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Don’t play Survivor on your farm

Mark Andrew Junkin Published on 06 February 2015

Thomas Henry Ford created a system wherein he paid five times the standard wage to attract the best of the best. The flip side of this policy was that if you didn’t meet his standards, you got fired.

Under Jack Welch’s leadership in the ’90s, General Electric fired their bottom 10 percent of performers every year. It created a culture of “Whose head is on the platter this week?”

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Any mistake became a reason for termination. This created a highly competitive business culture that didn’t create team harmony but did create incredible results.

Coincidentally, during this time the most popular television show was Survivor. This reality program weekly “voted one character off the island.” Only the strong survived.

Unfortunately, on too many family farms and family businesses, we have this culture of “survivor.”

Let’s take a family farm where there are three brothers starting off together. During their teenage years, they had spats like brothers do but fundamentally get along. Then, in their early 20s, it became evident that one brother had a conflicting personality which rubbed the other two brothers wrong. He was “voted off the island,” either getting set up with his own farm or getting a “glorious” job in town.

Then, within five years, Dad becomes a problem. He stands in the way of the two boys making good decisions together. Soon enough, Dad gets “voted off the island,” through a hostile insurrection in which either succession planning happens or the boys are going to walk out. So, soon Dad is sidelined from management and often is forced to live in town away from the farm’s business.

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Then it leaves two brothers farming together. Bliss for a few years ... and then hell for the next ten. They both get married, and believe it or not, the wives have issues with the business partnership. Sometime in the mix, nephews get involved.

Then the relationship is strained when an uncle is not able to “discipline spoiled brats.” Soon enough, the boys are at odds with each other. It becomes a power struggle. Yet again, there’s another game of “survivor.” This time, only one man is left on the island.

This “culture of survivor” leaves unprofitable farms and lonely Christmas dinners.

Edward Deming was an American statistician whose philosophies were polar opposite to Henry Ford’s, and 50 years later, his methods nearly put the American automotive industry under. Ford adopted his philosophies in the ’80s, whereas GM did not. This decision was one of the leading contributors to GM going into bankruptcy.

Instead of expecting perfection, Deming expected imperfections and flaws. He celebrated finding flaws and instead of sweeping them under the carpet, he fixed them. He got Japanese manufacturers to embrace mistakes and problem-solve to prevent these mistakes from happening again.

Instead of playing the blame game, they got good at team problem-solving and making sure mistakes don’t happen again. They even got good at anticipating problems before they occurred. It’s for this reason Toyota was able to build better-quality cars faster and cheaper. Instead of a culture of “serving someone’s head on the platter,” they got good at “putting their heads together to solve problems constructively.”

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When you are an automotive manufacturer, it’s easy to fire folks and replace them with better workers. However, dairy farmers usually have to go through 10 employees to get one employee that meets expectations, and they usually are hard to retain on farm wages. Unless you are from a family of 11, this is not the way to go.

Firing family makes Christmas dinner plain uncomfortable. More importantly, it makes every other day of the year with the relative whom you’d like to fire but feel you shouldn’t plain uncomfortable.

Nobody is perfect, and yet with most family farms we have a culture of expecting perfection. This leads to non-stop frustration and repeated mistakes. The problem is that we expect a standard of perfection.

What happens if we did the opposite and assumed a culture of imperfection? What happens if we expect flaws and have both the right systems and attitudes to deal with them? What happens if instead of sweeping problems under the carpet, we had a method to proactively deal with them?

I walked onto a farm that was known for being the best-managed operation in the county and often in other farm meetings, they referred to what that farm did as the gold standard. Yet they had the culture of playing the blame game, and the day I showed up, one brother had just gotten back from rehab and was just about to “get voted off the island.”

Part of the reason the one son had a drinking problem was that he was the scapegoat for many problems on the farm, and in the previous year he had become a closet drinker due to the pressure of being the “family screw-up.” The more he screwed up, the more he drank and the more his head was in a fog; the screw-ups became exponential.

I started meeting with the family on a monthly basis, and in several categories ranging from production to human resources, we had each sibling/parent identify one way to improve how the family worked together. It wasn’t an hour of playing the blame game, but actual problem-solving.

For that alcoholic son, and actually the entire family, it changed their entire lives. By picking away at one problem in multiple categories, it created a hope for actual productive change, which changed everyone’s attitudes.

For each meeting we had, we walked away with five or more improvements, ranging from scheduling time off for weekends and holidays to finding or fixing a total of $110,000 in production mistakes in their breeding program through simple management changes.

Over the course of the year, we had made more than 50 improvements, and that family went from hating each other to actually getting along fabulously at Christmas.

They felt that having an outsider act as a chairman for those meetings was invaluable. It forced them to discuss topics they didn’t really want to tackle in a constructive, not destructive, manner. Nobody was allowed to leave until topics where addressed, resolved and an actual implementation plan was developed.

Having someone to come back at month’s end to hold everyone accountable to implementation and to fix the root issues of why plans didn’t get done was even more critical.

During these meetings, Dad was an equal, and it leveled the playing field. It was the time and place where problems were dealt with in the family, and when I left, the family was back to being happy instead of begrudging 30 days of the month. When I left, Dad went back to being the boss, and there was no need to challenge his ideas because if there were any problems, then it could be discussed at the next meeting.

Create a culture in which your family looks at the facts and deals with the facts, instead of blaming each other for problems or sweeping them under the rug. This is critical to your success. Instead of farming being a game of Survivor or The Apprentice, it should be fun like the Dukes of Hazard. 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! online or call at (800) 474-2057.

mark junkin

Mark Andrew Junkin
Management Consultant

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