BLOG: Let's strive to become bigger and better using Lean

Monday, 5 October 2020

by Simon Watchorn – AHDB's Pork Board member

Suffolk Pig Producer supports SmartPork, AHDB's latest business-focused campaign. He shows admiration for Lean practices and shares his own experience of Lean - encourging pig producers the importance of using a smarter approach in pig production, to remain competitive in the pork industry, nationally and globally. 

The single universal truth is that tomorrow brings something new. In agriculture that can be a blessing and a curse, at the very least it produces volatility. New challenges and opportunities with labour, technology, production goals and market prices.

Pork production is a complex series of processes with an ever changing animal at its heart – The Pig. As an industry, the pork sector has made significant strides in the costs of production, the standards of welfare and quality of product however, this is still a margins game.

Importantly as an industry we should not shy away from borrowing a good idea when we see one, after all we are not the only sector that is a margins industry. Manufacturing has for decades been driven by market prices, just as we are, from those pressures they have devised systems of working that streamline each of their processes.

This process control allows consistency and reduction of waste that lowers the cost of production, not through cutting standards or jobs but by making processes more efficient. There several names given to these management systems – Lean, 6 sigma and Just In Time (JIT).

Whatever the system for process control, the benefits are evident. My own personal experience is, you solve one problem hoping that after that you will travel into calmer waters.  That never happens, once you solve a problem more will appear on the horizon. 

We all run a production business that is a process.  That process is producing not just any old pigs but a steady flow of numbers, as uniform a weight you can and a population that is as healthy as we can make them for as little money as possible. 

All this “process” requires control, if you do not control it will control you.  Set production parameters that you can measure, meet and evaluate.  Once you have done that stick to them.  Over time individually these parameters can be re-visited and measurable changes made one at a time.

The idea of using lean, to standardise procedures increasing the agility of a business may sound peculiar, but that is what it has enabled me to do. You’ll see that the grey line on the graph below shows the variance and volatility in my farrowing rate before introducing lean techniques and controlling my processes, the blue (dotted) line shows the effect of making these changes.

My farrowing rate is much tighter and so are other important KPIs including pigs born alive. More powerful still is the red line, this is my farrowing rate while dealing with a PRRS outbreak. It was tough and challenging but the use of lean process control allowed my business to be agile enough to react and deal with the increased pressure.

AHDB Pork’s monitor farms will embed lean management consultants, supporting the farms as they continue to seek marginal gains amongst the complex processes of production. Each farm will undertake practical programmes of process control/lean improvement across gilt management and or weaner management with goals of increasing retention and weaning weights, with proven returns on investment.

Each farms journey will be shared across multiple platforms, digital such as the AHDB website and in person at closed events such as the AHDB supported pig clubs.

The SmartPork hub will bring together AHDBs resources and offerings in people and process management, innovation and hardware as well as supporting new technologies such as data capture that offer the chance to track business performance, targeting labour and resources (which are always in short supply) at the processes that will make the biggest impact.

It will look outside of the pork and wider agriculture industry bringing the latest innovations in practices, management and innovation.

Find out more information by visiting