Abraham Lincoln famously said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” In short, if you want to do a job right and do it well, you first need to spend adequate time preparing yourself, the tools and the process.
How does this translate for your overall business strategy?
In today’s volatile and ever-shifting agribusiness environment, efficiency is the underlying driver of every decision you make on the farm. And even though our environment is in constant flux, and even though it is shifting daily like beach sands, being too hasty with strategic growth decisions can lead us to make rookie miscalculations and lose out on lucrative long-term opportunities.
It might seem counterintuitive to go at a tortoise’s pace when all the hares are rushing by you, but do you remember how that fable turned out? (Spoiler alert: the slow and steady tortoise won the race.)
The five previous instalments of this column explored the technical components of stretching your farm’s growth muscles: assessing the feasibility of projects, determining the best growth path, finding the cash to bankroll your plans, appraising risk and evaluating partnerships. This final instalment will explore, from a more holistic perspective, how a deliberate, focused, and slower approach — taking those four hours to sharpen the axe — can ultimately help you achieve your goals quicker than you would expect.
Top speed is overrated
Marketing expert Seth Godin says, “Top speed is easy to measure and fun to work on.” Indeed, who doesn’t enjoy an energizing shot of feel-good dopamine after checking items off the to-do list? The trouble is, if we move too fast, we might miss the things we need to observe: the integral, sub-surface elements that propel our business forward.
And, yes, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg did famously say, “Move fast and break things.” This might work in the tech startup world, but agriculture can be a little more fragile. In a very literal example, we know that speeding through fields with expensive equipment is a lousy idea. Equipment breaks; you won’t be able to disc or plant at uniform depth; and ultimately, you’re left with sub-par yields. If you apply this type of thinking to business management, you’re left with loose ends, energy spent putting out fires and seeping inefficiencies — all of which translate into lost production and revenue.
If, however, you take the time to slow down and assess issues from multiple perspectives, you’ll gain a better, deeper understanding of the complexities and challenges in front of you; problem solving energy can be better directed; and a number of potential solutions can be explored until you find one that actually fits the problem at hand. Basically, the time you believe you’ll lose in the decision-making process will be gained back during execution. Short-term pain for long-term gain.
Small changes = big outcomes
The business management philosophy of Kaizen is based on the idea that small, incremental changes can reap significant and continuous improvements.
Wikipedia says that “Kaizen is a daily process, the purpose of which goes beyond simple productivity improvement… when done correctly, (it) humanizes the workplace, eliminates overly hard work… and (you’ll) learn how to spot and eliminate waste in business processes.” Basically, it’s a framework for guiding ongoing changes to help your business improve its operational processes.
This philosophy of small-step work improvement was introduced to Japan by the U.S. after the Second World War when America implemented the Marshall Plan and sent experts to Japan to help rebuild the country’s industry.
The process of Kaizen grew out of the necessity for quick innovation during wartime constraints. During the Second World War, there was neither time nor resources for large and innovative changes in war equipment production; things had to happen fast if the Allies were going to stay ahead of the Axis powers. Therefore, the Allies’ approach to innovation and critical growth was to improve the use of the existing workforce and technologies. “Instead of encouraging large, radical changes to achieve desired goals,” says Wikipedia, “(Kaizen) methods recommended that organizations introduce small improvements, preferably ones that could be implemented on the same day.”
How can you put the principles of Kaizen into practice on your farm?
The Kaizen activity cycle consists of Plan, Do, Check (or Study, in some versions), Adjust. Also known as PDCA or the Shewart Cycle It’s an iterative management method used for the control and continuous improvement of processes and products. Here’s how to apply the four steps in your business management or strategy decision sessions:
- Plan: Establish your objectives and the processes required to deliver the desired results.
- Do: Implement the plan from the previous step. Test small changes and gather data and insights to gauge effectiveness of any changes implemented.
- Check: Study your intel. Compared to expected outcomes, do you see any similarities and differences? This will help you determine which changes work better than others, and if those changes can be further improved upon.
- Act/Adjust: This step is an opportunity to implement improvements: as insights or data from the “Do” and “Check” steps help you identify issues with the process (i.e. opportunities for improvement, inefficiencies and other issues that result in less-than-ideal outcomes), you can dig deep to the root causes to discover and eliminate “waste” through process modifications. Risk is also re-evaluated in this step. At the end of this phase, you should have clearer and more concise instructions, standards, or goals. Ultimately, this step helps you benchmark and provides a sense of whether an issue will recur. If it does recur, then the action was not effective, and you’ll have to go back to the beginning.
The rate at which your business can innovate and improve is an important consideration when you want to operate as efficiently as possible. Kaizen is useful for frequently tweaking small improvements and further refining your processes into the steps of PDCA which can help you create “jumps” in performance.
Leverage the momentum with a slow approach
In physics, mass multiplied by velocity equals the likelihood of an object continuing on its path. Alternatively phrased, momentum is the strength or force gained by motion or by a series of events.
Building momentum through a measured implementation of decision and action “events” can be a powerful cantilever for growth, because once we’ve harnessed its power, things tend to roll more easily. The friction created by a scattered or giant-sized steps approach can hinder processes and progress.
Momentum can be built through small steps or microshifts. Microshifts are easier to make than convoluted, intricate actions and they don’t feel overwhelming, because they are immediately doable. And they can add up quickly. Much like bicycle gears when a rider flicks the shifter several times to move the chain onto a higher chainring for greater power, microshifts are small but powerful changes that build motivation — and motivation generates momentum.
And, naturally, we can learn from our failures. Building off of our lived experiences allows us to create a durable scaffolding for future decisions.
Humans have been cautioned for millennia to think carefully before rushing headlong into a decision or action. In fact, there’s an ancient Latin phrase “festina lente” which means “make haste slowly.” In modern parlance, motivational speaker Simon Sinek says, “It’s better to go slow in the right direction, than to go fast in the wrong direction.” Take those four hours to sharpen your axe; your business will thank you for it.
What next steps can you take today?
Before you start a job or task ask yourself: “Is the way I’m currently doing it really working? Is it the best way I could think of accomplishing it, with the best results?” If the answer is “no,” or “I’m not sure,” then take a step back and break it down using Kaizen, PDCA, or microshifts.
Follow Lincoln’s example and allow issues time to soak in. Ask probing and iterative questions to help you discover the root cause of an issue rather than implementing a band-aid, short-term solution. Try the 5 Whys, a technique used to explore the cause-and-effect relationship underlying a particular problem. The goal is to determine the root cause of a problematic challenge by repeating the question “Why?” five times. Each time you ask “why” leads you to a more in-depth analysis of the root cause as to why a process is not working well or doesn’t exist but should. For example (from Stephen Spear’s book The High-Velocity Edge: How Market Leaders Leverage Operational Excellence to Beat the Competition): The vehicle will not start. Why? The battery is dead. Why? The alternator is not functioning. Why? The alternator belt has broken. Why? The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced. Why? The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule = the root cause of the issue.
Remember that meaningful change rarely happens overnight. Author, speaker and emotional intelligence expert, Brianna Wiest says, “Breakthroughs do not happen spontaneously. They are tipping points.”
April M. Stewart is the owner of Alba PR, a brain-to-brain communication design firm, and the creator of “The Farmer’s Survival Guide: How to Connect With 21st Century Consumers,” a blog and workshops which look at communication impact boosters. She is also a sixth-generation Quebec dairy farmer, president of Canadian Young Speakers for Agriculture, and a member of the Canadian Agri-Business Education Foundation board. You can find her on Twitter under @FarmersSurvival.