Lean Tools and Strategies

This page offers a collection of tools and ideas to help managers implement Lean Management in their farming operations.


Observation is a foundational tool to implement Lean Management in any farm or business. Fortunately, most farmers have highly developed observational skills monitoring crops and livestock. To advance Lean Management, observation involves paying close attention to specific production activities and collecting information about them. Managers use observation to deepen their understanding of how an activity is currently performed and to document waste and disruptions in everyday operations. As a result, observation is a starting point to identity opportunities to improve production activities, and to design Lean improvements. By capturing performance data prior to making a change, observation also provides a baseline to monitor impacts of process changes over time. 

When thinking about potential areas of improvement, a focus on the eight areas of waste identified in Lean Management can help. Different types of waste may be present in different areas of the business, and may affect different performance metrics, including labor efficiency and effectiveness, input usage, repairs, and product quality. Yet all types of waste hurt a business’s bottom line. Disruptions, defined as unplanned events or outcomes within business operations, also hinder business performance. Observing business processes with the eight waste categories in mind can help managers to not only identify, but also prioritize, the best opportunities for improvement.

Observation may take different forms, depending on management goals and the production activity under review. In some cases, frontline workers may conduct observation as they perform their daily tasks. For instance, shop workers might track and record the time it takes to complete a specific maintenance activity. Observation by managers may be the most common approach. However, some production activities may benefit from a fresh set of eyes brought by an outside observer, which could be a third-party consultant or a new employee.

To build and maintain employee engagement, it is important to frame observation in a positive light. Managers should not observe activities with the goal of catching employees doing something wrong. Rather, managers should communicate that observation can lead to improvements that may reduce disruptions and make employees’ jobs easier and more enjoyable.

As with any task, it is helpful to gather the necessary tools and information before beginning formal observation of a business activity. If written protocols or standard operating procedures (SOPs) exist, the observer should review them. A notepad and pen may be sufficient to record some observations, while customized data collection sheets may be helpful in other instances. Cameras and watches, or mobile phones with these functions, can be helpful for timing tasks and recording photographs and videos. On farms with computerized information tracking systems, managers should review performance and quality data associated with the task under observation. For example, managers can review daily feed delivery times, consistency of delivery times, and time between loads if their farm uses a feeding management program.

Once the observer is ready to begin, consider the following questions:

  • What steps are involved in the activity?
  • If written SOPs exist, are they being followed?
  • Are the steps involved in this activity performed in a consistent manner every time?
  • How long does the activity typically take?
  • What disruptions occur during the activity?
  • How frequent are disruptions, and what are their consequences?
  • How do disruptions affect the time it takes to complete the activity?
  • What types of waste are present?
  • How much waste does this activity generate?
  • How consistent are the outputs of the activity?
  • How often do the outputs meet established quality standards?

Answering these questions for a specific production activity will give managers a deeper understanding of its current performance and point toward potential areas for improvement. Following observation, managers may wish to quantify the costs associated with the waste and disruptions they noted.

Lean 5S: Making the physical workplace work

When we think of employee management, we often think of non-physical concepts like communications or leadership, but the physical tools and place where employees work have a big, direct impact on performance. The lean process to transform the physical workplace is called the 5S approach: 5S stands for sort, set in order, shine, standardize, and sustain.

The lean 5S approach includes sort, set in order, shine, standarize, and sustain