When Murphy Family Farms' new 11,000-sow operation in Oklahoma farrowed its first litters a few weeks ago, you can bet the farm's new employees knew what to do.

An intensive employee training program began well before the first gilts were unloaded and months before the first sow farrowed. As a result, the farm hasn't stumbled over the usual breeding and farrowing problems experienced by most new hog facilities. Instead, the brand-new employees had a good understandingof production details and techniques.

The Oklahoma employees benefitted from Murphy's on-going push to improve training of all their employees. For the past few years, the management in Murphy's Midwest division, including Missouri, Oklahoma, Iowa, South Dakota and Illinois, have worked hard to improve employee training.

The managers believe that better trained employees will reduce variation in hog production. At Murphy's, that means standardizing and improving pig production for consistent efficiency.

Less variation then means a better quality product. Better quality leads to more profits and company growth. Profit and growth offers more opportunities for employees, both personally and professionally. This philosophy follows the thoughts of the popular total quality management (TQM) programs prevalent in the early 1990s. Murphy's Midwest division took the philosophy to heart and applied it to their hog units.

One Of Best Training Programs The result is an intensive training program that must rank as one of the best in the country among hog farms. Some highlights of the program include:

* Each large sow farm (7,300+ sows) and two smaller farms (3,650 sows each) hires one employee who is just responsible for training. These on-farm trainers are experienced Murphy employees with all the necessary production background. They constantly work with employees to build skills and knowledge of Murphy's pork production system.

* Two production manuals, each 3-in. thick, detail every single process on the sow farms, ranging from scraping floors to drug withdrawals.

The manuals describe the process, the reason for the process and any safety issues associated with the process. The trainers use the manuals extensively.

* Each employee must be "certified" in all the processes necessary for the job. The trainer will first teach and coach the employee through the process. After practice, the employee must repeatedly complete the task successfully for the trainer before becoming certified. Typically it takes an employee six months to become certified in farrowing room procedures and six months for the breeding area procedures.

The philosophy behind certifying is the management becomes confident the employee can complete the task correctly with minimal supervision and hold other employees accountable.

* Employees attend classes to learn the TQM philosophy. It is taught in the Midwest Murphy's own version called Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI).

* Managers attend leadership and communication classes to help them become better managers.

* Trainers attend classes designed to improve their training techniques.

The training effort has helped standardize production in the firm's Midwest sow units. For example, all heat checking among the 55,000 sows in the Midwest division are heat checked exactly the same way, using the methods described in the manuals. Trainers monitor and certify employees to make certain heat checking is conducted appropriately.

As Midwest training manager Kay Stinson explains, something as simple as heat checking can greatly affect production across a large number of sows. Good checking methods lead to better conception and farrowing rates and hopefully more pigs out the door.

Production records from the Midwest units show improvement since the training started. In 1994 when the Midwest division was half its current size, the annual pigs/sow/year (p/s/y) figures among the sow farms differed by 6 p/s/y. In 1997, the same comparison shows the difference at only 3 p/s/y.

The heavy push to training also reduced employee turnover. Stinson says turnover in the Missouri sow units dropped from 66% in 1994 to 37% this year. Today, they work with 270 employees compared to about half of that in 1994.

"We still have a long way to go," Stinson says. "It will be an ongoing process. But one thing that is real to the swine industry is we have turnover."

In Nevada, MO, where many of the Missouri sow units are based, unemployment is very low. Murphy's faces the same problem recruiting employees in the Oklahoma High Plains area where their new sow unit just opened. Stinson, who recently moved to the area, says unemployment is also very low.

"We're not going to be able to go through employees left and right," she says. "So we've got to have programs in place that keep those people here. We know that if we have competitive pay, that is only a small percentage of it.

"People have to enjoy work and where they are working," she adds. "They must feel like they are giving input and are part of the process. They have to see opportunity. To show opportunity, we have to stay in business and grow. And to do that, we have to lower variation in everything we're doing."

Management's Support The training program is the culmination of ideas from employees who have worked in the Murphy system for years as well as input from TQM proponents outside the company.

Employees like Stephen Summerlin, director of Murphy's Midwest farrowing operation, was instrumental in developing the program. Summerlin, who has worked with Murphy Farms for 15 years, has experienced the inevitable problems of a growing company.

Back in 1993, he says they really struggled for answers to production problems. "We were seeing more variation from farm to farm and I didn't like what I saw," he says. "I didn't know what the answers were."

This is when the quality movement started. Summerlin attended an 18-week TQM course along with Conley Nelson, director of Murphy's Iowa operation. The course, conducted in Des Moines, IA, preached the idea that lowering variation is really quality improvement. "It was exactly what we needed," Summerlin says.

Summerlin used his new lessons to help support a training program, which serves as a way to organize a large group of people. It sets up a discipline that is followed by all employees. In turn, this makes management confident that the work is correctly accomplished.

"Then responsibility can get pushed down further in the organization," he says. "Otherwise, people like me have all these things on my desk and I've got to make every decision for everybody."

Instead, Summerlin and the rest of the Midwest Murphy management team want the employees closest to the process making the decisions. "But they have to do so in a disciplined fashion, using the data, statistical tools and working the team approach," he adds.

Management plays a big role in keeping this type of program working. Summerlin must follow the program and use it to make his own decisions.

"The reality in every business is that the behavior of an organization really starts from the top," he explains. "Leadership people can't give it lip service because everybody watches your behavior."

How does this affect his work? If a certain key production figure suddenly drops, Summerlin's reaction must follow the program.

