Streamline Your Cannabis Processing Facility By Assessing the 8 Wastes of Lean

By Cullen Raichert

I’ve seen firsthand the mistakes managers make when they rush to string machines together or add a new machine at their facility, thinking they are saving time and being efficient by getting things up and running as fast as possible. 

Putting together any processing production line takes a fair amount of consideration, but working with cannabis flower, a high-value commodity, which is very sensitive to temperature, humidity, and any kind of applied force presents it’s own unique set of challenges.

Applying the tenets of lean processing can go a long way to not only bolstering your bottom line, but also in keeping employees happy and healthy. This is where value stream mapping (VSM), a lean management methodology that employs analyzing your current state in order to design your future state, comes in handy and can set you up to scale successfully in the future.

The Toyota Motor Corporation’s example of a vehicle lean production system is one we draw from at our manufacturing facility. It’s tenets can just as easily be applied to a cannabis post-harvest processing facility and can put the focus on the mitigation of waste, while respecting and optimizing human capital.

It all begins with observation

The first step should be to clearly identify all the individual components of your production line workflow. Mapping every last detail in terms of product, tool, and employee movement is key. This has to begin with observation, which can be both tedious and time consuming, but will invariably save time and money in the end. 

Looking at the 8 wastes of lean in detail can benefit your operation by saving time up front, ensuring product quality remains high, and creating a stable production platform that you can easily build on if you end up in the position to expand.

Transport is about more than just efficiency

Transport of raw material, or the movement of equipment is about so much more than the potential time wasted in transit. Product quality can be highly affected by the way in which you move raw material from one processing station to another. Choosing a conveyor system to move product from your trimming station to your sorting station for example, standardizes a step in the process that cannot be standardized to the same extent with a worker performing that task. The machine will move the product at a specified speed, the same way with the exact same level of force every time. Eliminating variability in product movement guards against product damage, and also minimizes the amount of time product is exposed to the environment and speeds up the product’s journey to climate-controlled storage protecting valuable trichomes and terpene integrity.

Wasted motion impedes employee satisfaction

Exhaustion can hinder employee productivity, health and satisfaction. The importance of manager’s putting themselves in the shoes of the production line workers cannot be overemphasized. Charting worker movements and then walking that path yourself is invaluable in doing a thorough analysis of what’s happening at your production facility. Are workers walking long distances to get a tool they need periodically throughout the day? Does the way you have your machines linked up make sense? Are your workstations ergonomically designed for health and safety? Asking for input from your workers needs to be done on a regular basis. You need to understand their day-to-day, and encourage direct communication and feedback about what’s working and what’s not working for them. Nine times out of ten if something is not working for them, it’s also not doing the company any good. 

Identifying defects and reallocating product to other value streams

Is your post-harvest processing system set up to easily identify different grades of product? If you are relying on a production line worker to sort your premium top-shelf flower from your pre-roll production raw material from your extraction-bound product, how standardized is that process? This is an important question to ask yourself. If you produce two to three different end products, mechanized sorting could significantly boost efficiency and add a new level of consistency to your process safeguarding end product quality.

Product waiting and wanting

Is your raw material spending too much time waiting to go on to the next step in processing? Is this due to a bottleneck in your process, or because everything has to stop for too long to clean equipment? Identifying your bottlenecks and solving product waiting issues is vitally important. Cannabis does not like to wait around. It degrades quickly. Perhaps you need to replace your machines with ones that are easier to clean, ensure you have extra blades on hand, or maybe an additional conveyor will move things along. 

Over-processing is wasted time

Are there any steps in your process that don’t add any additional value to your final product? Anything that the customer is not directly paying for falls into this category. For example if your trim time is too high for your lower grade buds, you can make adjustments to the settings on your machines to minimize processing time.

Non-utilized talent is a waste of resources

Do you have employees whose talents are being underutilized? I’ve seen people add mechanized sorting to their operation, and then consequently been able to move workers who have a lot of experience judging the quality of cannabis to a more high-value position. Instead of having this person doing repetitive operations that a machine could do, they are now moved to quality control where they suddenly become a much bigger asset to the business. Usually along with this kind of move comes increased worker satisfaction, which leads to higher employee retention rates saving time and money.

Overproduction is inefficient

When you’re dealing with a fickle, high-value commodity like cannabis, overproduction can be a problem. Accurately forecasting product demand can be difficult, but is an essential part of running a cannabis business. Identifying production targets and minimizing waste from product degradation has to be top-of-mind for all producers.

Overproduction can lead to inefficient capital allocation. If there is a lull between production and sales you are essentially stuck in the no man’s land of stunted movement where you are expending resources to prevent product degradation, but making no profits. 

Holding excess inventory can be risky

You want to keep your high-value cannabis product moving. Holding inventory can be extremely risky and expensive. The amount of employee hours and resources needed to manage your storage environment could be better spent elsewhere. You in essence end up with increased overhead with no benefits. 

Key Takeaways for getting lean in 2022

Take the time to define, analyze, and fine-tune your facility’s processes when you’re setting up production, or making changes to an existing production line. Cannabis businesses need to look to other industries such as car manufacturing and food processing for examples of efficient production practices. Getting methodical about eradicating waste in all its different forms will become more and more essential to compete in the rapidly evolving, highly competitive cannabis industry.

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