A Guide to Effective Standard Operating Procedures

Columns - Hort How-To

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Insects, powdery mildew, mites, over-watering, theft, spray damage, airy colas, low potency, high costs, weighing errors, nutrient deficiencies, low yields and, of course, messages left by regulators. These are the devils every grower must address, and the only question is will they address them before they happen or after they sneak up and surprise everyone?

Risk management is the practice of avoiding surprises and mitigating the ones that do occur. Its goal is ensuring a shop can run no matter the circumstances and no matter who is on the floor. Regardless of who developed the cultivation process, the operation depends on everyone following that process down to the details. In a high turnover labor market, ensuring consistency and preventing errors is a challenge that standard operating procedures (SOPs) are especially well-designed to meet.

SOPs describe the details of every task performed inside the operation right down to the hand-washing manual. If that makes you chuckle, recognize that hospitals still post hand-washing procedures today, so that should tell us something about what it takes to get a message across and keep it in the front of the staff’s mind while they hustle through their day.

SOPs are an education and communication tool that allows an entire operation to learn the process and discuss it with others to keep things running smoothly. The payback is blessed, mind-numbing calm and confidence in operations, along with a better bottom line.

Way More Than Plants

When people think about SOPs they generally think about how to mix nutrients or take cuttings. Those procedures do form the bulk of an SOP package, but the most important SOPs have nothing to do with plants, but everything to do with effective management.

SOPs contain all of the parameters that control plant growth. Not having them on hand when starting facility selection and design is like a coach walking onto the sidelines without a game plan.

The foundational SOP for us is workflow and schedule because it describes what plants move from where, to where, when and by whom. Workflow also outlines all of the tasks involved in growing plants. Add plant size into the discussion and you can predict plant capacity, yield potential and labor demand, which makes workflow a pretty powerful business tool.

After investing in a revenue engine like this, the engine must be protected, and the most important protection it needs is from the operators themselves. Change (and not small change) is common in the cannabis industry, and change opens the door to mistakes, so managing it is essential. A solid business case helps make change-driven decisions, and detailed planning and implementation by management ensures revenue won’t skip a beat.

Feedback characterizes how well a procedure is being performed, and that data is the basis for managing the process. Yield, percent of cuttings that root out, pest pressure, plant kills due to disease and such provide an objective view of the operation’s health, good, bad or ugly.

Education is not usually thought of as a form of protection, but it is, as it protects against false facts and sloppy thinking. The more common knowledge you have, the less stress there is between people because they can communicate in a common tongue. That tongue is set down in the SOPs.

The foundational SOP for us is workflow and schedule because it describes what plants move from where, to where, when and by whom.

Task Analysis

As noted above, the bulk of an SOP package is made up of task descriptions identified in the workflow, such as: take cuttings, sanitize trays, perform apical pinch and assign work schedules. Understanding each step in these tasks as well as how to control the variables in them is the foundation for developing an effective SOP.

That seemingly large chore can be organized using a technique used developing service diagnostics for printers. All of the moving parts inside a printer are like variables in a task. Look at all the moving parts (variables) inside the task and ask of each, “what if it slows down, wobbles or stops … what happens to the output?” If you don’t like the answer you come up with, that is a part, or variable, you need to pay attention to and manage. Figure out what needs to be done to keep the part from slowing down, wobbling or stopping, and document those steps in the SOP.

Doing this with the hundreds of tasks involved in cultivation produces a mountain of information that needs to be reviewed, assembled and tested for accuracy. But when that is done, the outcome is the current “how-to” guide for the operation. Remember to include regulations and worker-safety tasks in your SOPs; they move, too.

Indeed, there is no value to SOPs that sit on a shelf. SOPs are an organizing tool and, when used actively to educate people, they can have a powerful effect.

Educate, Educate, Educate

SOPs are meant to be short and sweet, so they purposely exclude background as to why they are what they are. The horticultural and operations knowledge that goes into writing them are beyond the scope of the typical worker, but even as an operator focuses workers on their tasks, they also recognize the value of everyone having the same basic understanding of the technical and operational background behind the SOPs.

This is why we recommend new employees receive a detailed overview of the SOPs when they come on board. Some growers like to only let staff see SOPs they are responsible for performing, and we think that is shortsighted. Focusing on the task at hand is a great start, but adding some basic background in plant science and operations management so staff understands how everything fits together can give them a better appreciation for the SOPs they perform, as well as the problems prevented.

Your SOPs should outline your strategy for pest prevention and management, from facility design features to daily routines, including production processes, workflow, change management strategies (such as for testing a change in nutrient levels) and more.
© Photo: Strawberry Fields

Change: Friend and Foe

Production is often viewed as static, but in fact, production processes are subjected to a lot of change especially during new facility startups. The problem with change is that every change is an opportunity for error. This is why IT teams can spend months planning a 20-minute migration of a mission-critical database to new server hardware.

Every SOP package we write has a Change Management SOP. Simple or complex, the goal of change management is to validate proposed changes, and then to plan and execute their integration into the production process. If someone wants to change a nutrient level, the change-validation process may require trials to demonstrate the value of the change and to prove the change will have no negative impact.

Management Is Definitely Watching

An important element of SOPs is feedback. Not just task descriptors, SOPs also need to produce information to answer the question of: How are things going? The number of cuttings of each strain shipped from the propagation room this week is a performance metric that provides a clear-eyed view of how that propagation room is performing. Additional metrics like the number of pests found on cuttings provide more insight. In aggregate, metrics paint a picture of operational health, and they also provide the explanation behind why the picture looks the way it does.

When that picture is not so rosy, problem-management is a particularly useful tool to make sure all production problems are properly communicated and managed. We have seen more than one operation where known problems were not managed in a timely fashion, with predictably unpleasant results.

SOPs need to specify what data should be observed and tracked, and how it should be applied to daily operations.

Don’t Miss These Requirements

Key design requirements for facilities come from the plants and from state regulations. Miss them the first time around and you get to spend a lot more money to add them in later. SOPs contain all of the parameters that control plant growth. Not having them on hand when starting facility selection and design is like a coach walking onto the sidelines without a game plan.

Pesticide restrictions on cannabis are a good example of regulation placing demands on the facility. While the list of pesticides that growers can use is stabilizing around so called “minimal risk” pesticides, they are not effective as anything more than preventive treatments. Cannabis is unlike other crops where failure to kill off an outbreak with one pesticide means you move to the next pesticide. If you allow an outbreak to occur, your yield, if not your entire crop is in jeopardy. Could better exclusionary tactics have prevented this, better environmental controls or just more diligence in scouting for pests? Your SOPs should outline your strategy for pest prevention and management, from facility design features to daily routines.

You Already Know How

SOPs are a lot of work, and some look at them as regulatory burdens. However, when an error occurs and is understood, operators we have worked with figure out what happened and then put a policy in place to prevent it from happening again. They not only already know the value of that SOP, they also know the cost of not creating SOPs for other critical areas before the sky falls.

Structure, rigor and accountability are serious tools for serious business.

About the Authors: Kerrie and Kurt Badertscher are co-owners of Otoké Horticulture LLC (OtokeHort.com), and authors of “Cannabis for Capitalists.” They have worked with large-scale cannabis producers for more than 5 years. Kerrie has been involved with plants her entire lifetime and earned certification as a Professional Horticulturalist by the 100-year-old American Society for Horticulture Sciences. Kurt brings his 34 years of corporate experience and operations management skills to bear on the business challenges of cannabis cultivation.