"Years ago, I would have focused on what was going on and why can't we get this better," he says. "Now we ask questions. Is the number dropping normal, is it a trend, or is it just a blip on the screen?

"In a leadership position, if you overreact, you create a lot of fear in your people and they lose focus," he continues. "People start trying to give you information and numbers to make you happy. That's not the goal here. The goal is to be successful."

Employees like Tim Chase, manager of a 7,300-sow unit near Nevada, MO, experiences first-hand the management philosophy that Summerlin supports.

"It is easier to manage in a system where someone is not getting after me," Chase says. "I'm not driven to do something because someone is going to get after me. I'm driven to do something because I see an opportunity to do something to make an improvement."

When the inevitable problems appear on his sow unit, Chase says he expects his employees to inform him of the problem. He also expects them to suggest options to improve it and give progress reports.

Many employees entering the Murphy system are not used to this less-traditional style of management, he adds. "It takes several months for people to truly understand that we really want them to give input to supervisors."

To help employees understand the management philosophy and the need to lower variation, a class is taught on CQI (Continuous Quality Improvement). Chase helps teach the six-month class along with Stacy Bond, Missouri training manager.

Chase took on the job of teaching the class after seeing the results of CQI on the sow farm he manages. Employees there are part of a team to make the unit successful. Today, the large sow farm boasts 25 p/s/y, based on PigChamp records.

In a bold move, Murphy's Midwest division quit paying incentives to managers as part of the CQI philosophy. "The incentives were geared toward individual farm performance and not the performance of the entire system," Stinson explains.

On-Farm Trainers Most of the employee training in the Midwest Murphy division involves technical training. A large portion of that burden falls on the shoulders of employees like Rob English, Bill Rainey and David Reedy. All three are on-farm trainers in Missouri sow farms.

English and Rainey were co-managers on a Murphy sow farm in Missouri before moving into their training positions. Reedy worked in breeding before taking on the training role on a sow farm.

All three voice strong support for the on-farm trainer. "It is the only way to do training," Rainey says. "You have one person on the farm who knows it is their job to train people."

The trainer is never pulled from the training position to fill in when other employees are absent. "It takes every bit of effort from the trainers to train every day," Stinson explains. "Where you see training programs fail is where they don't have time to train.

"We always have new employees coming in," she continues. "Because we promote from within, every time we build new farms, we're pulling experienced people from farms and having them help start new operations. So we always have this huge learning curve."

Every week, the trainers meet with farm managers and department heads to determine the farm needs as far as technical training.

"Say the tails are being cut too long," Rainey says. "Maybe the people didn't understand the importance of cutting the tails only 1 1/42-in. long. We'll go back through this with the employees so they completely understand what they are doing."

The trainers devise and post a weekly schedule of training sessions for employees during the next week. They try to work with each employee. Of course, new employees require much more time than the more experienced employee.

Using the manual, the trainers spend considerable time making sure employees understand each of the many different jobs. "We have 11 competencies for processing pigs alone," English says.

This teaching method sharply contrasts with how he learned four years earlier. "When I started, I was feeding sows within one hour," he reports. "If someone started on this farm now, I wouldn't want them feeding sows for 3-4 weeks. No way would we let them feed sows because we know the importance of it."

If this sounds extreme, look at the pigs born alive figures for all the Murphy sow herds in Missouri. The current figure is 11.4-11.5 pigs born alive.

"We are dealing with high performance and not just getting by," Rainey adds. "And birthing has become a real important process."

In fact, Murphy employees have coined the term "monitoring" to describe extra attention in the farrowing room. "Monitoring is observing the sights, sounds, smells and actions prior to, during and after the birthing process," Rainey explains.

Employees charged with monitoring must do what is appropriate to maximize the number of pigs weaned/sow. This includes sizing litters, which is very important here. Rainey explains the sizing must be done correctly in farrowing or it will create problems in the nursery and finishing.

Employees do not start monitoring without at least six months experience in the unit.

While most of the new employees in Murphy's Midwest sow units possess little hog experience, employees with a hog background receive slightly modified training. Stinson says these employees often move through the entire manuals faster or can work in higher-skilled jobs much sooner.The Murphy tra ining program has room for change. The program spells out a plan to make production changes. And often those changes are instigated by employees in the units.

If an employee questions a process, he/she can find the information about it, put together a small trial to test it and then duplicate it. If the trials are successful, the production change may be made.

Understanding Trends The Murphy training program not only addresses competencies in the work place, it also looks at understanding hog production. New employees must chart several breeding or farrowing key production figures. The employee does the calculations and plots the figures to show trends. This is kept separate from Murphy's own recordkeeping program.

"Employees must go through this exercise to understand production," English says. "Then they can say, 'Our stillborns are going down a half pig in the last week.' They'll need to look at inputs to see what's going on."

Employees do not balk at the detailed training methods. In fact, the trainers all say the employees like it. "It is such a motivator for people to be trained," English says. "They love to learn and we love doing it."

The program hasn't been without some criticism. "When we first started introducing this, some critics said we're making people robots and you don't want people to think," Stinson says. "This is just the opposite. People have to think to standardize. Lots of things we've come up with have come up from people right here in this room. If you expose people to the system and educate them, they will start asking the questions. The ability to ask questions creates change."

This work atmosphere also creates exciting experiences for the employees.

"I raised hogs with my Dad ever since I was little," Reedy says. "This is extremely complicated compared to what he did. It just floors him as to how complex it is. We've come a long way as far as production. And this is a lot more enjoyable.

"I get a lot of satisfaction seeing people do their job right and knowing it is partly because of me," he adds. - L