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Go Lean: Ten Types of Farm Waste

farmer picking vegetables

Spring cleaning is a big deal for those who want to get rid of unnecessary clutter. People get rid of everything from old furniture to clothes and games. However, this doesn’t only apply to households–farms also have a lot of waste to get rid of that isn’t strictly food scraps or broken tractor parts. But before you decide what to toss and what to keep, it’s important to consider the function of the items on your farm.

The following is an excerpt from The Lean Farm by Ben Hartman. It has been adapted for the web.


When we think of waste, images of trash cans full of plastic or rotting vegetables come to mind. But in lean, waste involves more than that. The word for waste in Japanese is muda. It encompasses concepts like idleness, futility, and uselessness, in addition to physical waste. In lean, it means any activity that does not add value.

In fact, according to lean thinking, only three types of activities can ever occur on your farm:

  1. Actions that add value
  2. Actions that do not add value but are necessary (type 1 muda)
  3. Pure waste (type 2 muda)

Your goal is to move as many of your activities into the first category as possible and then to perform those activities as efficiently as possible. Type 1 muda should be kept to an absolute minimum, and type 2 muda should be banished altogether as soon as possible.

Examples of actions that add value might be potting out transplants or washing your food. The farmer is not alone in creating value. When cows eat grass, value is added. When plants turn sun into food, value is added. In many ways, the function of farming is to set the stage for the sun and plants and animals to do the real creating of value. These direct actions on the end product make the product more desirable and more valuable.murda chart

Examples of type 1 muda—the necessary actions that don’t add value— might be keeping meat frozen as it awaits paying customers or storing grains in bins or cultivating a bed of spinach. Whenever you set up irrigation, vent greenhouses, or move portable fences, you might be performing an import- ant—even necessary—task. You might be setting the stage for nature to perform its value-adding magic. But you yourself are not adding a bit of direct value to your product. Lean says strive to minimize or eliminate these actions.

Examples of type 2 muda—pure waste—might be letting milk become contaminated, leaving crops in the field, or packaging more than necessary. When you grow a crop nobody wants, order too many seeds, or let cut hay mold in the field, you are adding waste to your farm. These actions are often easiest to see (or smell, in the case of rotten food). Because they add no value and only add to your costs, they should be eliminated.

All of your activities fit into one of these categories. These are tight definitions. There is no fourth category. Since the focus of a lean enterprise is waste elimination, lean managers spend a lot of time analyzing their work and categorizing their activities into these three types.

Ten Types of Waste on Farms

Taiichi Ohno identified seven types of waste in Toyota factories. I list these original seven muda below because they are ubiquitous on farms as well as in factories. To them, I add three more concepts of waste particularly common on farms.

1. Overproduction

In farming, overproduction in the form of unsold crops or animals is among the most odious kinds of waste, because unsold goods have a lot of investment wrapped up in them and often cost money to get rid of. Overproduction can happen because of poor planning (erroneous forecasting), a bumper harvest (unpredictable weather), or market volatility.

I include in the definition of overproduction waste the practice of selling items at lower prices to clear out excess inventory or oversupply. The energy you exert to sell and manage those crops is time and energy you could have spent producing items that customers place more value in. Displaced energy is wasted work.

2. Waiting

On the production line, waiting waste takes the form of workers standing idle until parts arrive or equipment is fixed. Waiting waste also occurs when a product sits, as when crops or animals that are ready for market await customers.

When people are underutilized, it is obvious how waste is generated: you are paying workers to stand around. When products sit around, the waste is less obvious but still present. Every time you store an item there is a cost—for the building, for conditioning (if needed), for moving the item again later to its next destination, and for the mental space required to remember what you have and where it is.

3. Transportation

Moving goods from one place to another happens every day on farms; so does transportation waste—the inefficient or unnecessary transport of products. Examples might be inefficient equipment use—using a tractor to carry a single bunch of carrots or making four hay-loading trips with a small wagon rather than one trip with a big wagon—or delivering products that customers would be willing to pick up at the farm. Many direct market farms get bogged down with poorly planned delivery routes, where farm products are delivered in small batches to far-flung accounts rather than consolidated to minimize road time.

4. Overprocessing

This type of waste encompasses any activity that creates or does more for your customers than they are willing to pay for. Examples include bagging items that could be sold without packaging, washing food more than is necessary, delivering to more locations than necessary, or spending too much money on websites.

