Produce Section Time Management

Reviewing how you spend your day can reveal some simple ways to regain lost minutes or hours.

I'd like to touch on a few areas of difficulty I run into most often in produce departments, with the aim of helping readers recognize and eliminate obstacles to running a productive and efficient department.

Some of these ideas were shaped by recent work with two other consultants -- Carolee Colter and Allen Seidner -- and our discovery that many of our co-op clients had similar obstacles to moving forward, no matter what our hired focus.

During one seminar Allen presented a segment called Paretto's 80/20 (Paretto is the guy that thought of it): 80 percent of a department's problems are caused by 20 percent of the obstacles. If that 20% is addressed and resolved, the department will run much better.

Many produce managers complain that they can't get all of their work done, because they don't have enough time. Of course, that's when I ask the inevitable: why? A familiar response is too many distractions, such as deliveries, calls, not enough labor hours, communication breakdowns and employee interruptions. Let's have a look at these hurdles in efficient time management.

Grower deliveries can be a problem if they come at all hours of the day or night, just drop by with a sack of local chestnuts, deliver their peppers in milk crates, etc. Get rid of these time robbers (not the growers) by instilling grower guidelines and sticking to them. Set up delivery times that work for you and your labor budget. Many stores have hours that consider the farmers' needs also. For instance, by allowing them to deliver before they go to the farmers market, they get it out of their truck, and you don't have to deal with produce that has been sitting in the heat all day. Having the same delivery times every day allows you to schedule with fewer distractions.Train growers to pack their deliveries so they don't have to be handled again. They should be in proper produce boxes: wax for wet, cardboard for dry. They should be ready to be checked and put away as is. Boxes should be preweighed or sized, not while you are checking in an order. You may get some grumbling from growers, though I'm sure you will find that most will recognize the value in this more efficient process for both of you. If you need to set up a grower training meeting to implement these changes, it will be time well spent.

While phone calls are an inevitable part of your day, look at how you can improve the use of your phone time. Have growers call only during certain hours, don't accept nonessential calls during your order times, and defer your calls to staff unless you absolutely must take the call. Staff should be able to answer most customer questions, and most order questions can wait until you talk to your vendor.

Not enough labor hours? This may be true, but when was the last time you looked at how well you and your crew use your time? Do you waste trips walking to the back room by not making a list of what you need, or not taking back empty boxes, or walking to the deli three times with shrink produce instead of just once? How about cart efficiency? Do you work with your cart or walk back and forth from it to the stand? Reviewing how you spend your time can reveal some simple ways to regain lost minutes or hours.

Communication breakdowns and employee interruptions? Many times "the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing" in the produce department. Does your outgoing crew walk the incoming crew around the department,explaining what's sold out, what's com-ing in, what did or didn't get done? Or is time wasted because the new shift has to figure it out for themselves? Do all the incoming deliveries get relayed to everyone who needs to know? Do employees have the information to do basic jobs? How do you figure out a price? Where are the electrical breakers for the walk-in? What is the policy on special orders? Do employees have to come to you each or, what is worse, guess the answer? Creating an information guide for employees and using it will save a lot of time.

Employee or manager interruptions can be alleviated by clean communication that includes active listening and prioritizing. If a manager is constantly switching gears on what is needed in the department, employees can ease frustration and manage time better by making clear what takes priority. For instance, "You're asking me to stock the melons -- is that a priority or do you want me to finish stocking the dry table first?" This allows for better use of time and is less distracting. If an employee has a non-emergency situation they would like to discuss, find the right time. Listen actively, assess what is being presented, and give it your full attention. Don't automatically give way to the moment. Honor the needs of both of you by scheduling time when you are not in the middle of crunching numbers and they are not supposed to be covering the stand.

Customer needs are part of the job, but many can be handled while still working the stand. Watch yourself and crew. Do your hands stop while your lips are moving? You'll be surprised how often they do. Of course, if customers need specific help you should stop and take care of them. But most of the time you can satisfy both aspects of the job.

Remember there isn't less time in the day, it's all in the way you use it. We are all trying to figure out ways to make better use of our time. It is sometimes difficult to step back and be objective about our own habits. The excitement and profit will be there if you have time to create and try new things instead of feeling like you are constantly putting out fires and barely maintaining your daily department needs.

Next time: Burnout -- do you promote it? Recognize it? Can you prevent it?

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