Improving management practices to boost labour productivity

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Despite the complex variety of horticultural production systems and crops, one thing that is common to most businesses is a heavy reliance on manual labour. Grace Emeny explores the shared areas where improvements to management practices could increase labour productivity across the industry.

Access to affordable labour is one of the key concerns for most growers. Labour costs could increase after Brexit as a result of having to incentivise to attract workers. While automation and robotics may offer hope to offset these costs in the long-term future, the SmartHort campaign is trying to encourage the uptake of Lean principles and maximise labour efficiencies to help in the short term.

As part of the campaign Management Performance Ltd (MPL) visited six horticultural businesses to observe and assess their use of labour and review their performance management. While each of the businesses was diverse in its size and crop sector, there were clear commonalities for areas of improvement across all businesses.

The report identified clear areas of development that are likely to be applicable to many horticultural businesses. We are now building resources to help address these three key areas: management training support, developing standardising operations procedures and creating performance management systems.

Train the trainer

There was very limited investment in management training for supervisors. In order to enable front-line managers to get the best performance from workers, they need to be provided with the skills required to manage people effectively and challenge poor performance.

Standardising operating procedures

Discrepancies were identified between the performance ratings of the ‘best’ and ‘worst’ workers.

The approaches to carrying out tasks adopted by the ‘best’ workers, for example how they were picking crops, weren’t standardised in best practice guidelines and were just accepted as a difference due to individual capability.

Performance management systems

Few businesses were target-setting and reporting on performance regularly, nor were they establishing systems to address why targets were not being met. Getting to know your business is crucial for improving efficiencies.

Stan Willey, Operations Director at MPL, said, “At the start of the process all the businesses visited believed that they were unique in terms of labour issues and therefore could not be likened to other growers. The reality is that they are all volume-driven, labour-intensive operations and the management skills of the front-line manager in these types of businesses are paramount to success.”

Tom Hulme, A C Hulme Ltd, who participated in the programme, said, “Other than the weather, labour costs and availability are our biggest challenge but also our biggest opportunity.

“We signed up as we want to understand different ways to look at productivity and also benchmark ourselves against others in the industry. The visit confirmed that we are on the right track but need to stay focused on efficiencies.”

Learn more

As part of this programme of work, AHDB has held a series of events focusing on improving labour efficiencies. More dates are set to be announced for 2019. 

Gracie Emeny

Knowledge Exchange Manager - SmartHort