Making Toast and Milking Cows: Applying Lean Principles to Dairy

5/18/2013 7:00 AM

Recently I was reminded of how much the U.S. dairy industry <\n> can learn from other industries, in particular, other manufacturing businesses within those industries.

I participated in an eight-week class on “Operations Management,” described as the management of the systems and processes which create the stuff we make and sell.

Participation in this class was prompted by two changes in my life. My children are getting older, which means the days of lending my time to sports teams, 4-H programs, and community and church youth programs are quickly evaporating.

While this transition comes quicker than many of us would prefer, it does offer the opportunities for new ventures like this one. Taking this graduate level class allowed me to better understand the U.S. business industry and existing “best processes” that can be applied to dairy business and production.

One of the most useful aspects of this experience was the opportunity to sit with 20 other adults each week from all walks of life and work. This provided a unique opportunity to talk about current business management topics and hear how they apply to the different businesses and industries represented in the room.

On the first night of class, we reviewed a diagram that was said to represent an ideal example of a process illustrating what operations management is. It was the process of moving the milk from cows to milk on the store shelf. My attention was peaked since I was the lone person in the room from any agriculture-related business. This was something I was familiar with and understood.

Some weeks later, our discussion focused on what is commonly referred to as the “lean manufacturing process.” The premise of “lean” is waste exists in every manufacturing business and it is the role of “operations management” to eliminate this waste. It is based on this premise: manufacturing needs to be able to use fewer resources to produce a higher quantity and quality of product.

Eliminating waste is a process of continuous improvement and focuses on seven areas commonly found in manufacturing businesses:

Motion: I had to think of why carousel and parallel milking parlors have replaced “herringbone parlors” commonly built in the 1980s. They simply wasted motion and walking of employees.

Waiting: Companies need to evaluate where motion stops and unneeded waiting occurs, which could be replaced with a productive task. The application to dairy can be applied in the parlor or tie stall barn. Automatic take offs have replaced waiting with “more milking with more units”.

Transportation: Dairy is unique in that we are limited by cost when considered how far to haul feed in and manure out — a basic principle of lean.

Overproduction: A waste created when we mismanage forage and grain need estimates.

Storage: Calf and heifer housing efficiencies would be an example of storage.

Defects: High mortality rates or low conception rates would be examples of defect lean inefficiencies.

Over-processing: Relates to the advantages of no-till versus conventional crop management. Calving heifers at a 26-month average age (versus 23 months) would be another example of a “processing evaluation” using the lean concept.

This discussion concluded with a brief seven-minute video from the Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership. The video tells an impactful but elementary story of two very different ways to “make toast.”

One way is to violate each of the seven principles of lean, while the other did not. The final four minutes demonstrates the “lean way.” To see an abbreviated excerpt from this video, visit

If you are interested in using the video for training purposes, feel free to contact us at the center; we’ll be happy to loan it to you. You can call us at 717-346-0849 or email me directly at jfrey<\@>

The learning for me was, whether you are a dairy in Pennsylvania or a Toyota plant in Kentucky, the pressure to eliminate waste to enhance your operation’s competitiveness is real.

Additionally, and arguably, our dairy business industry in Pennsylvania has contended that “additional efficiency is elusive.” Other organizations and industries are asking simple questions like “how can I make the toast making process more productive” to answer complex operations management questions. There are numerous applications from this lean manufacturing process that could help your dairy business find wastes you never thought before existed.

Editor’s Note: John Frey is the executive director for the Center for Dairy Excellence.

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