Labour productivity - cost effective pickers

As technology delivers increased productivity it is vital to ensure that labour delivers value for money too, Chris Rose maintains.

A 20% saving in labour costs is achievable through modelling the best 'champion' performers - image: Chris Rose
A 20% saving in labour costs is achievable through modelling the best 'champion' performers - image: Chris Rose

When the minimum wage reaches £10 per hour, will you still be in business? History tells us that those who adapt will prosper and the rest will fail. What action is your business taking?

When looking to save money, the best place to start is with the biggest cost centre. In most horticultural businesses this is undoubtedly labour. Getting a 10 per cent reduction in your fertiliser costs is beneficial but if you could reduce your labour costs by 10 per cent the effect on your bottom line would be enormous. The problem is that the former may be achievable with a few phone calls or by joining a group purchasing scheme, while labour is not a commodity and far more complex.

Over the first decade of this century, grower businesses have achieved impressive gains in yield and quality through better techniques, improved varieties and greater management skills. In many cases this has resulted in greater efficiency - so the perception is that labour has become more productive. But is this really the case?

When I left commercial fruit-farm management 12 years ago, the range of speeds between fastest and slowest in a gang of strawberry pickers was often 300 per cent. This figure still rings true, with many husbandry and harvesting tasks throughout horticulture. The question: "Why is this range so great?" led to the Horticultural Development Company-funded Champion Picker and Supervisor projects.

These projects demonstrated that a 20 per cent saving in labour costs was achievable through modelling the best "champion" performers - pickers, packers and cutters. Modelling consists of studying individuals to gain a full understanding of what makes them so good and, crucially, involves physical and non-physical traits. The former included full use of both hands whereas slower pickers appeared to use both hands but actually picked most fruit with the dominant hand. Non-physical traits included a passionate determination to reach a personal goal - such as to earn the money to go to a top university or simply to be the best.

Neuro-linguistic programming

Techniques from neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) were employed to great effect in these projects. NLP is a discipline that explores the relationships between how we think, how we communicate and our patterns of behaviour and emotion. Through modelling and teaching excellence people can think, communicate and manage themselves and others more effectively. In effect, NLP is a powerful change-management tool that transforms the way people think and act to have the greatest impact on performance. It is widely used in business management, psychology, sales, sports coaching and personal development.

The champion picker projects covered harvesting strawberry, apple, runner bean, cauliflower and lettuce crops. A subsequent project focused on supervisors after it became clear that the best supervisors nurtured and developed better pickers. Two DVDs have been produced - The Champion Picker: Strawberry and Creating Champion Employees - that are applicable to all sectors of horticulture and tasks where a gang is supervised. The Champion Picker DVD is being updated this summer to include table-top strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries. All the project reports and DVDs are available from the HDC to levy payers.

Champion supervisors

While NLP modelling of excellence does require specific expertise, transferring the results to lesser performers is more straightforward. The best supervisors tend to do this automatically. For example, Agnieszka, a supervisor at soft fruit grower Hall Hunter Partnership, explained how she had been one of the top pickers out of 500.

On becoming a supervisor she wanted all her pickers to be as successful as she had been and set about training them to pick to the required standard quickly and efficiently. She became a coach and helped motivate her gang, measuring her success in terms of their success. At the end of the season the results showed that her gang, one of ten, had out-performed every other gang by £1.20 per hour, which equates to almost 20 per cent.

Do your supervisors coach their people to higher performance levels, or do they merely organise and police quality? Do your supervisor-selection criteria include the desire and ability to train, coach and motivate or do you just choose the fastest worker who speaks English? Organisational ability, maintaining standards through good discipline and the ability to communicate with you are all essential skills for any supervisor. What Agnieszka achieved was over and above that and made a massive difference to her gang, the business and herself. She became harvest manager, training all the other supervisors, and now she is Mrs Harry Hall.

To get the best results, supervisors need time to focus on output - that is, quality and quantity issues. If they are forced or choose to spend too much time focusing on other areas such as organising, disciplining, recording work or checking supplies, output will suffer.

The best results will be achieved through a whole farm approach. Commitment to the process is the key to overall business success. Supervisors must implement the methods and ideas presented through training and coaching. The more confident they are about the concepts, the more success they will have with the results.

Top performance tips

To get the best out of your workers, you need motivated supervisors. To do this:

- Develop results-based job descriptions - what performance level is required to do each part of the role well.

- Agree daily, weekly and seasonal targets such as quality standards and what level of output is required.

- Measure actual performance in the agreed areas. Remember that if you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it effectively.

- Recognise achievements and discuss shortfalls.

- Agree bonuses to be paid based on results.

To get the best results requires owners, managers and supervisors to work together to plan how to increase outputs and productivity across the whole business. When everyone agrees with and is part of the plan, the chances of success are much higher.

For each major job or task, as well as identifying minimum acceptable standards, identify what constitutes champion-level performance.

Individual performance can be measured in terms of how far it is from champion level. Training and coaching should focus on reducing the gap. To do this the supervisor should:

- Identify the individual and the extent of the under-performance.

- Observe the individual working and note the major differences, physical and non-physical, between them and the champions.

- Ascertain that the individual wants to improve, explaining the benefits of doing so and the implications of not doing so.

- Agree an achievable "next step" level of improvement, preferably set by the worker.

- Demonstrate or explain changes they need to make to improve.

- Agree with the individual one key area to work on such as improving focus by not chatting to friends or a more effective search pattern.

- Monitor progress and praise results, however small.


Hugh Lowe Farms in Kent is one of the largest soft-fruit growing businesses in the UK. It grows to a high standard and the management is excellent. The team of harvest supervisors has been nurtured through the business and achieved enviable results in picking speeds and quality.

Over a period of two months I spent 30 to 45 minutes coaching each supervisor once a week in the field. We used reports from CropPicker that scored each individual's output as a percentage of the top 10 per cent. Each gang had a mix of new and experienced pickers and the range at the start was very great.

We focused on the slower pickers whom the supervisors saw had greater potential. Each week the supervisor set a target for them and more than 80 per cent of the time they achieved them. Much of the improvement came from increased speed with experience.

However, the range in each gang compared with other years and other farms was significantly narrower. The table below demonstrates improvements over nine weeks against a control. The control was made up of figures from the previous season and for other farms in the same season.

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