5. Inventoryfarmers picking vegetables in greenhouse

Inventory waste means keeping more materials or goods on hand than is absolutely necessary. On farms, inventory management can be challenging because production output is impossible to control completely, since nature always finds a way to alter a farmer’s plans. Even the best production forecasting will never allow a farm to determine exact yield, compared to a factory that can make exactly the number of units it needs. Even so, farms can do much to keep inventories—of both supplies and finished goods—to a minimum.

6. Motion

Too much moving is a form of enormous waste on farms. Motion waste includes handling items too many times, inefficient harvest practices, and poor planning at planting or seeding time (running back to the greenhouse for more trays of seedlings). A common problem on many farms is spreading out too far—propagation greenhouses too far away from fields, fields too far away from processing areas, processing areas too far away from storage rooms, storage rooms too far away from loading docks, loading docks too far away from the road. Awkward farm layout also contributes incredible motion waste, for instance when you have to go around three buildings and cross a road to bring home a harvest rather than make a straight path.

And almost all farms suffer at times from the waste of looking for misplaced tools or from walking too far to retrieve tools stored in faraway locations.

7. Making Defective Products

Defect waste includes unsellable food and food that must be discounted because of poor quality. Defects result for many reasons. For animal products, poor management increases animal sickness and mortality. For fruits and vegetables, poor handling, improper storage, and poor field management are among the many reasons crops don’t turn out the way farmers intend. Again, because farmers live and work in the messy world of nature, some causes of defects, such as harsh weather or insect migration, are outside of a farmer’s control.

Defects are a major source of waste because, as with overproduction waste, defective products often contain a lot of lost investment. It’s best to spot defect early. We would much rather a crop fail within a few days of planting time than after we’ve spent time and money growing and tending or even harvesting a crop. The lean principle of poka-yoke, or “mistake-proofing,” targets this waste through systems for early defect detection.

8. Overburdening (Muri)

In the Japanese language, muri is often used to mean “impossible,” “unsustainable,” or “unreasonable.” On the farm, muri waste occurs when workers and equipment are overstretched. With people, muri leads to burnout, injury, and poor work. With equipment, it leads to engine failure, broken handles, and worn-out parts.

Equipment and bodily overburden can be a problem on farms especially around harvest time, when there is more to do than time allows. And there is often a lot of muri when farms grow too rapidly. Workers are overstretched trying to build new greenhouses or animal barns in addition to getting regular production tasks accomplished.

9. Uneven Production and Sales (Mura)

Mura translated from Japanese means “unevenness,” “irregularity,” or “lack of uniformity.” In a production environment it refers to sales and production spikes and dips. Standardized and predictable work is easy to perform efficiently. A worker can readily find a rhythm, which simplifies spotting waste and making improvements. But uneven work is often inefficient because it involves less rhythm, more mistakes, and higher costs.

On vegetable and fruit farms, some amount of mura is unavoidable, as fresh products on such farms will ripen according to their natural season. But expanding production seasons and spreading out sales of food products—whether from animal or produce farms—has a leveling effect on farmwork and increases efficiency.

10. Unused Talent

Many farms need lots of help during harvest or extra hands at butchering time and can get by with less labor the rest of the year. It’s tempting to divide a farm workforce into two camps—one for workers who grind away, heads down, completing simple, mindless tasks and another for workers who think, process data, design systems, and complete complex and more interesting assignments. But to do so disrespects workers, and the farm loses out on talent as well.

Lean places emphasis on the shop floor (or gemba) as the best place for new ideas to generate. Responsibilities are pushed down the organizational ladder so that problems are looked at from many angles. Farm laborers working with production details day in and day out will often have better insights than the farmer on more efficient ways to get a job done. But systems need to be set up to receive and incorporate their ideas. According to lean thinking, any good idea that goes unspoken is a form of waste.

While these ten types of waste are distinct categories, there is a lot of interaction among them, particularly among muda, muri, and mura. If you rush around to fill orders at the last minute, your farm is exhibiting symptoms of mura—uneven production. When your production is uneven, you and your workers are bound to experience some degree of overburden (muri), for example, when equipment fails from overuse. Mistakes are made during these times, causing defects, one of Ohno’s original seven muda.

Once you understand these ten forms of waste, you can look out for them on your farm and root them out. This is the basic practice of lean— banishing waste to increase efficiency.


Recommended Reads

The “American Farmer” Fallacy

Who Are We as Farmers?

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