The cheese war is escalating into a battle royal of style versus substance. Wisconsin is still ahead of California in total cheese production, but the clever ads from the land of happy cows are proving to be effective. California is gaining.
Wisconsin is counter-punching with lean manufacturing. The last conference of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association was loaded with lean speakers and lean advice.
Just as ominous for the competition in California, the standard Cheesehead is no longer a drunken slob with his beer gut hanging out below his Packer’s jersey. That is not to say, of course, that anyone can look intelligent or even normal with a block of cheese on their head, but at least Wisconsin has figured out that this young lady represents a marked improvement over the prototypical Packer or Badger fan. It is hard to say why the image of someone wearing cheese on their head should compel any of us to run out and buy cheese, but the image of cattle serenely chatting about the weather is not much more compelling.
My money is on Wisconsin and lean. As much as the dairy folks in the two states would like to have us throw price out the window and buy cheese based solely on its esoteric qualities, I think cheese is pretty close to being a commodity in most of its uses. That being the case, cost, quality and delivery are more likely to decide the outcome of the cheese war than advertising. The Wisconsin MEP’s deserve credit for Cheesehead Lean. The California cheese community would be well advised to follow the same path and not rely too much on the Happy Cows to win the battle for them.
Wherever the winning cattle are located, they are apt to be spending a good bit of their day using (or more likely being used by) products from Behlen Country from Baker City, Oregon. They are a very lean – by that I mean very well managed, very successful and very committed to lean principles – agricultural equipment manufacturer. A few days ago I noted that high school students in Cincinnati were being brainwashed by the anti-manufacturing gang. Contrast that with Baker City, Oregon where high school students are being hired as part time welders and thoroughly integrated into the Behlen Country work force. Maintaining good grades is a prerequisite for keeping the $10+ per hour jobs and cross training under the tutelage of the old pros in production to become contributors in all areas is part of the drill.
Multi-skilled workers, team based production, creative use of non-traditional employees … sounds like the kind of company that is going to continue to make a lot of money. They’re thinking about having a "Bring Your Parents To Work" day. While the cows in both California and Wisconsin would just as soon have Behlen Country go out of business, the owners of the cows are lucky to have Behlen Country around.
The Wisconsin MEP does not have a lock on teaching lean in the Ag manufacturing area, and Behlen is hardly the only lean company in Ag. Art’s Way Manufacturing in Iowa is a great lean company, thanks to their own efforts and the help of the Iowa MEP. Same thing is true when it comes to Fairfield Manufacturing in Indiana and the help with lean they are getting from Purdue’s Technical Assistance Program.
The sophisticated and intelligent among us are quick to ignore agriculture, or to laugh at the farming culture. I don’t suppose I will be reading much about Ag in the Wharton journal soon. The fact is that, while Detroit is struggling to survive and manufacturers from coast to coast are lined up in Washington for help solving their problems, the American agriculture industry continues year after year to roll on, feeding the world. The ‘unsophisticated rubes’ slogging away with cattle and soy beans, and the manufacturers that support them, have quietly and effectively embraced lean principles long ago. The MEPs in Iowa, Kansas, Indiana, Nebraska and other farm states are very low profile, very humble and very, very effective.