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Problem solving and decision making on the farm

Jim Paulson

"We have a problem!" "Oh, what's the problem?" How many conversations have you had that have started out in the same or similar way? Problems are part of life, especially dairy farm life. But how we handle problems goes a long way in determining our stress level. What is your strategy for problem solving?

In order to solve a problem, you first need to know if you have a problem and what it is. The worst scenario is to have a problem and fail to realize it or to realize it and delay doing something about it. Is it a real problem, a perceived problem or is it a crisis? Begin by asking these questions: What needs to be different? Is it a big problem or a small problem? Who should be responsible for solving the problem? If it is your problem to solve, start by asking yourself mental questions. How can I break it down into pieces and what are they? Most people began developing their problem solving skills before kindergarten. You began to figure out how to get a desired outcome. You honed your skills while in school. Remember those pesky word problems in algebra? Now you are in the real world but using the same skills.

There are a lot of "clichés" in business management books and lectures. They do little to actually solve a problem. A popular one is "think outside the box". This approach is often popularized by consultants who want to be paid a lot to hear themselves talk. Companies are hoping to discover the next big idea to revolutionize their industry. The reality is that most problem solving, and even innovative ideas, come from clear, critical and stepwise thinking "in the box". It comes from a long time of figuring out what does work and what doesn't. You do the same on your farm. While many skills you have apply to all farms, they often must be adapted to your situation due to location, climate, soils, etc. You have constraints you have to work with or around. It may be labor, money, facilities or others. That is not to imply we can't think about how we might like to solve a problem. We should; it can guide our long term planning and helps us make decisions that line up with those plans. We call this a critical path to our goals. It keeps us from deviating very far from our plan without a good reason and thinking. Successful farms have five- and ten-year plans. They can represent a solution to problems we are now experiencing. At other times we might think of what might be a solution and then see how many problems it would solve in order to justify spending the money. This is often the case in buying new machinery.

As you approach a problem, how do you go about deciding what you will do? What is your framework for decision making? Decision making can be broken down into steps as follow: 1. Define the problem so you and anyone else who needs to know about it knows what it is. 2. What is the desired outcome? Do you all agree? 3. Consider the alternatives. Be flexible in alternatives and open to new ideas as well. No matter what the problem was, I always like when an employee or family member has an idea for the solution as well. If I don't hear one, I will ask for one. More minds to solve a problem are usually beneficial. 4. What are the pluses and minuses to each? Financial implications are critical. Depending on the scope of the problem, could a wrong decision put us at risk? 5. Reach a consensus if necessary and make the decision. The reality of decision making on the farm is that no one else can make the decision for you. This may not be just one person but the management team, the family, owners or partners. Delaying decisions because of indecisiveness is rarely beneficial. However, you do need a plan or method to evaluate decisions. Learn from mistakes and correct them or modify the plan and then re-evaluate.

Who makes the decisions on your farm? Many decisions are made every day. Most do not involve more than one person involved in the task. Even on larger operations, if protocols and SOPs (standard operating procedures) are in place, much of the decision making is done already. But what about the big decisions? Decisions such as buying land, building new facilities, buying machinery. How about some of the smaller decisions: bull selection, cropping plans, corn hybrid selection, teat dips, milk replacer? Do you allow the people responsible in their areas to make those decisions?

November 2013

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