Employing Communication in Employment

November 5, 2002 - 13:41

When you focus on your people, you increase the likelihood that other parts of your business will begin to fall into place.

There's a plug-growing operation in the Western United
States where less than five percent of new employees actually have any plug
experience upon hiring; where turnover of employees with horticulture degrees
can be 15-25 percent per year; and yet, where over the past two years, yields
have increased by four percent, oversow percentages have decreased by
approximately 10 percent, and labor is down five percent. Furthermore,
germination percentages have increased, transplanting is better and seed
accuracy is better. It is also a place where employees understand what's
expected of them on their first day on the job, where they take pride in their
work and where they are eager to consume more knowledge. That place is Tagawa
Greenhouses in Brighton, Colo.

Two years ago, Tagawa's owners saw that their production
efficiency and product uniformity could be improved through some changes in
employee training. By developing a system that integrated training, research
and development, and implementation management, they've seen increasing
productivity since the beginning of the program. Hiring professional teachers,
developing standardized procedures and spending time with individual employees
to gain an understanding of their communication levels are just a few of the
things they've done to make their training program successful.

Making sense of training

New employees at Tagawa know within their first day of
employment what the company's vision is for them, that they're going to go
through a set of training programs and what their benefits are. Their first
orientation session lasts for approximately one hour and guides them through
all the basics. The second session fulfills the EPA's worker protection
standard and was re-created in such a way as to command employees' attention
and ensure that safety is at the forefront for all employees from day one. The
third session, which is currently under development, deals with career paths. Trainers
will open employees' eyes as to what kinds of opportunities are available to
them at Tagawa. Employees will also be apprised of a bonus program in which
they can earn financial rewards for achieving certain goals every month in this
third session.

Most people who come to work for Tagawa don't know how to
grow plugs; approximately 45 percent of its plug growers have been internally
trained without any sort of horticulture background at all, and Tagawa loses
less than five percent of them on a yearly basis. The other 55 percent are plug
growers. For 60 percent of the employees hired with horticulture degrees,
Tagawa is their first post-college job. The college-educated individuals
typically only make a 3- to 5-year stay out of their career at Tagawa, with
about 15-25 percent of them lost on a yearly basis. Vice President of
Production Cindy Wieland acknowledges that this turnover is a challenge, but it
doesn't deter Tagawa from continuing to hire graduates.

"It's really important that you have a way to advance
them and you as a company have to know that your people are valuable. The
question that people ask, and we hear this all the time, is ?Why hire
them? You're just going to lose them in 3-5 years after all this energy and
training you've put into them.'"

The reason has to do with long-term productivity versus
short-term investment; with the efficiency of Tagawa's training program,
they're able to have a plug supervisor covering 75,000 sq. ft. of plugs in 6-8
months. If they were instead to rely on an entry-level irrigator to complete
this task, it would take five years of training to get to the supervisory level
that a graduate is at in a scant 6-8 months, Wieland says. "We may lose
15-25 percent, but in the long haul, that's just part of doing business. We
especially see that young people out of college have many ambitions and goals.
These people are great implementers and learners, but they generally seek
opportunity for career advancement into management positions over time. If you
don't have an opportunity they are looking for, and there is an opportunity in
the industry for them, you want them to be able to pursue those
possibilities." She believes that a company should desire success for its
employees, even if they decide at some point to move on to other
endeavors.

Success is in the details

There are three tiers to the structure of Tagawa's training
program that work in concert to help the company generate consistent-quality
products for its customers. First, there's the research and development group,
which focuses primarily on protocols and procedures, and then the training
group. Both of these groups are integral to developing the systems that are
going to be used in the greenhouse and communicating these systems to the
employees. On the third level are the managers and supervisors who are
responsible for integrating those systems into their greenhouse programs.

The training program itself has two levels, fundamental and
advanced training, with a budget specifically allocated to the program. Fundamental
training includes all the basics important for operating your greenhouse and
producing consistent plants. It covers tray filling, tray movement, seed
placement, irrigation techniques and anything that would be crucial for daily
operations to be implemented successfully. Seven classes comprise the
fundamental training, with three more to be taught in the near future, and they
are generally completed within one month. Classes are kept within one hour.

Advanced training is geared toward supervisory and
management roles. Examples of this training are research and development
seminars, where the research and development team presents reports on the
research they're doing -- research that will become Tagawa's next protocols and
procedures. They also receive advanced training in the form of outside speakers
-- people like Jerry Gorchels, Ann Chase, John Erwin, Dave Koranski and Ron
Adams are just a few of the well-known professionals who have given seminars at
Tagawa.

