Regular team meetings just slipped away at Dueschers Legendairy Farms near Algoma, Wis. People would come to the meetings talking about the opening of deer season or other things not relevant to the business at hand, so the meetings took longer than necessary, recalls Chris Jadin, dairy manager at the 850-cow dairy. Eventually, the meetings stopped.
In September, the idea of meetings was reintroduced by one of the dairy's consultants, Kristin Bonham, Monsanto dairy area market manager. Everyone knew that the business would benefit; the challenge was to make the meetings more focused and meaningful this time around.
In the new format, the veterinarian, nutritionist, owner, herdsman, manager and main feeder all participate. Bonham serves as facilitator to keep the discussion flowing. A time frame of approximately 30 to 40 minutes helps keep discussion focused, and leaves little time for personal issues or "social discussions," says Jadin.
"We have team meetings once a month now," he says. "Things are running a lot smoother at the dairy, and we feel more comfortable with the meeting process."
Team meetings can yield benefits for your dairy, too. However, they take planning and preparation to run. If you've tried them before and failed, or if you've never had a team meeting, take the advice of these experts to make your meetings more productive.
Learn from others
"I think that everyone can initially see the wisdom of having a meeting and getting people to communicate," says Gary Snider, farm business consultant for Farm Credit of Western New York. "Getting people to function in a team meeting is a lot different."
Snider participates in meetings at Lamb Farms Inc. in western New York. Farm manager Jonathan Lamb says the most important thing he's learned is to keep the meeting positive. You can't let it turn into a gripe session.
Conducting successful team meetings is a learned process through trial-and-error, says Lamb. "It is extremely important to keep it positive, and someone needs to lead the meeting," says Lamb. "People have a lot to do, so keep it moving."
Use the following ideas to make your team meetings successful:
- Identify stakeholders who need to be present for each meeting. These might include the veterinarian, nutritionist and herdsman. You also may want to enlist the help of an outside resource person, such as a management consultant or extension agent, to sit in on a few meetings to help guide the process.
- Set ground rules for the meetings. This allows the meeting facilitator to step in and stop discussion if someone is talking too much or making personal attacks rather than focusing on the issue. (See "Examples of ground rules" on page 76.)
- Assign roles for the meeting, including facilitator, note-taker and timekeeper. The facilitator is responsible for keeping discussion moving and stepping in when someone gets out of line. A timekeeper helps to keep the meeting moving, and the note-taker provides a written record of discussions and actions that need to be taken.
- Make an agenda available prior to the meeting. "An agenda lets participants know when they're going to be responsible for participating and helps them prepare," says Don Tyler, management consultant in Clarks Hill, Ind. Once you've established an agenda, keep it fairly consistent from meeting to meeting.
- Include some shared performance goals on the agenda.
"Some of the best operations that I work with have the managers plot the last weeks' production numbers on graphs on the wall for everyone to see," says Tyler. This is done first, so there are no secrets and everyone knows where they stand in relation to their production targets.
If you're looking for a starting point at those first few meetings, Bonham suggests asking some simple questions of the group. Begin by asking, "Where are we at?" This allows the group to establish a starting point looking at the strengths and opportunities for the dairy. For example, we have a good labor force, we have a good forage base, or we need to improve fresh cow transition. Another question to ask is, "Where do we need to go?" For example, we need to strengthen our fresh cow procedures or we need to lower SCC. These questions help create a list of things to focus on.
- Set a time limit for meetings that involve production personnel. The time limit is less important for those individuals not directly involved in day-to-day production activities, says Tyler. However, employees involved in daily operations may already feel that their time is stretched, so keep meetings brief. Let those participants know an approximate time limit, such as 30 minutes, so that they can plan their day.
- At the first few meetings, be patient and encourage everyone to share ideas. It takes time to build a comfort level for all to speak up in team meetings. Focus on keeping conversations to the topic at hand, and prevent personal attacks.
- Praise and encourage everyone's efforts. Encourage other department managers to offer praise as well. "It is not just the owner's or the manager's job to praise employees," says Tyler.
- Provide reports on overall production so everyone understands the big picture. "I would encourage people to have a flip chart available at each meeting so action items can be recorded" for future reference, says Bonham.
- Designate responsibilities.
- Create action items and assign accountability for each action item. These should be reviewed at the close of the meeting so that everyone is clear on his or her assignment.
- What happens during the meeting stays in the meeting. At one operation Tyler worked with, the manager found out that some meeting participants who thought they didn't get heard, or didn't like a decision that had been made, would go back to their units griping to the other employees and creating a negative atmosphere. "Once a decision is made as a group, leave the discussion in the meeting. Don't take it out and use the discussion to grind an ax," says Tyler.
Kim Watson is a freelance writer in San Antonio, Texas.
Set an agenda
In order to keep team meetings focused, positive and short, you should first create an agenda. Here is a sample agenda used by Gary Snider, farm business management consultant with Farm Credit of Western New York:
1. Review DHI reports.
2. Review daily milk production report.
3. Review modified operating statement.
4. Review budget projections versus actual performance each month.
5. Monthly veterinarian report.
6. Monthly nutritionist report.
7. Identify upcoming events and expenditures.
8. Schedule vacation time and other time off.
9. Take action: set priorities and assign responsibility.
Examples of ground rules
To have effective team meetings, you first need to set some ground rules. Don Tyler, Profitable Solutions, Clarks Hill, Ind., suggests the following:
- Leave personal grudges and personal conflicts outside the work environment.
- Only allow one person to speak at a time.
- Make requests rather than demands of others.
- Be on time.
- Stay focused on the topic at hand.
- Exercise mutual respect for everyone; do not verbally attack anyone.
- Make sure everyone has a chance to share an idea, no matter how far out the idea is.
- Establish and follow reasonable time frames.
- Ask for clarification if you're not sure what someone meant.
- Be open to change.
- Focus on the "we" rather than the "I."