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Standard Work and Business Processes during Abnormal Times

Processes, People and Systems

Standard Work

All farms and wineries follow some form of “Standard Work”. They have at least some documented processes or system controls (purchases and expense limits and approvals, etc.), reporting structures, compliance reporting and so on. Many will have additional business and operational processes documented; for example, for business critical processes, operations with safety risks, and cross functional procedures. A few, such as those following methodologies such as Lean, have most if not all processes and procedures documented.

During coronavirus, every winery or agribusiness will be affected to some degree, as is everyone for that matter. The level of disruption will vary, but those that have documented, effective, and current processes, should be better placed to address the challenges presented by this pandemic. (I’ll discuss a bit later what the characteristics of effective and current processes are, and the characteristics of those that aren’t.) As we all know, coronavirus has affected organizations in many ways: reduced workforce due to sickness or child caring responsibilities or shelter in place directives, a disrupted supply chain (supplies not available or delayed) or distribution channels reduced or even disappeared. Even in agriculture which remains an essential industry, those that grow crops, dairy or livestock for the restaurant or event industries are likely to have seen a significant reduction in demand as those channels have virtually shut down over night.

How Standard Work helps during abnormal times

While a farm or winery with a well implemented Standard Work system in place will not miraculously have a better supply chain or enjoy pandemic-proof demand, or access to a healthier labor force, they should be able to adapt to the disruptions better than those that don’t. How?

Here are a few examples:

If part of a process is disrupted or can’t be executed, the effect of that within the process is understood. The role of the steps are visible and corrective or remedial steps put in place to address the disruption. It may even show that a particular process is not viable due to the impact in which case it may be cheaper or safer to shut an entire process or operation down than continue to execute it based on the steps that can’t be executed or executed in full.

You will know what each person or role does within the process and how what they do fits into the larger operation. Each of the steps, inputs and outputs, controls and interactions will be well understood. If the workforce is not able to operate under normal conditions, whether due to working remotely, or working in the field but under physical distancing, or splitting crews into smaller groups in the cellar, this can be addressed. If the person who regularly executes a task can’t because they are home with a child, there is an SOP in place so someone else can take over for them as what they do is documented. If a farm crew is working alternate rows in a block, the SOP can be quickly and temporarily adjusted to allow for this. If one group needs to hand off to another due to smaller crew sizes, each knows what the other expects as an input and output. In all these examples, work may be impacted to varying degrees, but should be able to continue safely and while maintaining the required quality.

Lastly, even if the disruption has made no impact on your teams or supply chain or to your demand, it may still affect the processes themselves. Combating coronavirus has brought with it distancing and increased sanitation and cleaning requirements. Perhaps farm or cellar equipment has to be cleaned before and after each use, workers need to more regularly wash their hands and sanitize their hands, or as discussed before, operate further apart from each other. With well document Standard Work, such as process maps, where, when and how to apply what may be temporary changes to the process can be done quickly and easily; it may just be taking an existing process map and with a marker, highlighting when equipment needs cleaning, or adding reminders to clean hands or to wear masks or gloves.

In each of these examples, the key is to fully understanding what was happening before the interruption via documented Standard Work, that allows the organization to adjust to the change in circumstances as quickly as possible while maintain quality, safety and, as much as possible, productivity. They are not making decisions blindly or finding themselves unsure how to proceed because the one person that new how to do “x” is suddenly off sick.

How to manage process change during a disruption?

So you’re in the midst of coronavirus and you have processes in place. How do you manage your processes during the disruption? How do you modify a process when you can’t get all the process participants in a room together to work it out? While this is not ideal, in these times you need to be flexible. Perhaps you can use an online conferencing tool to get everyone “together”, or just get as many people together as possible, or start with one key person and have them have a stab at it, then share that around. Importantly, now more than ever, don’t let perfect be the enemy of good; document the changes you are making to the process and continue to keep the principles of good process design front of mind. If the process changes are scribbled over a process map in an SOP or on a whiteboard and a photo taken and texted, if that gets you to where you need to be right now, that’s good enough. As you make changes to your processes, consider doing trials to make sure it’s going to work as you expect, and make adjustments if it doesn’t.

Make sure any changes, whether temporary or not, are documented and shared with all those involved in the process; the risk in a time such as this is that standards get thrown out the window, as “we don’t have time for this and we just need to get ‘x’ done”. More than ever, standard processes are your friend right now; they will reduce mistakes and rework and injuries, when you can least afford them. If anything, now is a time to slow down and make sure the standards are in place and being followed, as you deal with lower finished good inventory, lower or slower supplies, fewer employees, or reduced sales to cover the mistakes and inefficiencies that would normally be okay.

