Opinion: Six Sigma principles can transform your cannabis grow

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Image of notebook with Six Sigma manufacturing principles.

(Photo by Vitalii Vodolazskyi/stock.adobe.com)

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Chris French (Courtesy photo)

As competition increases in cannabis markets nationwide, operational efficiency has never been more important.

This is especially true in cultivation, the costliest and most process-oriented section of the marijuana supply chain.

Cultivators can raise operational efficiency and gain a sustainable edge over the competition by leaning into well-designed processes that improve quality and consistently deliver standout products.

One such framework that lends itself to cultivation is Six Sigma, a set of tools and strategies for process improvement.

Six Sigma’s name doesn’t refer to a number of steps in the process but, rather, the outcomes of a process being within six standard deviations on a normal distribution curve.

The central idea is to make operations more efficient and produce higher-quality outputs with the ultimate aim being near-perfection: no more than 3.4 defects per 1 million opportunities.

Six Sigma has been used by companies such as Amazon, Starbucks, Nike and 3M, but it is useful for businesses of any size.

Cultivation operations that adopt Six Sigma can achieve consistency in their harvests, improve yields and quality, reduce waste and ensure compliance with regulatory standards.

Customer-first approach

The cannabis industry is replete with examples of companies wasting capital on things that add little to the customer experience.

Six Sigma is a customer-centric system that can fix that.

Every step of Six Sigma starts with the customer, which helps reduce waste and aligns business processes with customer needs and expectations.

Examining each process from the customer’s perspective gives marijuana operators a competitive advantage in efficiently addressing customer needs.

For example, customers care more about getting the product they want at a good price than they do the point-of-sale system that was used to ring them up or what irrigation system was used to feed cannabis plants.

While the latter concerns can add value for the customer, it’s better to listen to what the customer is asking and work backward.

Questions that consumers might ask that are relevant to growers include: Do you have the strains I want? Can you sell them at a good price?

DMAIC: 5 phases of improvement

A central part of Six Sigma is the DMAIC model: define, measure, analyze, improve and control.

DMAIC is a data-driven, customer-focused problem-solving framework in which each phase builds on the previous one.

Cultivators, for example, should consider how these phases can be used to combat botrytis, or bud rot.

Define: Setting clear objectives

Clearly identify the problem or opportunity for improvement.

It is important to state the problem in concrete terms and establish specific, measurable goals for improvement.

A good example: “We aim to reduce botrytis loss to less than 2% of total yield within the next six months.”

This objective is actionable, measurable and provides a time frame for judging progress.

Measure: Establishing baseline

It is crucial to have a detailed understanding of the current process and performance, so collect data and determine a baseline from which you can measure progress and move toward your goal.

For example, environmental data and past harvest data are important.

You want a clear picture of how much of your grow has been affected by botrytis in the past year, on average.

The data should be broken down by strain, grow room, harvest date, etc.

The more granular the better.

Analyze: Getting to the root cause

Analyze collected data to identify potential root causes of the problem.

Botrytis can have many causes, including genetics, irrigation schedules, employee practices, plant spacing, pruning practices, fertilizer or HVAC performance.

The problem most likely will result from a combination of all of the above, so look at all possible issues.

After identifying the root cause of the problem, make improvements.

Improve: Developing and testing solutions

Brainstorm and test potential solutions on a small scale to assess their effectiveness and feasibility.

Fixes can include adjusting irrigation schedules, environmental controls and training protocols.

This is an iterative phase where cultivators refine their strategies to combat botrytis effectively.

Control: Sustaining success

Document the changes and train your team to maintain these new standards.

Help your staff understand the “why” behind the changes made.

For example, explain why it is important to follow the new pruning standard to increase airflow through the canopy.

Establish metrics and monitoring systems to ensure the new processes perform as expected.

These could be maximum humidity swings at lights out, ranges of acceptable environmental conditions by week and an improved environmental monitoring solution.

It’s not just about reaching the goal but maintaining the new standard over time.

Improvements will be sustained only with consistent monitoring.

While the regulated marijuana industry is new in many areas, but there is no need to pioneer new business practices.

Applying what has worked in other industries – such as Six Sigma – can reduce work and uncertainty, making it easier to achieve success at your cultivation facility.

Chris French is the owner of Plugged In Cultivation, a cultivation-focused consulting business in Anchorage, Alaska. He can be reached at pluggedingardens@gmail.com.

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