Make Your Employees A Lean, Mean Team

Make Your Employees A Lean, Mean Team

lean manufacturing

Walter Gravagna, the president of Van de Wetering Greenhouses, a Greenhouse Grower Top 100 Grower located on Long Island, N.Y., had heard of the lean manufacturing concept, but he found it to be rather elusive. Lean manufacturing is the idea that eliminating waste, be it incidental work or damage to products, allows businesses to operate at maximum efficiency.


After increasing his plug tray sticking production by more than 20 percent just two hours after implementing a new progressive sticking method, Gravagna feels differently about the concept.

“If you would have told me we’d get those kinds of results, I would have said forget it,” Gravagna says. “But you have to be open-minded.”

The lean manufacturing process all started when Gravagna noticed one of his longtime customers received Van de Wetering shipments much faster. Elzinga & Hoeksema Greenhouses of Kalamazoo, Mich., was transplanting more product – a lot more.

“They had become so much more efficient in terms of how much they could receive in one day,” Gravagna says.
So Gravagna called Mark Elzinga and asked him how he was transplanting so much. Elzinga says he had implemented concepts learned from FlowVision, a consulting company based in Dillon, Colo.

Growing Is Manufacturing
Coincidentally, soon after Elzinga mentioned FlowVision, Ball Seed Co. hosted a two-day workshop to improve its customers’ productivity at a facility near Chicago. The workshop was conducted by FlowVision’s Gerson “Gary” Cortes. Gravagna was in for an eye-opener.

“I was initially surprised at the workshop,” he says, “because Gary set us up in a production line assembling toy cannons.”

Cortes’ message became clear.

“It all dates back to Henry Ford’s assembly line, and even though growers say they’re not manufacturing companies, they really are,” Cortes says. “The grower buys material, adds labor and overhead, and supplies a finished product. We consider most every company a manufacturing company.”

Gravagna, who hired FlowVision last fall, also learned lean manufacturing was fairly easy to understand. It is all based on math, performing tasks more quickly with fewer people.

“There’s no mystery to it,” Gravagna says. “You understand right away how it will work.”

As Cortes says, growers eventually  view the concept as manufacturing,
and manufacturing efficiency is easily measured.

“The way we can adapt it to an individual company is we have a set of mathematical tools,” he says. “The math doesn’t care if it’s a line of lawn mowers, impatiens or begonias.”

Implementing The Vision

One buzzword to lean flow is “supermarket.” The adopter implements a “supermarket mentality” in the shipping area. Like a supermarket has an aisle for produce, dairy and so on, the shipping area needs its version of aisles for employees to shop, or pick up, their order.

“Say marigolds. There will be a marigold aisle,” Gravagna says. “We used to just put things in the nearest space.”

By employing the supermarket concept, employees become more efficient because everyone knows where everything is and there’s no time wasted searching for specific varieties, says Cortes. The more efficient use of space also has specific application to the greenhouse industry.

“A lot of growers use too much growing space for shipping,” he says. “We reduce that space and use it for what it was intended – growing more product.”

One aspect of lean manufacturing that Gravagna says he was initially skeptical of was the concept of working slower and smarter.

“Work slower? When you hear that it doesn’t make sense, but the numbers don’t lie,” Gravagna says. “When we had more work to do, we always threw more people at it, but this showed that the fewer people you had the more efficient each person is.”

Cortes says this basic tenet of lean manufacturing, productivity improvement, is where employers find the biggest benefit. It can also provide a boost to employee morale, making for a win-win situation.

“You’re getting more product out with the same number of people, without
making people work harder or faster,” Cortes says.

Another advantage of hiring a lean manufacturing consultant like FlowVision is that someone comes in with a fresh outlook, Gravagna says. But at the same time, FlowVision tailors its program to fit the individual company.

“An outsider has an easier time, they listen to your struggles, do a lot of investigation and come up with a plan for you,” he says. “What works for Mark Elzinga may not work for someone else.”

How To Boost Production 20 Percent In Two Hours

Gravagna first implemented lean manufacturing concepts by transplanting plugs to flats, or sticking. Like most in the industry, he would have workers – all of them females – focusing on sticking one tray at a time. He suspected it wasn’t terribly efficient because he had to have more employees at the end of the production line fixing mistakes.

Cortes suggested Gravagna implement a new process he called the progressive sticking method. Instead of an employee working on one complete tray, three employees would split up the tray and work on it progressively as
a team.

“We used to have one girl, one tray, but they get too bored and there’s no accountability,” Gravagna says. “With three girls you have a team, and you’re more engaged because you have people depending on you.”

His employees didn’t like the new system at all at first, but that’s only because it was unfamiliar.

“The head girl said that would never work, but in two hours, we got 21 percent higher production in sticking,” he says. “The hardest thing was to sell it to the team, but fortunately, they could see the results right away.”

Gravagna has since implemented lean manufacturing concepts through the rest of the company, with similar increases in productivity. In patching plug trays, Gravagna’s team knows it needs to do the job 17 days after sticking. Van de Wetering used to assign employees to come in on certain weeks to do the patching. But now, instead of scheduling employees by the week, Van de Wetering schedules them by the day.

“We utilize 100 percent of their time when they’re here,” he says. “A full 20 percent of their time was wasted, so it’s a 20 percent savings in labor.”

Shipping is also flowing more smoothly. Van de Wetering ships an average of 80,000 plug trays each week. It used to pull all 80,000 at once. Now the team only pulls the number it needs that day.

“It’s much better quality because we have cut the time from the bench to the customer by 30 percent, from four days to two-and-a-half days,” he says.

What Does Lean Manufacturing Cost?

Gravagna says FlowVision’s services aren’t cheap, but you get what you pay for. Because of the tremendous savings in time and labor, he expects to recoup his investment in three years. And in 10 years, he will still be realizing the benefits.

“Some guys are scared off by the cost, but when people call me, I am brutally honest,” he says. “It’s not just me – I have not heard a negative review.”

Like with any investment, you’ve got to pencil it out, especially today.

“Times are tough and people don’t want to spend,” Gravagna says, “but you need to spend money to make money.”