Lean nursery

Workers insert labels in plant containers at the Peoria Gardens nursery near Corvallis, Ore. The company has improved productivity by reducing waste through "lean" manufacturing principles.

In retrospect, the inefficiencies at Peoria Gardens near Corvallis, Ore., were hiding in plain sight.

Though the problems now seem glaring, the nursery’s managers and workers never noticed simply because that’s how things had always been done, said Ben Verhoeven, the company’s president.

The company’s eyes were opened to these issues last year while participating in the Oregon Lean Consortium, which helps nurseries and other businesses adopt the waste-cutting principles of “lean” production.

“We saw there was a lot of waste to be carved out of these processes,” Verhoeven said.

Companies involved in the consortium work together to analyze their operations, identify inefficiencies and then re-arrange equipment and procedures to make them more effective, said Elizabeth Peters, co-owner of the Peters Co., a lean consultancy that facilitates the group.

“They go into a process in each other’s businesses and literally make change,” she said.

Though “lean” concepts were pioneered by the Toyota automotive company for manufacturing, the system also applies to agriculture, construction, government and other enterprises, said Rick Peters, the consultancy’s co-owner.

“Every organization has waste in its processes,” he said. “The principles are universal.”

For example, machines used to insert new plant cuttings into “plug trays” were scattered across different buildings at Peoria Gardens instead of being “co-located” in the same room, Verhoeven said.

“It had never been thought out carefully,” he said. “All these pieces of equipment and all these processes should be right next to each other.”

These distances meant that employees had to create large “batches” of plug trays filled with soil media, which would then sit around until ready to be moved and planted with new cuttings.

Aside from unnecessarily taking up space, the number of containers often exceeded the actual amount of new cuttings that needed planting, Verhoeven said. “We were making too many plug trays, an overabundance of material that we didn’t need.”

In other words, the process was a waste of time, space and materials.

By “co-locating” all the necessary equipment in one place and clarifying each worker’s role in “sticking” cuttings into containers, Peoria Gardens developed a continuous flow of filling the plug trays with new plants. Trays were made available as needed, reducing the wait time and unnecessary inventory.

With these simple changes, the nursery was able to cut its “sticking” crew from 20 to 11 people, a labor reduction of 45%. Meanwhile, the amount of time required to plant each cutting decreased from about 8 seconds to 4.5 seconds per plug tray cell.

“It was not just, ‘Yeah, this feels faster,’” Verhoeven said. “We actually had numbers to back it up.”

At Weyerhaeuser’s tree nursery near Turner, Ore., the process of planting seedlings into the ground was sped up by standardizing how workers enter and exit a transplanter.

For safety reasons, company policy dictates that employees can’t ride the machine as it turns around in the field before planting a new row of trees.

Before the nursery embraced “lean” principles, workers would haphazardly get off and on the vehicle without assigned roles.

Now, their exits and entries are coordinated to minimize lost time between rows, which has cut the time per turnaround from 14 minutes to 5 minutes. A couple workers also act as spotters to help the transplanter’s operator maneuver the machine and avoid ditches.

Along with a new color-coding method that prevents workers from losing track of plants as they’re loaded into the transplanting mechanism, the improved process now allows each worker to plant 950 trees per hour, up from 650, while shrinking the crew from 16 to 14 people.

“We were wasting so much time when the machine just wasn’t planting,” said Michael Kuenzi, the nursery manager.

The JLPN nursery in Salem, Ore., has been involved in the Oregon Lean Consortium for four years and estimates that its process improvements save about $100,000 a year in labor, said John Lewis, the company’s president.

Certain processes have been re-evaluated and re-designed multiple times over the years, he said. “Nothing is safe. Every process we do will be getting reviewed.”

Nurseries can’t raise prices for plants enough to keep pace with rising expenses for labor and inputs, so finding efficiencies is imperative for them to stay in business, Lewis said.

“Our cost always goes up quicker than our price,” he said.

I've been working at Capital Press since 2006 and I primarily cover legislative, regulatory and legal issues.

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