The Lessons That Cows, Yes, Cows, Can Teach Entrepreneurs About Adapting to Change
Today’s young professionals may not think they have much in common with someone like me -- a third-generation dairy farmer. But those young professionals would be wrong.
Our farm businesses require caring for 300 cows, managing a retail farm-stand and bakery and marketing biodegradable pots manufactured from cow manure. Yes, you heard that right: manure.
But, beyond all that, here's where we find common ground with the typical entrepreneur: Like businesses everywhere, we have to overcome challenges related to human resources, diversification, data management, technology, globalization (just try selling manure overseas) and on and on. Our farm businesses need to evolve and adopt new technology to stay competitive.
And then there's this: Not long ago, we introduced robotic milking machines, an expensive, new process with countless risks involved.
Leading up to the transition, we had been milking our cows by hand twice a day: at midnight and noon, with three full-time employees involved. These faithful workers' task involved guiding the cows into the milking parlor and making sure that milking, which took around six hours, ran smoothly.
Milking cows may sound romantic. But in fact it’s hard, seven-days- a-week work.
Enter the robotic milking machines, designed to ease that chore. But the machines aren't all about technology lightening the load and giving us back leisure time. Like any change, robotic milking machines have their challenges.
Here, in fact, are four things we learned about introducing change to your business when that change is so big, so ambitious, that it doesn’t just alter how things get done -- it transforms them.
1. A big change is really just the culmination of lots of small changes.
With robotic milkers, it’s not just a matter of wheeling them in and getting to it. These machines come with a lot of new technology, including rumination collars, which are like Fitbits for cows. About eight to 10 months before we launched the robotic milkers, we started breaking in the cows to wearing these new "necklaces."
This neck gear is crucial to getting the most benefit out of the robotic technology. By starting them early, we got the cows used to their new accessory and we got used to all the individualized data and information we were now able to obtain about each cow, including her daily physical activity, her chewing habits and the alerts the machine sent out whenever she deviated from her base line (an indication she might not be feeling well).
By introducing this change early, we ensured that the cows wouldn't feel overwhelmed when more significant changes occurred later -- and neither would we.
2. You’ve got to give something to get something in return.
Yes, I know, people aren’t cows (and cows aren’t people), but they have at least one thing in common: Being rewarded on the path to change helps them not only accept that change and its inevitability, but actually enjoy working within the new processes and the benefits they provide.
One of our challenges was that we had to teach the cows to walk voluntarily to the robotic milkers without being herded there by a human. We did that by rewarding them with a high-energy, tasty grain, available to them only by visiting the milker. By introducing it to them well before we launched the milking robots, we created in them both the taste and desire for more, and the knowledge of what they had to do to get it.
3. Change is going to happen whether or not it’s the change you want; recognize the right change when you see it.
As the cows became more familiar with their new surroundings, their new food, the new mechanics and the new behaviors (theirs and ours), we saw, and celebrated, the right kind of change by showing the cows our trust in them. Gradually, as they absorbed new habits, we removed the gates and pens along the way to the robotic milker.
We also reduced the time and hands-on efforts of our three employees, giving the cows more freedom to choose when they wanted to be milked and how often, which was the ultimate goal.
4. People have to be champions of change, not the "victims" of it.
No, those three employees responsible for milking our cows did not lose their jobs; they're still responsible for milking the cows. But today their jobs are dramatically different. To ensure that they felt prepared for those new responsibilities, we worked to include them in implementing (as opposed to just carrying out) the change.
They learned how to collect the data that the new collars provided and to use the software well before we launched, which made everything easier later on. And, when it came to the new grain we started using to lure the cows, the employees were tasked with including it in the cows' feed well in advance of launch.
That made them -- the employees, not just the cows -- a part of the process and advanced their understanding of their new role in training the cows. These and other activities helped our employees feel ownership in the change and in its successful implementation.
Fast forward to today: Our cows are now pros, ambling off to the robotic milkers with little supervision. And our employees are now empowered to use the new technology; better yet, they no longer need to rotate on and off for that grueling midnight shift.
And the greatest lesson of all? It's been of benefit to us all, animals and humans alike, to make sure that both cows and people feel vested in the change.