Editor’s Note: Karen Simon is a freelance writer from West Des Moines, Iowa. Her own managerial experience in agricultural organizations served as a valuable foundation for this article.

It’s vaccination day at Three Squeals Farms. The farm manager, Bob, has been up nearly all night with a sick child. Worried and exhausted, he’s in no mood to talk. The new farm hand, Joe, really isn’t sure what to do, but he’s silent for fear of looking foolish, or worse yet, upsetting Bob, and tries his best to mirror his more experienced coworkers’ actions. A few weeks later, all the pigs in three pens are sick. Unbeknownst to the farm manager, Joe inadvertently skipped those pens on vaccination day, lowering the defenses of the animals and ultimately reducing farm profits.

This fictional scenario highlights the importance of effective employer/employee communication. Many hands make light work, but that’s only true if the “hands” understand what they are supposed to do. Everyone makes mistakes, but the likelihood of misunderstanding and error rises exponentially when employers and managers don’t effectively communicate with employees.

Provide the tools and information, and those many hands will make sure everything runs like clockwork.

George Hedley, the author of “Get Your Business to Work!” was having trouble with every aspect of his business. No matter how hard he tried to let his employees do their jobs without his interference, he just couldn’t let go. That is, until he walked into a fast-food restaurant.

“One evening I took my family to McDonald’s,” he recounts. “When I looked around the restaurant, I noticed that the boss wasn’t there, the employees were 16 years old, customers were happy, and the food was consistent, served fast and relatively tasty. I thought: ‘How do they do it without the owner supervising and making every decision?’ I asked a server to show me their secret. He took me behind the counter where they have pictures clearly displaying how to build each menu item. It was that simple.”

Hedley realized he could replicate McDonalds’ method of using pictures and checklists, creating written operational systems that would reduce his dependence on “finding superhuman people who could read my mind and do their work exactly the way I wanted them to do it.”

If you don’t properly communicate your expectations, your employees can’t provide excellent results. That may or may not be as simple as a picture, but it’s all about communication. You, too, can create systems for the important tasks performed at your operation.

By following the seven steps below, you and your employees can create systems that solve important production issues. The end result, Hedley says, is a “Do Manual” that details the way your company does business: a notebook of clearly depicted systems using pictures, checklists, instructions and guidelines of your company’s minimum standards, procedures and the end results you want everyone to achieve.

Six steps to creating written systems

  1. Identify tasks to systemize: Write down problems as they occur. Make it your goal to create a written system for these tasks within 30 days. Assign system teams. One person should be the keeper of the systems to help draft, formalize and institute the systems. Involve those who work within the area being systemized.
  2. Draft standards and guidelines: Good systems are simple – use checklists, details, pictures and diagrams to illustrate how to accomplish the desired end result.
  3. Formalize: Standardize the systems into one-page documents for distribution. Remember, pictures will make training easier for employees.
  4. Try it: Let each system team try out their system before it becomes a company standard. Encourage everyone to recommend changes and make improvements.
  5. Train and implement: At regular meetings, spend time managing your systems. Have everyone bring their “Do Manual” to the meetings. Eventually the “Do Manual” becomes your training manual.
  6. Follow-up and evaluate: Revisit your systems every six months to ensure they are being implemented properly and are working well.

(Source: Get Your Business to Work!)

Remember ‘Old MacDonald’

Karen Kerns, CEO of Kerns and Associates, Ames, Iowa, works with clients in 13 states. She says her company is often asked to assist clients in identifying how they can do things better.

“Ironically, it’s not the tasks and the doing that sink projects or processes,” she says.“Managers often don’t slow down to provide context for those whom they are training, thoroughly explaining the ‘why’ and the impact of what they are asking employees to do.”

According to memory retention research, if we fail to explain the “why” behind the what, how and when, employees’ chances of complying and becoming fully engaged in what they are asked to do is compromised, Kerns explains.

She uses an engagement process model that’s easy to remember. If you can sing “Old MacDonald” you won’t forget E-I-E-I-O, which stands for Engage, Instruct, Engage, Inquire, Oversee.

Engage: Provide context for the process so I see the big picture.

  • Tell me the specific topic; this narrows my attention, pointing me in the exact direction you want.
    • Example: Today I am going to show you how to dock tails.
  • Tell me why it’s important; this will motivate me to understand and participate.
    • Example: Docking tails keeps other pigs from chewing on the tails, which causes pigs to get infections.  
  • Tell me what you expect from me.
    • Example: I want you to listen to the whole explanation first, and then watch me do the process. Then I will ask you to try it while I help you.
  • Tell me what outcome or result you expect.
    • Example: After we practice this together for a day, I will ask you to do it on your own.


Instruct: Provide details for how to do the tasks (not just what to do).

  • First tell me what I need to do to prepare:
    • What tools do I need?
    • When do I do it?
    • Who do I ask for help if I run into trouble?
    • How many times does the process get repeated?
    • Are there any circumstances that would require I NOT do this process?
  • Give me step-by-step instructions:
    • Number instructions. (What do I do first, second, third, etc.)
    • If the order of the process doesn’t matter, let me know that.
    • Provide a visual document that shows each step of the process with verbal instruction.
  • Go over exceptions to the order of the tasks or to the entire process.
  • Tell me where to go and what to do if I need help.

Engage: Let me know the impact of what I am doing so I take it seriously.

  • Tell me the consequence of not doing the process, or doing it incorrectly.
  • Tell me the benefits of doing the process consistently and well.

Inquire about the process details so I can demonstrate what I understand.

  • Ask me to repeat the steps verbally.
  • Ask me if I need more help understanding any of the steps.
  • Ask me if I need more information or more tools to do what I am being asked.
  • Ask me if I have any ideas to make things better, and invite me to continue coming to you with ideas.

Oversee the process as I practice.

  • Ask me to verbally repeat what I heard. Wait until I am all the way through, then provide feedback to correct where I might have been off track. 
  • Ask me to teach you by talking you through the entire process as you do it. Show me what I am doing wrong and coach me through. Ask me to observe the process several more times by having me watch successful practitioners.
  • Watch me practice several times. Affirm what I am doing well and encourage me to ask questions when I am stuck.
  • Make sure I feel confident before you leave me on my own.

When we train people and give them the skills they need to provide value and operate effectively, and invite them to provide feedback to make processes better, employees become engaged in the operation, says Kern.

“Make your employees experts,” she adds. “Give them tools and knowledge, and you will empower someone who will perform and transform your operation.”