The objective of this training structure, with multiple
facilities and multiple plug growers, is to produce a consistent-quality
product for Tagawa's customers. "Our customers want to receive a product
that performs the same week after week. With multiple locations and growers, it
is necessary that the product be treated similarly independent of its location.
The product has to come out the same way, no matter where it comes from,"
Wieland explained.

Before Tagawa started its training program, it found its
production teams were on different pages regarding growing the products.
"We wanted to create a consistent expectation for our product and develop
uniformity in production. In addition, we wanted to gain efficiencies in our
operation by increasing yields and productivity. Through training specific
techniques, we could implement standardized practices throughout the company.
These were the initial reasons for starting the growing systems program,"
Wieland added.

Communication is key

When Tagawa made the decision to take charge of its training
program, it looked outside itself for answers -- specifically, it sought
someone whose professional trade it was to teach. It came up with an
educational instructor who works for the Denver public school system, and who
helped Tagawa understand the important components of education and of educating
employees. Since more than 90 percent of Tagawa's employees speak Spanish,
Tagawa knew it needed to write its manuals in both English and Spanish. It also
learned that everything needed to be standardized, so it has one bilingual
instructor who teaches the same information in every class.

Tagawa also became aware that it needed to consider
employees' education levels in order for the training program to be truly effective.
"Your fundamental training needs to be written for the average education
level of your audience. We found the best approach to be keeping the training
at a junior high reading level. You can have a great training program for a
highly educated audience, but your whole operation needs to understand you. The
management only make up a small portion of your corporation and are not the
majority of the doers who implement the practices everyday. Keeping it simple
is necessary for repeatable success," Wieland explained.

One of the most important things the education instructor
taught Tagawa is that people learn differently, so an effective class must
employ different ways to learn, whether audio, visual or through the actual
experience of doing the project. In any given class, they might integrate
transparencies, visual aids or something for students to touch.

In most cases, seeing and experiencing the activity is the
most useful method in training new people. In general, there are at most 10
individuals to a class and most classes require that they pass a test upon
completion to be certified to conduct that activity in the greenhouse. After
successful completion of the test, the employee receives a certificate of
achievement.

Tagawa's fundamental trainer is an occupational therapist by
trade and doesn't have any background in horticulture. The important thing is
that she can work well with people and understands how different people respond
to training. Her goal is to make sure that the people are able to implement the
standardized techniques trained.

As far as challenges Tagawa has encountered in revamping its
training process, Wieland says there are two. First, in a large operation,
there are many facilities and many different opinions on the best way to accomplish
things. "It comes down to deciding the best method for your company. There
may be 50 different great ways to get there, but for you to produce a
consistent product, you need to decide on one corporately. If a variable
changes, then you know which variable is outside the procedure and can
understand how to respond. When everyone is initiating different protocols, it
is difficult to manage all of the changes. It is important that everyone is
doing similar procedures," she said. Second, she says that usually
existing employees are more difficult to train than new employees. The existing
people have adapted to growing a specific way and are comfortable with their
methods. "Changing to a new technique or method takes time, it does not
happen overnight. And even though you wish it wouldn't happen, people will
revert back to old habits," Wieland said.

Positive gains

Tagawa has experienced some fairly significant gains since
implementing this training program two years ago. It has increased yields by
two percent per year, which can be interpreted as two percent less being spent
on costs and two percent more product available for sales. It has decreased its
oversow percentages by 9-10 percent and is spending less in upfront seed costs
for transplanting trays.

"A lot of the different programs that we've put
together are paying off," Wieland said. "Our labor is down by five
percent; this has occurred in part because of a bonus program that provided
management with a tool to promote increased efficiencies and productivity. With
strong site-management leadership, the corporation is greatly benefiting from
programs the managers have implemented to decrease labor costs and increase
productivity."

Wieland has even gotten positive feedback from growers. One
grower told her he likes the training classes because they give people an idea
of what to expect when they come into the greenhouse. He also commented that
before the training programs, no one knew what irrigation guidelines to follow.
Now that the programs are in place, he said, everyone knows what to do.

Beyond plugs, Tagawa has also seen improvements on the
finished side of its business, though Wieland is unable to quantify that
improvement at this time. "We anticipate a 15-percent increase in fall
asters due to sell-through this year. I can't quantify it much better than
that."

That's enough to convince anyone that investing in employee
training is worth the time, money and effort it takes to make it
successful.

About The Author

Brandi D. McNally is associate editor for GPN. She can be reached by phone at (847) 391-1013 or E-mail at bmcnally@sgcmail.com

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