Beef Tips

The Right Thing and The Easy Thing

February 2016 Management Minute

by Chris Reinhardt, feedlot specialist

When we look back over the decades of the 20th century, it is abundantly apparent that animal agriculture has made tremendous strides forward in the areas of food product wholesomeness and safety, animal nutrition, animal health, and animal well-being. And this process of continuous improvement carries on today.

There is a term used to describe one of the pillars of manufacturing excellence, called “kaizen”. Kaizen is a Japanese word that simply means “improvement”, but when used to describe business practices, has come to mean “the process of continuous improvement”.

When we look back at the food production industries, we can clearly track the arc of this continuous improvement. However, there are numerous causes which initiate change in any business or industry.

The immediate profit motive is the most pervasive, prevalent, and persistent. There always has been and always will be a desire by businesses to improve production efficiency either by decreasing the cost of inputs or by increasing the output per unit of input. This is self-evident.

However, there are other, often sporadic and unpredictable (or less predictable) motivations for change and improvement.

In the 1990’s the U.S. beef industry, amidst the continuously flowing stream of profit- and efficiency-motivated change, conducted a series of quality audits which shone light on glaring failures in end product quality and consistency, which were the direct result of a management practice (injection of needles and health care products into the animal’s round) which (a) adversely affected product quality and (b) was accepted by virtually the entire industry as “normal” and “acceptable”.

Consider these last two points: a universally accepted standard operating procedure was consistently and predictably harming product quality. An industry-wide and concerted effort was placed on identifying an acceptable compromise alternative to this practice (injections were moved to the neck just in front of the shoulder, where lower-value meat is derived compared to the rear of the carcass), and in a very short span of time, the incidence rate of product quality failure due to this practice plummeted to nearly zero.

This true industry story provides at least two valuable lessons. 1. An industry which has over 700,000 producers can change, for the better, when all parties agree to move in the same direction. 2. That unified direction required a prior in-depth, intentional assessment of product quality and production practices. However, the hidden reason for the rapid industry-wide adoption of change was that the compromise solution (moving injection site to the neck) resulted in no loss in production or increased cost of production or reduction in production efficiency. The solution didn’t inconvenience the producers.

But what if there was a problem with product quality or production practices which was universally acknowledged by an industry as being unacceptable, but the most obvious solution resulted in increased production costs or labor inputs? It is doubtful this solution would be eagerly or rapidly or universally adopted without some external motivation to initiate the change. That external motivator may be consumers changing buying habits or even a governmental agency tasked with ensuring safe product or acceptable production practices.

In the 1990’s the U.S. beef industry successfully worked from within to make substantive change which improved the product and the industry at once. But the solution was relatively “painless”. We currently have other production practices in food animal production which some industry pundits have indicated are potentially harmful to product wholesomeness or not providing optimal animal care, but which also have not been universally agreed upon by producers to be worth the “cost” of change.

Kaizen, or continual improvement requires more than a simple profit motive. Kaizen requires deep introspection into both product quality and into standard production practices and a long-range lens through which to view the future of product perception and acceptance. If we only adapt when change is thrust upon us, the lost opportunity costs can be tremendous.

For more information contact Chris at 785-532-1672 or


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