Things go better with standard operating procedures

All sorts of companies have so-called SOPs — because they save time and grief, and empower employees

Pilots complete checklists before every flight, even when flying the same plane several times a week.

Farm equipment operators, on the other hand, often rely on their memory from 11 months ago when they start up the air drill or other equipment at the beginning of a new season.

Some farm owners and managers, however, are using checklists and standard operating procedures (SOPs) to increase efficiency and safety; help train employees; and diagnose equipment problems.

Shanyn Silinski works for a grain farm near Trochu.

Shanyn Silinski.
photo: Supplied

Last year, she approached the farm owner and manager and asked them, “In a perfect world, how would you like a farm operation to work?”

They then developed a written list of procedures — including daily maintenance and cleaning tasks operators were responsible for — as well as instructions for specific steps, such as how combine operators should open a new field and where equipment should be parked at the end of the day.

“People need clear direction and they need systems — and we always believe in setting people up for success,” said Silinski. “We want people to be empowered to do their jobs well and consistently.”

When people are confident in themselves and their co-workers, they are not only more efficient, but safer, she added.

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Simple and meaningful

Since the goal is to keep instructions simple and straightforward, every procedure sheet for each operation is no more than one page long.

Silinski said she was surprised by the discussion that arose as a result of providing written procedures.

“It ended up being something that led to conversations, teachable moments, and team building,” she said.

The process gave employees the chance to suggest ways to increase efficiencies, and they also knew they could hold each other accountable, since everyone knew what was expected.

In fact, a good way to create SOPs is have employees who do the day-to-day tasks draft them and then management can weigh in with suggestions, said Michael Boehlje, professor of agriculture at Purdue University in Indiana.

“If I as an employee have a way that I’ve found is the best way to do a set of activities and I have a chance to create a set of SOPs, I am going to be more inclined to actually follow the protocols,” said Boehlje.

How they work

Aaron Quesseth of Quesseth Farms near Innisfail uses a template and checklist system when applying fertilizer with his disc drill. With multiple operators running the drill up to 20 hours a day, he needed a way to keep track of the product being applied and daily maintenance done by his operators. The checklist helps keep employees accountable and helps Quesseth suss out where they need more training.

Aaron Quesseth.
photo: Supplied

“When the employee finishes a checklist they put their initials on it and if something is not done you can go back to them and ask them why,” said Quesseth. “Nine times out of 10 that’s because it’s a training issue and they don’t fully understand what to look for.”

Checklists also reveal developing mechanical issues.

Employees record any extra steps they take to maintain the drill. Quesseth numbers every shank on the drill and if an employee tightens the bearing on a shank, he makes note of it. If the same bearing needs tightening again, it can be a sign it’s wearing out and needs replacing before it fails.

What works on one farm won’t be right for everyone. Also, one team might prefer digital versions, while others do better with paper. Some employers may want the checklists signed off daily while others might consider that to be unnecessary paperwork.

But everyone can benefit from better systems, said Silinski.

“I’ve worked on small operations and they had the exact same communications issues as farms with lots of staff,” she said.

Even a very basic SOP with five key points can improve operational efficiency and make it easier to integrate and train new employees, she added.

In a commodity business like farming, low-cost producers are the ones who do best and SOPs and checklists are one way to lower costs, said Boehlje.

“SOPs are a better way of getting more consistent execution,” he said, adding consistency and precision drive cost savings. “SOPs are one way to get the most productivity out of your resources.”

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