What if your processes are out of date? You can only work with what you have; if they are more helpful than not, follow the above process to make the changes you need to make them more helpful. Start with quickly identifying which steps are still happening and which aren’t and to what degree, and again, without letting a perfect outcome be a hindrance, get as quickly as possible to what you think the current process is. Then work out where and how it needs to change to adapt to these circumstances. There likely to be some more trial and error if this is your staring point, but progress is still achievable.

What if you don’t have any processes documented, or have many that aren’t documented or standardized? Start by keeping it simple. If it’s just jotting down the steps of the most business critical operations on paper or a whiteboard, or even just identifying those business critical processes, that should all help at this stage. Have people make a note of what they are doing while they are doing it (if safe to do so, or immediately after if not), or what new hurdles they are encountering due to coronavirus, or where the process is breaking down. Use that information to record the current process. You may even find opportunities to improve or innovate.

Focus on the highest priorities

While doing this your primary focus should be on what process or standards do we need to be doing today to stay afloat, keep our product or service moving, keep our employees safe and employed. Keep your eye on the big picture and follow “the biggest bang for your buck” approach; what processes keep you awake at night. Keep an eye on what process changes you are making today that may be worth keeping long term. It is likely that while you tune your process to address coronavirus, you identify steps about which you ask “why are we doing this (or doing it this way) anyway” and the answer may be along the lines of “we never thought about it before” or “yes, it’s inefficient, but it didn’t really matter before”. In some cases, you may remove or modify steps now because you have to and can, but take note of these steps and flag them to be reviewed when life returns to whatever the future normal, to see if they are needed or not. In some cases, you may not be able to change these steps now because circumstances or resources don’t allow it; it’s even more important you flag these now for review later when circumstances may allow to address them.

What defines effective and efficient processes (aka what is good Standard Work)?

That’s how farms and wineries that follow documented, effective, and current Standard Work processes in place can address the impact of coronavirus. What defines an effective process? Let’s start by looking at few key faults with many business procedures. Firstly, they are designed to “control” the people or systems who make up the process; they are designed to “stop” the wrong thing happening, the wrong person doing something. Secondly, once in place they are considered permanent, as though etched in two tablets and brought down from Mt Sinai by Moses, never to be challenged or changed again. Thirdly, they are developed by the wrong people; often by the boss or the department that is dependent on the outcome of the process (for example, finance) or by one department involved in the process but not the other two or three departments.

What’s wrong with these three characteristics of processes? Fundamental to this is the question “what is the purpose of a standardized business process”? The primary purpose should be, as we at Azmera like to state it, to make each process or operation “safer, better and easier” (aka improve safety, quality, and productivity).

We do need controls in place: the most obvious example are safety protocols to prevent injuries; this is especially so in highly physical industries like agriculture and wine. However, an effective process should allow the organization to operate more efficiently; where controls or limits are required they should be applied but they should not be the primary purpose of a process.

We want our processes standard so that they produce consistent, predictable and safe outcomes. However, that doesn’t mean they should be adaptable. A standard that doesn’t reflect the current needs of the business may be worse than no standard at all. Let’s look at the two industries we work in: agriculture and wine. Across just the US and Australia in the last two years we have seen: a trade war between the US and China that has massively impacted US farmers; a separate trade dispute between the US and Europe over aeroplane construction that resulted in, bizarrely, US tariffs on European wine; massive droughts in Australia followed by historically devastating bushfires that severely impacted agriculture, in general, and the wine industry additional with the potential of smoke taint. This was all followed, of course, by the onset of coronavirus and it’s impact on all aspects of industry and life. A business model with supporting processes that may have been optimal for a company as recently as 2 years ago (let alone processes written in stone 5 or 10 years ago), are likely to be outdated and hindering that same business today. Standard Work needs to be regularly reviewed to make sure it is still fulfilling its purpose of helping the business function “safely, better and easier”.

Finally, all the participants involved in the operation of a process need to be involved in defining that process. Having one team define the standard is almost certainly going to result in a process that almost exclusively satisfies the needs of that team, to the exclusion and sometimes at the expense of the needs of the others teams in the process. This is most likely when a support function defines an operational process so they can apply their controls. Effective process standardization includes all the parties involved in a process either directly or who provide inputs or receive outputs of the process. This may involve compromise on the behalf of some but if it is done from a point of providing the business with an overall safer, better and easier outcome, a more effective process will be the result almost every time.

Good luck with addressing the challenges that coronavirus brings to your winery or farm and, above all, I hope you and your teams and families come through this safe and well.