Metrics Matter

Deming theories

Sometimes, I’m asked what is going on at the Beef Board (as in “Heeeeey, whassup?” Not as in “What in the h-e-double toothpicks is up?!?!?”—although that happens too. That’s another rant…er, I  mean blog…though.) Despite some of my more touchy-feely blog shares, when it comes to management, I believe big-time in metrics and measurement. After all, you can’t manage what you don’t measure.

W. Edwards Deming (another one of those darned brilliant Iowans…what’s in the water in that state?), is the granddaddy of modern “measure-to-manage” strategies. Those of you not familiar with Deming might have fun first clicking back and reading some of my earlier blogs on Japan and then researching this great man and his impact on Japanese business systems (and world wide systems as well, but the Japanese were the first to listen and adapt). In 1960, the Prime Minister of Japan, acting on behalf of the Emperor, awarded Deming Japan’s Order of the Sacred Treasure, Second Class. The citation on the medal recognizes Deming’s contributions to Japan’s industrial rebirth and its worldwide success. Historians say Deming was known for his kindness, compassion and humor (Salsburg, 2002). This great man passed away in 1993, the same year he founded the Deming Institute in Washington, DC.  And today, his name and famous 14 points are eponymous with modern, metrics-based management. Many of you have heard me drone on about continuous improvement without giving the Deming Cycle or Deming himself credit—a miss on my part (I cannot even say I am even a very good student of Deming, although I try).

Deming-Cycle-Graphic

Perhaps, in the future, I’ll tell you about some cool new evaluation projects we have going on at the Board this year. But for now, let’s talk about performance.

Metric 1: Producer Awareness and Approval

This bi-annual survey asks checkoff investors if they aware of, and if they approve of, the management of the checkoff program. Many years of data allow us to trend line both awareness and approval of the program. The results of our latest survey, completed in January, show:

  • At 91%, name awareness among producers of the beef checkoff program is on the rise and rated by the independent research firm as “very high”;
  • At 78%, the research found the highest level of producer approval of the program in 21 years;
  • 80% of producers believe the checkoff contributes positively to consumer demand for beef; and
  • 79% say the checkoff does a good job of representing their interests

Metric 2: CBB Management

Each year, the Beef Board undergoes an external, independent financial audit.  The external audit determines if our financial statements are fairly stated in all material aspects. Since the inception of the program, all external audit reports have resulted in “unqualified” or, in laymen terms, “clean” opinions. In no case has the external audit found any evidence that CBB was not in compliance with the Act & Order or the AMS Investment Policy. In fact, for the last four years, the auditors have not only issued unqualified opinions, but also have not had a single recommendation for improvement – such as changes in policies or procedures.

Last December, we received the results of a USDA Agricultural Marketing Services, or AMS, Management Review of the Beef Board—the first ever in the history of the Beef Board. The objective of the AMS Management review was to ensure the Board was in compliance with the Act & Order, the AMS Guidelines, the AMS Investment Policy, the CBB Bylaws and CBB’s internal policies and procedures. The review had no findings. At the conclusion of the review, AMS commended excellence of management and operations at the Cattlemen’s Beef Board.

While we’re talking about audit metrics, I’d like to address the Office of Inspector General “peer review” of its own report issued early in 2013. This review confirmed the initial conclusion of the 2013 OIG eport that found no audit issues or lack of compliance by AMS, the Beef Board, or Beef Board contractors was found.

Personally, I don’t know of any organization that has been more painstakingly audited that the Beef Board and Beef Checkoff Program have been in the last couple of years – but the above findings (or lack thereof) certainly provide a validated body of assurance.

Metric 3: Consumer Willingness to Pay and Beef Demand

The latest Oklahoma State Food Demand Survey data indicate that, in March 2014, consumer willingness to pay more for hamburger increased by 5.42 percent. Remember, though, that if consumers are continually willing to pay the high prices that supply has helped dictate in the current marketplace — it’s a strong litmus test as to the value they see in the beef and beef products they are finding in the meat case and enjoying in restaurants.

Due to the Board’s 2013 Beef Demand Determinant Study  and the checkoff’s ongoing market research, we know that price – along with demand drivers including food safety, product quality, health, nutrition, and social aspects and sustainability, play roles in consumers’ decisions about purchasing your end product.

It’s so important to understand the role of these drivers. Willingness to pay is an absolutely critical factor in beef’s success in the marketplace – in  maintaining and growing beef demand in 2014 and 2015.

When consumers see value in a product, they have a higher willingness to pay for it. In fact, checkoff market research indicates that we have seen a cutback in at-home eatings of beef, particularly in roasts and some in steak. To put this in perspective, our loss of in-home servings per capita is somewhere in the range of 5 to 6 percent as of February.   Per person, that is a reduction of three to four beef servings per year; across the nation, that is close to a million fewer servings of beef eaten in-home. This coordinates closely to our low supply situation.

The number of meals in-home still exceeds the number of foodservice beef meals. It might be easy for us to forget, however, about the fact that people can really stretch beef in-home, especially ground beef, in spaghetti sauce, tacos, and other ingredient recipes.  Actual volume (as opposed to number of eatings or meals) remains more matched between in-home and foodservice. But the truth is, beef maintains such strength in foodservice that Technomic data indicate since 2009, beef represents the largest pound increase of any protein despite a shrinking supply.

