A few months ago we looked in general terms at the value of information to us about our business. We used the example of the UK supermarkets and how they have exploited the opportunities offered by the introduction of the Loyalty Card to increase the breadth and depth of the information they now get about their own business, and how this has helped them to fine tune their operations. Here I want to look at just one aspect of this information revolution: how to collect the information.
A big difference between the UK supermarkets and the average mushroom farm is that the supermarkets were able to collect whatever information they needed very easily. The supermarkets simply used their checkout tills to collect this new information, about you the customer. There was little extra effort involved, other than the checkout person swiping your Loyalty Card through the card reader. All it really cost the supermarkets was loads of money to set up their computer systems to do this. For the average mushroom grower, however, simply collecting the day to day information is the major administrative challenge and headache.
Most mushroom farms operate some sort of paper-based system for collecting data about what the pickers have picked and what has been shipped out of the farm during the day. You may use pre-printed sheets or simply scraps of paper to record what is happening as it happens. At the end of the day you take the information from these paper records and update your master record Ė a diary, a book and/or the crop record charts. Instead of transferring the daily information into a book, growers who have been using the computerised IMPS system (the Independent Mushroom Producerís System) have been entering the information collected on these paper records directly into their computer.
So what does it cost you to collect this information? It doesnít matter whether you have a computer or not, what it costs you each week is a lot of your time Ė something thatís never available in sufficient quantity! You have to sit down at the end of each day and either write the information out by hand or type it into your computer. On a busy 5-, 10-, 15- or 20-house mushroom farm, finding the time at the end of each day to do this is not easy. Then at the end of the week you have got to go through all these records again, to work out what you owe your pickers, and to calculate how many lbs of mushrooms each tunnel has produced during the week.
The supermarkets didnít have this problem Ė all the information they needed was collected at the point of sale. For the mushroom grower, it is a case of DIY.
This problem has been exercising my mind for the past eight months. How could I make it easier for growers who are using the IMPS computer system to collect the information each day? Obviously there is serious duplication of effort here, even if you donít use a computer. Someone (you, your foreman, or your pickers themselves) has to write down the information on paper as it happens during the day. Then someone (you most likely) takes this information and writes out these same figures again into your master diary or enters them into your IMPS computer. There is a real opportunity here to save time and effort if (1) the paper system can be done away with altogether and if (2) the computer can made to do what the paper system does Ė gather the information as it happens.
A solution to this problem is now available to Irish mushroom growers. A new piece of computer software, called remoteIMPS, has just been launched as an add-on to the main IMPS system.
What is remoteIMPS? The easiest way to describe it is to say that itís a bit like having a supermarket checkout till in your pack house! remoteIMPS runs on a small computer placed in the farm pack house, not in the office, but close to your cold store where itís all happening during the day. What does remoteIMPS do? Eight things:
1) It is there so that whoever brings the mushrooms from the tunnels/manages your cold store, or the pickers themselves, can enter what has been picked directly into the computer, instead of writing it on bits of paper. 2) It is there so that you or whoever manages the shipments can enter what was shipped directly into the computer, instead of jotting it down in a shipments book. 3) It is there for you to record any chemicals that have been used, where they were used, and how much was used. 4) If any products are returned to your farm, remoteIMPS is there so that the person in the pack house can enter directly into the computer there and then, what was returned, how many were returned and by whom. 5) If you are in the habit of making up bulk crates of mushrooms from punnets that you suspect might not meet the grade, remoteIMPS allows you (or whoever does it) to record what has been done directly into the pack house computer.
People costs are one of the major items of expenditure on the farm. Picker performance is now an important issue for growers, but one of the most difficult to monitor and control. To do so requires accurate records of hours worked and you havenít the time to undertake all this extra work. remoteIMPS now provides a simple mechanism for doing this. It operates a real-time clocking ON and OFF system, like the old-style punch-card systems. It is very easy to use. Pickers simply tap in their personal ID No as they pass the computer to start or end a work period. The computer knows whether they are clocking on at the beginning of the day, clocking on after a break, or clocking off after a period of work.
6) The purpose of this clocking on and off is so you can monitor picker performance accurately. Once the computer analyses the time information collected during the day, you will have at your fingertips: ß Accurate figures showing lbs picked per hour for each picker for that day. ß Accurate actual hourly rates of pay achieved for each picker. ß An analysis showing whether a picker is exceeding or failing to meet the minimum standards you have set (presumably to coincide with the minimum wage). ß The system will tell you how many extra lbs per hour a picker needs on average to pick each day in order to meet your minimum performance standards. You can monitor improvement in picker performance on a daily/weekly/monthly basis.
7) remoteIMPS uses this same real-time Clocking On/Off system to keep accurate working times for your hourly-paid workers. Again all the workers do is enter their ID No and press Enter each time they start or stop work. It also allows them to specify what work they have been doing during that work session and where, so that you will have figures to compare how long it takes for jobs to be completed and the costs allocated properly.
8) Finally, this new system provides the grower with an enhanced security system. It is easy for chips to appear or disappear. Security can be a big issue. Using remoteIMPS and IMPS together, you can now monitor stock security with the minimum of time and effort. All that is needed is a count of the stock held in the cold store at the end of each day. The computer knows how much was there at the beginning of the day (say 100 units). It knows how much was picked during the day (say 1,300 units). It knows what was shipped during the day (say 1,350 units), and it now knows whatís in the cold store at the end of the day (say 45 units). Whatís actually in the cold store (45) should match with what the computer says you should have in the cold store (50). If it doesnít match, then either (a) there has been an error during the shipping process (a crate slipped through without being counted), or (b) there has been an error or errors entering what has been picked. If you have got more than you should have, fine. If itís the other way round, you are paying for stock to be picked that isnít around. Each day you can reconcile farm activity and start each new day Ďspot oní, that is 100% accurate.
To return to our original question. What does a grower have to do now to collect all the information? The answer is very little, if the growerís using remoteIMPS. All the information is already in a computer at the end of the day. A click of a button will transfer all that information onto a floppy disk. The grower pops this floppy disk into his main IMPS system in his office, clicks a button and the data is transferred to that system. If the grower wants to review what has been happening during the day or make changes, he can do this now before the information is processed. When heís ready, another click of a button and the computer will happily potter away (at thousands of calculations a second, of course), processing and analysing all this information. All without the grower having any further part to play.
Information for free Ė well, free from a lot of personal time and effort. Canít be bad!
Brendan Howling, an IT consultant to small businesses, is based in Holycross, Co Tipperary. He has been working with local mushroom growers and other groups to develop new computerised management systems for businesses in Ireland. For further information please call 087 786 0665 or 0504 43067