Employing Communication in Employment By Brandi D. McNally

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 UnitedStates where less than five percent of new employees actually have any plugexperience upon hiring; where turnover of employees with horticulture degreescan be 15-25 percent per year; and yet, where over the past two years, yieldshave increased by four percent, oversow percentages have decreased byapproximately 10 percent, and labor is down five percent. Furthermore,germination percentages have increased, transplanting is better and seedaccuracy is better. It is also a place where employees understand what’sexpected of them on their first day on the job, where they take pride in theirwork and where they are eager to consume more knowledge. That place is TagawaGreenhouses in Brighton, Colo.

Two years ago, Tagawa’s owners saw that their productionefficiency and product uniformity could be improved through some changes inemployee training. By developing a system that integrated training, researchand development, and implementation management, they’ve seen increasingproductivity since the beginning of the program. Hiring professional teachers,developing standardized procedures and spending time with individual employeesto gain an understanding of their communication levels are just a few of thethings they’ve done to make their training program successful.

Making sense of training

New employees at Tagawa know within their first day ofemployment what the company’s vision is for them, that they’re going to gothrough a set of training programs and what their benefits are. Their firstorientation session lasts for approximately one hour and guides them throughall the basics. The second session fulfills the EPA’s worker protectionstandard and was re-created in such a way as to command employees’ attentionand ensure that safety is at the forefront for all employees from day one. Thethird session, which is currently under development, deals with career paths. Trainerswill open employees’ eyes as to what kinds of opportunities are available tothem at Tagawa. Employees will also be apprised of a bonus program in whichthey can earn financial rewards for achieving certain goals every month in thisthird session.

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

“It’s really important that you have a way to advancethem and you as a company have to know that your people are valuable. Thequestion that people ask, and we hear this all the time, is ?Why hirethem? You’re just going to lose them in 3-5 years after all this energy andtraining you’ve put into them.'”

The reason has to do with long-term productivity versusshort-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 6-8months. If they were instead to rely on an entry-level irrigator to completethis task, it would take five years of training to get to the supervisory levelthat a graduate is at in a scant 6-8 months, Wieland says. “We may lose15-25 percent, but in the long haul, that’s just part of doing business. Weespecially see that young people out of college have many ambitions and goals.These people are great implementers and learners, but they generally seekopportunity for career advancement into management positions over time. If youdon’t have an opportunity they are looking for, and there is an opportunity inthe industry for them, you want them to be able to pursue thosepossibilities.” She believes that a company should desire success for itsemployees, even if they decide at some point to move on to otherendeavors.

Success is in the details

There are three tiers to the structure of Tagawa’s trainingprogram that work in concert to help the company generate consistent-qualityproducts for its customers. First, there’s the research and development group,which focuses primarily on protocols and procedures, and then the traininggroup. Both of these groups are integral to developing the systems that aregoing to be used in the greenhouse and communicating these systems to theemployees. On the third level are the managers and supervisors who areresponsible for integrating those systems into their greenhouse programs.

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

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

The objective of this training structure, with multiplefacilities and multiple plug growers, is to produce a consistent-qualityproduct for Tagawa’s customers. “Our customers want to receive a productthat performs the same week after week. With multiple locations and growers, itis 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 itsproduction teams were on different pages regarding growing the products.”We wanted to create a consistent expectation for our product and developuniformity in production. In addition, we wanted to gain efficiencies in ouroperation by increasing yields and productivity. Through training specifictechniques, 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 trainingprogram, it looked outside itself for answers — specifically, it soughtsomeone whose professional trade it was to teach. It came up with aneducational instructor who works for the Denver public school system, and whohelped Tagawa understand the important components of education and of educatingemployees. 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 alsolearned that everything needed to be standardized, so it has one bilingualinstructor who teaches the same information in every class.

Tagawa also became aware that it needed to consideremployees’ education levels in order for the training program to be truly effective.”Your fundamental training needs to be written for the average educationlevel of your audience. We found the best approach to be keeping the trainingat a junior high reading level. You can have a great training program for ahighly educated audience, but your whole operation needs to understand you. Themanagement only make up a small portion of your corporation and are not themajority of the doers who implement the practices everyday. Keeping it simpleis necessary for repeatable success,” Wieland explained.

One of the most important things the education instructortaught Tagawa is that people learn differently, so an effective class mustemploy different ways to learn, whether audio, visual or through the actualexperience of doing the project. In any given class, they might integratetransparencies, visual aids or something for students to touch.

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

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

As far as challenges Tagawa has encountered in revamping itstraining process, Wieland says there are two. First, in a large operation,there are many facilities and many different opinions on the best way to accomplishthings. “It comes down to deciding the best method for your company. Theremay be 50 different great ways to get there, but for you to produce aconsistent product, you need to decide on one corporately. If a variablechanges, then you know which variable is outside the procedure and canunderstand how to respond. When everyone is initiating different protocols, itis difficult to manage all of the changes. It is important that everyone isdoing similar procedures,” she said. Second, she says that usuallyexisting employees are more difficult to train than new employees. The existingpeople have adapted to growing a specific way and are comfortable with theirmethods. “Changing to a new technique or method takes time, it does nothappen overnight. And even though you wish it wouldn’t happen, people willrevert back to old habits,” Wieland said.

Positive gains

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

“A lot of the different programs that we’ve puttogether are paying off,” Wieland said. “Our labor is down by fivepercent; this has occurred in part because of a bonus program that providedmanagement with a tool to promote increased efficiencies and productivity. Withstrong site-management leadership, the corporation is greatly benefiting fromprograms the managers have implemented to decrease labor costs and increaseproductivity.”

Wieland has even gotten positive feedback from growers. Onegrower told her he likes the training classes because they give people an ideaof what to expect when they come into the greenhouse. He also commented thatbefore 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 thefinished side of its business, though Wieland is unable to quantify thatimprovement at this time. “We anticipate a 15-percent increase in fallasters due to sell-through this year. I can’t quantify it much better thanthat.”

That’s enough to convince anyone that investing in employeetraining is worth the time, money and effort it takes to make itsuccessful.

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Brandi D. McNally

Brandi D. McNally is associate editor for GPN. She can be reached by phone at (847) 391-1013 or E-mail at [email protected]

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