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Burning money: The consequences of not implementing ideas on your farm

Mark Andrew Junkin Published on 17 July 2015

five dollar bill

It’s great to come up with an idea, but it’s useless unless the ideas get implemented into reality.

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In the past five years, the thing that has surprised me the most is the low rate of implementation that I see on the most successful/competent farms.

What I witness is that if we have a family meeting wherein 10 ideas are brainstormed, usually two to three (20 to 30 percent) of these ideas are implemented. The other 70 percent of the ideas fall by the wayside to the day’s crisis, like getting corn into the ground or unfreezing water bowls.

What I do is force farmers to “Say what you’ll do and then do what you say.” Part of this includes specific action plans of who is going to do what by when. The specifics (how) might be specified and broken down into assigned tasks if it’s a major group project.

But then what I do is follow up in the months following to see if the ideas become reality. I have a progressive fine system whereby, if you don’t get the task done, then you are fined $1. In the second month it’s $5, the third month it’s $20 and the fourth month it’s $50.

Initially, I started putting money into a pot that the family would use for a pizza work party. Then we started donating money to local charities like 4-H. However, the family members didn’t feel bad about giving money to charity and said “it’s to a good cause” when they didn’t get tasks done. They didn’t feel guilty.

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So, I switched the donations to charities they didn’t like, such as PETA or the Obama Presidential Library fund. Finally, I started burning the money. For a farmer to take money out of their wallet and have to watch money burn has a profound effect. Sitting there watching money burn makes a person realize they have money slipping between the cracks due to poor implementation. It has a profound effect in changing behavior.

I once had a dairy operation that was having problems getting cows pregnant, and they couldn’t figure out why. We went through a list of possible contributing factors, and one was stray voltage. We assigned each family member the responsibility of a few tasks, and one brother, John, was assigned the task of checking out if stray voltage was the issue.

I came back the next month, and Johnny didn’t have this task done, so I fined him $1. The next month, he again didn’t have it done, so I fined him $5. The next month, he saw my car coming down the lane, and he got on his cell phone before walking into our meeting with the stray voltage guru to book an appointment so he wouldn’t have to pay a $20 fine.

He told me the thought of having to get $20 out of his wallet and watch it burn caused this last-minute action. As it turned out, stray voltage was the problem (700 percent the rate which it should have been), and in the forthcoming year, we saved the farm $116,000 by fixing that problem.

If you walked through John’s operation, you could use a white glove and not get any dirt on it. To me, this farm was as tight a ship as you could get. However, regardless of how good of an operation you have, you always have money slipping between the cracks. It’s costing you money that you don’t think about.

Changing business culture is a challenge within most organizations. However, everyone has their pet peeves. For instance, within one organization, they had problems with one sibling sleeping in. We set a policy that if you were more than five minutes late for chores from your designated start time, you were fined $5.

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It resulted in the one sibling sleeping in twice, and Dad sleeping in once. The month previous, the one sibling had slept in 17 times, and this accountability process seriously shifted family dynamics.

For that sibling to have to burn money for each time he slept in … let’s just say he slept in no more after three months. It cured him. His siblings went from a mindset of wanting to split the business partnership because of these pet peeves to wanting to stay together because they saw a light at the end of the tunnel.

Regardless of how good of an operation you have, if your life depended on it, you could always brainstorm three to 10 little things that can turn around your farm profitability. The key is getting the distraction-free time to “Get-R-Done,” and only a deadline enforced by an outsider will focus you on getting these things done regardless of the chaos of daily operations.

Anyone can fight fires, but it’s only by progress being made on fire prevention projects that you’ll get anywhere. Being held accountable by an outsider to get a short “to-do list” done results in these things actually getting done. Having an 80 percent implementation rate instead of a 20 percent implementation rate has a tremendous impact on farm profitability over five years. It’s huge.

Most importantly, what is the value of everyone within the organization being held accountable to the same standard? What is the value of Mother not having to nag family members to get things done?

What is the value of not having to give dark glances about pet peeves such as sleeping in? Having a time/place whereby everyone within the organization is held accountable to the same standard of internally family-developed expectations by an outsider is key.

Business culture isn’t a topic we often discuss in farm papers. Yet, it is the level of sophistication within a farm’s business culture that determines the successful implementation of ideas generated from reading a farm paper into reality. Doing anything you can to improve the odds of you getting a good idea into reality will result in farm profit. This might sound nerdy, but it’s true.

So be a nerd and start writing down your goals for each month. At the beginning of the next month, set new projects and review the success you had in getting the previous month’s goals into reality. For each idea you didn’t get done, don’t only slap your wrist for not getting it done but examine why it wasn’t done and what you are going to do next month to fix it.

When you think about it, getting good ideas into reality is what determines farm profitability. Not getting good ideas into reality is what causes farms to go broke and frustrated farm families to become broken. PD

Mark Andrew Junkin improves how farm families make decisions together in the years prior to farm succession. Get his book, Farming with Family: Ain’t Always Easy! at his website or call at (800) 474-2057.

ILLUSTRATION: Illustration by Fredric Ridenour.

Mark Andrew Junkin

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