Nurseryman Chris Robinson uses a system that has made him and his team 30% faster at pruning, 70% faster at grading nursery stock and 100% faster at potting. That system is called lean manufacturing.
Robinson, 35, grew up in the nursery business and started helping for an allowance at age 8. His parents, Rick and Roxanne, created Robinson Nursery in McMinnville, Ore., in 1984.
“I always looked to my mom and dad as my biggest role models,” said Robinson. “They had a happy marriage. They grew beautiful plants. They seemed to be making a difference in the world. I always knew I wanted to pursue this.”
Today, Chris Robinson co-runs the business with his brother, Josh.
Eight years ago, the Robinsons heard about agricultural businesses “going lean,” and they decided to try it for themselves.
“Lean” manufacturing, also known as the Toyota Production System, is a way of eliminating waste and adding more value for customers.
In the 1950s, the car manufacturer Toyota faced a financial crisis that nearly broke the company. In response, Toyota transformed its production process, finding ways to cut waste — wasted time, unused talent, overproduction and other issues.
“They were on a relentless pursuit to eliminate wasteful steps,” said Joshua Howell, president of the Lean Enterprise Institute. Toyota’s business flipped from struggling to thriving.
Now, agricultural industries across the U.S. use the model. According to Elizabeth and Rick Peters, senior lean strategists at the Peters Company, farmers using the lean process have reduced their carbon output, curbed waste and increased their income.
Ben Hartman, author of “The Lean Farm,” said going lean has improved his bottom line — and his life.
Hartman grew up on a 500-acre farm. He said he went into farming thinking he would need to expand to survive — more workers, more tractors, 200 more acres a year.
“I’ve completely changed my mindset,” Hartman said. “I’m shrinking my size but making more money. Instead of constant growth, I’m focusing on constant process improvement.”
According to the USDA, 40% of the U.S. food supply is wasted and 20% of fresh produce never gets harvested. Hartman said that instead of overproducing food, he finds out what customers want, when they want it and how much. That’s what he plants. His income margin has grown from 20% to 60%, and his customers are more loyal.
Hartman, the Marie Kondo of farming, also cuts wasted time by getting rid of tools he doesn’t need. Every spring and fall, he picks up each tool and asks, “How much do I use you?” If a tool is cumbersome and unnecessary, it goes.
Nursery owners like the Robinsons have found that the lean model has improved their business, too.
“We’re dramatically increasing our bottom line,” said Chris Robinson. “But I actually think the best thing that’s changed is that the people working for us are happier. With all the time we save, we use our workers’ skills more and they get to be part of the bigger vision. And that makes me pretty happy.”