Last October I met with a Nigerian delegation that was in our country to investigate a joint project to modernize their agricultural sector. A key portion of our time together was spent touring a superbly managed farm and meeting with its leadership team. One of the Nigerians noted, “superior management is more important than superior technology” as his greatest insight from the visit.

Let’s use that insight and observation to refocus on improving performance in pork production businesses. As the turbulence continues in the pork industry and the general economy, many high-performing businesses can return to profitability, but a refocus is in order.

What did the Nigerians see and hear that led to this insight? Two components constitute the answer:

  1. Leadership: There’s an unmistakable commitment to excellent and extraordinary productivity.  The clarity of this commitment permeates the business’ culture and “infects” everyone associated with it. This includes the leadership team members, employees and trusted advisors.
  2. Implementation: Systems and processes are in place and executed to ensure that the extraordinarily high productivity goals are met and exceeded.

You may already be thinking that these insights are very consistent with Richard Deming’s — the father of quality — total quality management and the idea of “no defects.” The idea behind the quality movement is the consistent execution of processes to produce a product or provide a service exactly as specified.  Deming was crystal clear that this success begins with leadership.

Let’s use our exceptional farm, the Nigerian’s observation and the quality movement to refocus on extraordinary productivity in our own businesses.

In the book The Leadership Moment, leadership expert Michael Useem provides the following conclusion from an analysis of the incredible events that brought Apollo 13 safely home from the moon: “Expecting high performance is prerequisite to its achievement among those who work with you. Your high standards and optimistic anticipations will not guarantee a favorable outcome, but their absence will assuredly create the opposite.”

A stop on the Nigerian visitors’ tour was the feed center. Since corn silage harvest was just finished, much of the discussion was about harvesting and storing the 20,000-plus tons of corn silage. The leadership team member explained how all of the corn silage was 68 percent moisture — not “about 68 percent.” The goal was accomplished starting with the crop’s planting date, seed variety and other steps through to harvest. 

As your pork production business refocuses to capitalize on the financial recovery, what must you do to establish a culture of high-performance expectations?

While high expectation is necessary but not sufficient for high performance, “no defects” is accomplished through focusing on consistency. That requires the following three components:

  1. A quality process: The actions and tasks are specified to produce a quality outcome.  Attainable performance expectations (outcomes) must compare favorably with best-in-class businesses or producers for short- and long-term business success. Current research, best practices, personal knowledge, knowledge of trusted advisors and experiences are used to establish the process actions, tasks and steps.  Those processes must focus on preventing and quickly resolving any problems that arise.
  2. Quality assurance: Clearly identify the mechanisms needed to ensure that the actions are carried out exactly as specified every time. Determining the mechanism’s type, structure and formality is unique to each situation. Tools such as checklists, activity flows and standard operating procedures are available to assist in quality assurance. 
  3. A quality process team: Every owner, family member and employee who performs the process must master the actions and tasks. He or she must:


    • Know and is commit to meeting and exceeding the performance expectations, and leadership is key.
    • Understand why “no defects” is required.
    • Master the process’ actions and tasks from training, coaching and ongoing support. The same applies to using the quality-assurance mechanisms.
    • Acquire sufficient understanding of the process to know when to deviate from the normal actions and tasks — in other words “call an audible.

I sincerely hope that your business is positioned to recover recent losses in the future. But whatever your situation, leadership and implementation will  serve  you well.

Bob Milligan is professor emeritus from Cornell University and is a farm and agribusiness workforce consultant. He can be reached at  (651) 647-0495 or  rmilligan@trsmith.com.