Building Innovation into What We Do Everyday

Lee Whittington, BSc(Agr), MBA, PAg

At Prairie Swine Centre we start every meeting with a safety tip. Today’s safety tip is also an innovation – the deadstock mover. According to workplace research we should be careful when lifting anything greater than 15% of our body weight (source: Kansas State University), and the fewer steps we take carrying heavy objects the better. Sows die, sometimes in awkward places, and sows are much greater than 15% of any ‘group’ of people’s combined body weight. Various devices exist to assist this removal task, usually involving a rig similar to a bagged feed cart with a knuckle-breaker hand winch located inconveniently around the height of your shoulder. The photo below is an innovation developed by the production and maintenance staff at Prairie Swine Centre, instigated by Brian Andries our Operations Manager who has worked with pigs his entire career. Here is their low cost innovation to make light work of a job that needs to be done on all farms. The solution is in a word ‘elegant’ from its dependable components to its low cost manufacture, and it removes a health and safety risk associated with the job. How can we ensure more innovations like this are developed every month? I want to explore innovation in this article to see if we can indeed manage innovation.

Factors Contributing to On-Boarding Success The new employee

What does it mean to be innovative? The word has become so overused in business press that it ceases to hold real meaning or excitement. For example, last year the word ‘Innovation’ appeared 33,528 times in quarterly and annual US corporate reports; In one 90 day period there were 225 books published with the word ‘innovation’ in the title; in a survey of 260 companies, 43% indicated they had a ‘chief innovation officer’ or equivalent position; 28% of business schools have added the word ‘innovation’ to their mission statement. Given the focus on innovation it should be all around us and contributing to improved businesses, better personal wellbeing and be part of virtually everything we touch. Yet many of our successful businesses, especially in manufacturing, have developed systems that engage the power of Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s) and volume to drive down costs as a way to achieve profitability. Our farming model has also demonstrated that there are advantages to size. Our systems leverage their expertise by managing thousands (for example: acres or sows) in pursuit of a more efficient farm that meets family or shareholder needs for net income. Are ‘innovation’ and standardization opposites and in conflict?

Pork producers, transporters and packers want reliable, predictable processes that produce a well-defined product. For example; the pork chop of exactly 1inch thick with colour scores of 4, a marbling score of 3, and drip loss of less than 7%. These specifications are expected to be the end result of; a genetics program that met reproductive goals; a herdsperson who weaned the target number of pigs that week; a feeding program that met budget; and lastly pre-market in-barn and transport handling care that resulted in low animal stress, with no bruising or demerits. Now repeat these actions exactly the same for 52 weeks of the year and you have defined the successful system for this particular end product. Throughout this description of a successful system the word innovation didn’t appear once, and yet where did the standardized systems come from? They were a product of trial and error, of research, of close observation and measurement – in short a series of ‘innovations’ built upon each other to develop our current ‘Best Practices’ and we then embraced these and made them our SOP across all barns and people engaged in producing our pig. Thus Innovation and standardization are related but the timeline between them is often long and the cause and effect often distant from each other.

In any business, predictability and the expectation of maintaining the status quo is difficult (remember the precise pork chop delivered exactly the same every day). Given that the pork chop scenario is true, desirable to meet market needs, and representative of millions of product and service interactions that take place every day of the year how can we manage and execute innovation? There are other challenges to innovation as well these are summed up succinctly in this quote;

“Innovation has a thousand enemies: inertia, ignorance, resistance to change, stupidity, etc, etc…if innovation were easy, more people would do it” – Guy Kawasaki, Master the Art of Innovation

Where does innovation occur? So far in this article we have identified processes and products that lead to some tangible item – like our perfect pork chop. What about innovation beyond product research and development? Is it possible to have innovation elsewhere in the company, perhaps in human resources, staff meetings, or even accounting? Yes of course it is. Any area of business activity can identify best practices (the result of little innovations along the way) that result in improved processes and measurable results that move the business closer to its goals. Innovation is not limited to things (like iPhones, or tablets) but can exist at the Enterprise level within the organization. For example, this spring PSC was presented with the Low Demerit Score award by achieving 96.57% demerit free market hogs. How we got there started a few years ago with reconfiguring a room for holding market animals, changes to flooring in the shipping room, and a focus on animal handling techniques. A series of innovations that resulted in excellent results for the end product, not to mention reduced frustration for staff, carcass quality premiums and reduced transit insurance costs. These are all good end products achieved by recognizing a need for change. In spite of having some success with various production innovations we are left with the question “How do we ‘turn on’ and capture innovation on our farm?” Is there an SOP for how to create, and execute innovation where and when we need it?

The issue is not that people are not creative; certainly they are, especially if encouraged and rewarded. The issue is not that we don’t appreciate the benefit of innovation; we have all seen opportunities to improve what we do (such as moving deadstock) and had at that moment had a flash of insight to innovate the practice. The issue is how do we harness this innovative insight and make it serve the betterment of our farm business.

“Success can be found in taking a managed approach to innovation”

Picture the incandescent lightbulb – alas this potent symbol of innovation, used for decades to illustrate ‘bright ideas’ is itself being innovated out of existence. Replaced by a brighter idea that costs less to operate and has greater life expectancy, the LED light. Innovation is an ongoing and never ending process.

The experts in this field give us a few tips for being able to switch innovation ‘ON’ in our business, and then more importantly taking action to follow through with the idea.


Do your own internal check by asking yourself and some of your staff and family:

  • In your experience does innovation in your company improve net income?
  • On a scale of 0-100 do you consider yourself innovative? (0 is not innovative at all, 100 is completely innovative in everything you do
  • Using the scale of 0-100 rate your business as innovative.

The InnovationOne group who pioneered this concept suggests their findings show (using a more detailed questionnaire than the three questions above) that businesses scoring below 70 have a random and incremental approach to innovation. What is interesting is that these same businesses score lower in net income and ability to differentiate their product in the marketplace, two very important metrics in business. These businesses are missing the rewards experienced by businesses that take a planned approach and embrace trying more radical innovations. The authors suggest having a planned approach to innovation.


Success can be found in taking a managed approach to innovation as suggested in the following six characteristics of innovative businesses:

  • Leadership adopts an innovation strategy in the business and communicates it to all
  • Engaging staff – they know the problems and may have creative ideas or solutions
  • Develop a process for capturing these ideas and moving them forward – could be as simple as a white board in staff room that shows the challenges and potential innovations to deal with them
  • Performance management systems need to provide incentives and encouragement for innovation
  • Knowledge access and management – can our people access research and innovation relevant to their needs as part of their job?
  • Provide resources (time, space, some budget) to support innovation

Looking for more motivation?

If you are intrigued and want to think further about innovations in the pork industry go to the Prairie Swine Centre website (www.prairieswine.com) and see the top 10 innovations I saw at the 2014 Eurotier tradeshow in Germany. Some of these are ready for innovative Canadian farms to try. To really stretch your imagination the Hycare system from MS Schippers of the Netherlands seeks to use robotic warehouse technology to rethink managing the farrowing room. This short video on You Tube is a must see that will put innovation in pork production in a whole new light.

Lee Whittington, BSc(Agr), MBA, PAg, Lee Whittington is President/CEO of Prairie Swine Centre, a non-profit swine research corporation, focused on practical solutions. Prairie Swine Centre is affiliated with the University of Saskatchewan and is located near Saskatoon, SK. Find out more at www.prairieswine.com.