top 25 Young Plant Growers list with 48 million young plants produced to sell. The operation is producing 7 million more young plants to sell than it did in 2008.

More production means more labor, but those stationary scanners alleviate a burden the operation might otherwise have.

“With the stationary scanning, we’re able to get the crew leaders out walking the lines–which is where we want them–and checking the quality of work being done. We want them encouraging people, making sure everything is at the same depth.”

Kevin Yanik is the former managing editor of Greenhouse Grower.
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