Don't Vote Dad Off the Island!

Thomas Henry Ford created a system whereby he paid five times the standard wage to attract the best of the best.  The flip side of this policy was that if you didn’t meet his standards, you got fired.

Under Jack Welch’s leadership in the 90’s, General Electric fired their bottom 10% of performers every year.  It created a culture of “whose head is on the platter” this week?  Any mistake became a reason for termination.  This created a highly competitive business culture which didn’t create team harmony but did create incredible results. 

Coincidentally, during this time the most popular television show was “Survivor”.  This reality T.V. show weekly “voted one character off the island”.  Only the strong survived.

Unfortunately on too many family farms and family businesses, we have this culture of survivor.

Let’s take a family farm whereby there are three brothers starting off together.  During their teenage years, they had spats like brothers do but fundamentally get along.    Then in their early 20’s it became evident that one brother had a conflicting personality which rubbed the other two brothers wrong.  He was “voted off the island” either getting setup with his own farm or getting a “glorious” job in town.   

Then within five years Dad becomes a problem.  He stands in the way of the two boys making good decisions together.  Soon enough Dad gets “voted off the island”, through a hostile insurrection whereby either succession planning happens or else the boys are going to walk off.  So soon dad is sidelined from management and often is forced to live in town away from the farm’s business.   

Then it leaves two brothers farming together.  Bliss for a few years and then hell for the next ten.  They both get married and believe it or not, the wives have issues with the business partnership.  Sometime in the mix, nephews get involved and the strain of an uncle not being able to “discipline spoiled brats” gets in the mix.  Soon enough the boys are at odds with each other.  It becomes a power struggle.  Yet again, another game of survivor; leaving only one man on the island. 

 This “culture of survivor” leaves unprofitable farms and lonely Christmas dinners. 

Edward Deming was an American statistician whose philosophies were polar opposite to Henry Fords and fifty years later his methods nearly put the American Automotive industry under.  Ford adopted his philosophies in the 80’s; whereas GM did not and this decision was one of the leading contributors to GM going into bankruptcy. 

Instead of expecting perfection, Deming expected imperfections and flaws.  He celebrated flaws.  He got Japanese manufacturers to embrace mistakes and problem solve to prevent these mistakes from happening again.  Instead of playing the blame game, they got good at team problem solving and making sure mistakes don’t happen again.  They even got good at anticipating problems before they occurred.  It’s for this reason that Toyota was able to build better quality cars faster and cheaper.  Instead of a culture of “serving someone’s head on the platter” they got good at “putting their heads together to solve problems constructively”.   

When you are an automotive manufacturer, it’s easy to fire folks and replace them with better workers.  However, you usually have to go through 10 employees to get one employee that meets your expectations and they usually are hard to retain on farm wages.  Unless you are from a family of 11, this is not the way to go!

Firing family, makes Christmas dinner plain uncomfortable.  More importantly, it makes every other day of the year with the relative you’d like to fire but feel you shouldn’t, just plain uncomfortable! 

Nobody is perfect and yet with most family farms we have a culture of expecting perfection which leads to non-stop frustration and repeated mistakes.    The problem is that we expect a standard of perfection.  What happens if we did the opposite and assume a culture of imperfection?  What happens if we expect flaws and have both the right systems and attitudes to deal with them?  What happens if instead of sweeping problems under the carpet, we had a method to proactively deal with them?

I walked onto a farm which was known for being the best managed operation in the county and often in other farm meetings, they refered to what that farm did as the gold standard.  Yet they had the culture of playing the blame game and the day I showed up, the one brother had just gotten back from rehab and was just about to “get voted off the island”.  Part of the reason the one son had a drinking problem was that he was the scape goat for many problems on the farm and in the previous year he had become a closet drinker due to the pressure of being family screw up.  The more he screwed up, the more he drank and the more his head was in a fog; the more he screwed up. 

I started meeting with the family on a monthly basis and in several categories ranging from production to human resources, we had each sibling/parent identify one way to improve how the family worked together.  It wasn’t an hour of playing the blame game, but actual problem solving.  For that alcoholic son and actually the entire family, it changed their entire lives.  By picking away at one problem in multiple categories, it created a hope for actual productive change; which changed everyone’s attitude.  For each meeting we had, we walked away with 5+ improvements ranging from scheduling time off for weekend holidays to finding/fixing $110,000 production mistakes in their breeding program through simple management changed.  Over the course of the year, we had made over 50 improvements and that family went from hating each other, to actually getting along fabulously at Christmas. 

They felt that having an outsider to act as a chairman for those meetings was invaluable.  It forced them to discuss the topics they didn’t really want to tackle in a constructive not destructive manner.  Nobody was allowed to leave until topics where addressed, resolved and an actual implementation was developed.  Having someone to come back at month’s end to hold everyone accountable to implementation and to fix the root issues of why plans didn’t get done was even more critical.  It leveled the playing field and when I left, dad went back to being boss and the family back to being a happy family instead of 30 days of being a begrudging family.    

Creating a culture whereby your family looks at the facts and deals with the facts, instead of blaming each other for the problems or either sweeping problems under the rug is critical.  Instead of farming being a game of Survivor or Family Feud, with the right business processes it can be fun/wholesome like the Dukes of Hazard.