Steering Your Dairy Day-to-Day to Avoid the "Drift"

A subtle but steady “procedural drift” away from the consistency can cost dollars and cents. ( Wyatt Bechtel )

By: Lisa A. Holden, Pennsylvania State University Extension

Time and again the phrase “cows crave consistency” comes up in discussion about enhancing performance, squeezing out that last dollar of profit. Unfortunately, this phrase isn’t always true for the workers feeding, bedding, and milking those cows. People get bored with routine tasks. People get distracted and forget steps in an SOP. People cut corners in order to save time or “improve” on a procedure. While these changes that are made can sometimes be beneficial in updating standard operating procedures (SOPs) in favor of a better way, it is the subtle and steady “procedural drift” away from the consistency that the cows crave that can cost dollars and cents. Since well-designed SOPs consider the proper and safe operation of equipment, procedural drift can also cause unwanted safety issues on the dairy.

Procedural noncompliance

  • Procedural noncompliance or drift is defined as “The difference between what is written in a policy and procedure and what is happening in real life on a day-to-day basis.

This drift can be sneaky; happening slowly over time so often managers may not notice — kind of like water running over a rock; eventually the rock erodes away. At its best this drift is occurring in the day-to-day tasks of the dairy with minimal impacts. Maybe the feed mixer time is 9 minutes instead of the required 10 minutes. Maybe the parlor prep is 28 seconds for dip contact, just shy of the 30 second minimum kill time. Can these little drifts create problems? What happens if the average mix time is 9 minutes, but the range is 6 to 12? Is this the consistency that the cows crave? Will the feed be sorted causing metabolic issues, low fat test, or other consequences? It’s the little things that can make a big difference, especially over time.

Dairy farms are not the only areas where procedural drift is an issue. In 2015 an Execuflight Hawker HS125-700A aircraft crashed, killing all seven passengers and both pilots. In its investigation of the crash, the NTSB determined that the probable cause of the accident was “...the flight crew’s mismanagement of the approach and multiple deviations from company standard operating procedures…Contributing to the accident were Execuflight’s casual attitude toward compliance with standards…”1

Another well-known flight example of this drift is outlined in Scott Snook’s book Friendly Fire 2 where he cites “practical drift” — “the slow uncoupling of practice from procedure” as the underlying cause of the 1994 accidental shoot down of two U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters by U.S. Air Force F15 fighter jets patrolling the Iraqi No-Fly-Zone. Snook’s analysis of the chain of events indicated that the misidentification and subsequent shoot down that occurred did not come from “any catastrophic failures of material or equipment, hence nothing to fix. This accident occurred not because of something extraordinary but because of the opposite.”

While the procedural drift that occurs on dairies may not have life and death consequences, there are plenty of opportunities for drift from the SOP to result in unsafe practices that can cause harm, or worse, fatalities. There also can be many instances of costly practices that because of drift become commonplace. Some reasons that procedural drift may occur include poorly written SOPs (too vague, too prescriptive) or lack of front-line management (lack of observation or enforcement)3.

Reducing procedural drift can help to save money and improve worker safety. It can also create that consistent environment that cows crave. As a manager, you can create a culture of compliance on your dairy. First, review the SOPs and update any that are out of date, too vague, or otherwise incomplete or incorrect. Get feedback from employees who may tell you “the SOP says this way, but here is how we do it.” It can be a great conversation and a starting point for improvement. Second, review and retrain ALL employees on up to date SOPs, especially for key areas. This is can be an overwhelming task, so break it down into small steps. Do each area (feeding, milking, etc.) separately. Don’t forget about safety for all. Third, monitor progress and worker performance on a REGULAR basis. Drift happens when no one is watching — so simply watch. Last, enforce the “right way” to do things. When its being done wrong, address the practice. Address the worker (remember praise publicly, correct privately) and follow through afterwards to ensure the practice is being done correctly in the future.

While procedural drift on a dairy isn’t going to result in aircraft crashes, stop and take a few minutes to think about all the little things that could be just a bit off track. Take time to steer the day-to-day operation of your dairy for a safer, more productive, higher profit result.