Always take time to re-focus

September 28, 2009
Written by Melhem Sawaya
I am sure we can list more than 100 major changes that affect us directly without any effort. Many of these changes could be positive and others negative. The question is, how did we respond to these changes or, more importantly, did we respond at all?

One of my hobbies is photography. Every time I take a picture, the camera mechanism re-focuses on the new environment of the picture without much interference on my part because I leave the settings on automatic.

Also, my job entails lots of driving so I use the cruise control on highways or any time the situation is suitable for cruising.

In both situations, taking pictures or driving, you can use the automatic features when conditions are stable and not subject to many changes.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, life is far from being stable or static. Change is a synonym for life and being alive.

Simple automation gives you more time to manage.
Quality and product differentiation are assets to every operation.
Labour and shipping costs can be at least five times more than heating; mechanize where possible.

The greenhouse business and every other business is affected by any one of these changes and, unfortunately, we cannot set our business on auto-flow or cruise control. A definite response on our part is needed in every situation.

An action can only be taken if we recognize it or are aware of a change. Then, and only then, can we try to take the appropriate action. Taking an action without knowing the full impact and ramifications of how this change will affect us is often what we do, which is a reaction. When we look at the ramifications of a change and understand how it can impact us, then we can plan systematic steps to adjust and take advantage of the change. We are responding positively to that change. When a prescribed medicine cures our ailment, we say that our body is responding to that medicine. On the other hand, when a prescribed medicine gives us unfavourable results, we say our body is reacting to that medicine.

To choose a medicine that has an increased chance of causing our bodies to respond, rather than react, is based totally on the change in our physical situation and the exact problem that we need to correct. This is what happens when a doctor asks for X-rays, blood tests and other tests to pinpoint the change and give the right medicine to correct it.

The greenhouse industry has as many changes as any other business. Responding to every change takes re-focusing by disabling the cruise control and taking control of our business and life journey.

The portrait of the car industry has totally changed in one year. More accurately, we noticed the dramatic impact of the change, but the process of change was happening all the time. Obviously, some car companies were ready for the change while others stubbornly, or blindly, did nothing about it and the results have been devastating.

The computer age has been with us for 30-plus years and many operations still don’t take advantage of its potential. Though I hurry to say that, conversely, some companies have it in their minds that computers can and should solve every aspect of their business – old problems and new ones – which is typical overreaction.

Computers are tools that can enhance steps and procedures in our business when we know what the outcomes are. They can definitely solve problems. By using the computers to take care of routine tasks of record-keeping, planning and retrieving information, we will have more time to solve problems and improve our operations.

Field farmers, who take advantage of satellite soil testing and fertilization, are saving money on fertilizer by applying the right amount and at the exact location. Also, this process is helping the environment by not adding fertilizer where the land does not require it.

These are only a couple of major changes in technology that can really help or hinder, based solely on how we use them.

Other circumstances are beyond our control, such as the things that trigger fuel prices to skyrocket or cause the breakdown of the world financial system. Successful businesses try to hedge themselves for bad times and I understand completely that we cannot speculate and hedge against everything that might happen. However, a solid foundation will always handle more than one storm.

A solid business foundation can never be built to be at the mercy of banks and credit. When a downturn hits, it comes down to survival of the fittest. Always, there is a comeback because, during the downturn, the shaky businesses will disappear at a faster rate. Yet, when things turn around, those that held on will flourish and will do so at a faster pace because they were prepared for bad times. They learned enough during previous downturns to make them a strong operation that can foster growth in good times.

Solidly based operations work on all aspects of their operation.

It’s important to make sure your greenhouses are operational and adequate for growing and product handling.

You must also have the correct management structure of owners and employees so that everyone knows what is expected of them and where every particular job should be. It is the responsibility of only one person, but it requires the co-operation of everyone.

The physical environment of the greenhouse is where we have the ability to provide optimum temperature, light and water inputs for the crop we are growing. By having the optimum environment, we can reduce heat, fertilizer wastage, growing time and end up with good quality crops, all of which help the bottom line.

The working environment is as important – or more important – than the physical environment. A pleasant, harmonious and co-operative environment among all the employees and managers/owners makes every task much lighter and more likely to be done on time because everyone is working toward the same goal.

Being able to stay with the latest production methods and applying them will set us ahead of the cure. The theory, “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” is a recipe for failure because if we do the same things the same way for long periods of time, we are soon falling behind the times. In a downturn, we will not be able to keep up.

By no means am I suggesting we keep changing everything all the time. The right thing to do is to always have three to five per cent of whatever we are doing to be different. If the outcome is better, you can increase the percentage in the next cycle. If it still proves to be better, adopt the new way totally. This will evolve into a dynamic, low-risk improvement that will not shock any system. It is very low risk, but with the potential of big gains when it is followed regularly.

These low-percentage changes/trials could be in media, watering systems, fertilizer programs, crop cookbooks, treatments used, application methods, plant materials, and every other aspect of growing the plant.

In greenhouses, planting, moving plants, picking orders, and any other product movement, requires procedures and means to make the process as cost-effective as possible. The most efficient way to handle products is to plan things properly so the plant is handled as little as possible. This planning is much easier when done on paper.

Shipping is another huge cost of product handling, and by using the proper trucks and coordinating with customers to ship full truckloads rather than part loads, you will cut costs tremendously.

Whether you develop your own product mix or have one forced on you by your customer, product simplification is a priority in mechanization and efficiency. Yes, we need variety but not every variety in the catalogue. When you pick a new variety, try to get rid of an old one.

A priority in every operation is to have at least an idea who your potential customers are and to establish some guideline production numbers with them. Growing on spec is a recipe for disaster. Every grower who had an idea or spoken commitment from their buyer(s) had a good season, while the growers who totally speculated had a fair-to-bad season. If growers don’t stop speculating, I guarantee the banks will.

Every transaction in a greenhouse should be costed out to see where the costs are going and how we can improve them. Doing a proper costing program takes three years, but after that, it requires minimal maintenance to fine-tune costs.

These days, the information highway is easier to use than ever. With the Internet age and computer communications, many things are at our fingertips. Many seminars take place each year. After 31 years in the greenhouse business, I still learn many things from every seminar or growers’ meeting, or any other information source.

My favourite source of information is visiting greenhouse operations and seeing things first-hand. Visiting objective trials, not show trials, will give you a clear look at varieties that will perform well for the consumer.

Be part of organizations, build a circle of growers for comparing notes, and invite speakers to group meetings. Capitalize on the knowledge of suppliers and, if they don’t know the answers, they can find out. One caution after saying all this: take what you see, hear, or learn and try it on a small scale then expand later if results are favourable under your conditions.

Look at other industries and learn from them. What they’re doing is often innovative and we can tailor it to our operations to make them unique.

It is important to keep evaluating what we want from our job, what we want for our families, what our families want from us, and what we want from life in general. Involve your loved ones in the process, use these evaluations to make plans and follow through. Never fall into the trap of becoming too comfortable in either your family or business life.

Always create excitement, a positive environment, and enjoy everything you do. Do something about the things you can change and, although things will still go wrong, you will have minimized the impact. Remember, tomorrow is a new day!

Melhem Sawaya of Focus Greenhouse Management is a consultant and research co-ordinator to the horticultural industry. Comments on this or any other article are always welcome; please e-mail This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , or visit or

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