You can start to see, then, that with reduced supply and record prices, a reduced number of in-home beef meals isn’t necessarily an issue. On the other hand (warning, a short trip down a garden path approaches), the shift toward foodservice itself is intriguing and invites further study. With higher prices, I had expected that consumers might shift meals away from foodservice and toward the in-home experience. But John Lundeen, the beef checkoff’s market research guru at NCBA, suggests that a few things are combining for our current situation:

  1. Consumers can still get relatively inexpensive but still very tasty burgers at foodservice.
  2. Millennials particularly like the quality guarantee they get at a restaurant. They may say to themselves, “Better to have a chef make that pricey steak than me.”
  3. The celebratory nature of beef fits the foodservice environment very nicely.
  4. Has to do with modern lifestyles and smaller households: Roasts often are not seen as a fit with a small household, for example. And we also see less steak consumption in single-person households.

So, we know lower available supplies mean declining consumption (please, please remember—consumption isn’t the same as demand). Recently in the media, I saw a story saying that chicken consumption had overtaken beef consumption for the first time in 100 years—of course, because these days we simply do not make as much beef as we have in the past. We cannot eat what we don’t make, so obviously we see beef consumption dropping. That said, the continued strength of beef demand throughout last year and until today surprised even the savviest of market analysts.

As Kansas State ag economist Glynn Tonsor pointed out recently in a Twitter discussion, the entire industry must continue to work together to align beef offerings closely with the desires of those consumers willing and able to buy them.  In the end, this is what supports continued demand strength. (Here’s a great blog on why internal food fights are senseless, which makes this point much better than I ever could.)

If you do not know how to ask the right question, you discover nothing. ~W. Edwards Deming

It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory. ~W. Edwards Deming

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Subsidies and Food Security

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I’ve been to Australia. (That’s me hiding behind the woman in the blue top. No really, it is!)

Before I went, I thought Montana was “big country.” Not that Montana isn’t (incredibly beautiful) big country, but Australia redefines the meaning.

This trip was yet another opportunity offered to me by the Eisenhower Fellowship program. (If you know an outstanding farmer or rancher between the ages of 35 and 45, please tell them about the program. It’s a fantastic opportunity.) Because of my Fellowship, the Nuffield International Farming Scholars Program invited me to come down under and participate in the annual Contemporary Scholars Conference, held in Sydney and Canberra this year.

Big ideas for agriculture in a big country.

Surrounded by about 60 outstanding young farmers from all over the world (The Netherlands, India, UK, Ireland, France, Brazil, China, Indonesia to name a few), the richness of discussion (as you can imagine) humbled me (and, truthfully, made me realize just how ethnocentric I may be—a very good thing for my worldview). Poverty and hunger, efficiency and stewardship, a definition of sustainability, all these topics came up for debate.

You (all 12 of you that read this blog! Thanks Dad!) may be subjected to the residual thoughts from this experience for quite a while. That’s a fair disclaimer, I think.

Have you ever had two concepts that you previously believed lived independent lives suddenly crash together in your brain and form a connection completely new to you? (No? Well, that’s bit awkward for me, then. Ah well. Not the first time.) In one of my first posts to this site, I named it the Shiver of Coalescence. Well, guess what?! Oops, it happened again.

The two concepts bouncing around my brain, now linked with a flexible thought-wire, are subsidies (how’s that for a loaded word?) and food security.

Prior to March 1, I knew very little about EU subsidies for agriculture, other than the offhanded, sardonic comments from others (who, in retrospect, frankly knew about as much the topic as I did). I learned a LOT (but not nearly all there is to know—it is, as they say, complicated) about the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, a policy undergoing fairly significant change as we speak. Don’t worry, I’m not going to try to explain (or defend, or for that matter, attack) it in this space. Not only am I too ignorant, I’m also too cowardly.

Learning more about debate on CAP, listening to various farmers from various EU member countries, and other countries, and thinking about my own friends in the US, set me to wondering (a dangerous pass time I try only to engage in on Saturdays).

What is the role of farmer supports in global food security, availability, affordability?

Quite a few people in my acquaintance aggressively ascribe to free markets. My trouble is, every time I ask them what that means, I get a different answer. Since I’m a big fan of precise communication (insofar as it exists) I’ve often dug further, trying to understand the concept.

Some people believe disaster relief for farmers fits rationally into free market agriculture, while some say natural disasters and the chaos they cause are all part of a free market. These ideologically pure folks might argue that a system shock such as hurricane Katrina or the devastating blizzard in the Dakotas comes as a natural part of free markets and the elimination of farms and farmers due to those shocks is just part of doing business in a free market. Others would argue that this may cause citizens to lose livelihoods, or even to go hungry, and this would not be acceptable. While some say grazing on public lands constitutes price supports, some get really, really red in the face when they hear that (like I’m-afraid-they’re-going-to-have-a-stroke-red-in-the-face.) And so on. (And on.)

I believe every government has certain responsibilities for feeding its citizens. Among these: food security, availability, and (in countries blessed enough to think about it) affordability. These responsibilities demand attention to resilience in the food system, including environmental, social, and economic factors.

Food comes from farming. Farming is an inherently risky business.

So what is the responsibility of governments, and the responsibility of private individuals or corporations, to assure this resiliency in our global food system? Or, to bring it close to home, what responsibility do we have to feed people–in our hometown, in our country, in our world? What is the right balance between independent, free markets and food security and sustainability?

Even though I’ve always considered myself a free market devotee, I’ve recently begun to think that while this creed may work in widgets, feeding people—whether in the food deserts of the U.S. or on a global scale—just isn’t that simple.

But while they prate of economic laws, men and women are starving. We must lay hold of the fact that economic laws are not made by nature. They are made by human beings.” ~Franklin D. Roosevelt

“You can’t have a world where 50 percent of the people are dieting, and 50 percent of the people are starving, if you want stability.” ~John Shelby Spong

For those who have been reading this space all along (bless your hearts), here are some beautiful Australian mangoes at the vegetable market in Sydney. Very good. But…remember the mangoes I had in Taiwan? I do. Mmmmm.