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SOPs: From on paper to everyday practice

Scott Pertzborn Published on 10 October 2013

Recently, I was asked to investigate a spike in clinical mastitis cases on a dairy that I knew used excellent sanitation practices.

Surprisingly, the cause turned out to be rather simple: a relief milker not wearing milking gloves.

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Perhaps this is not so surprising. As our dairy herds have grown in size and complexity, the need for standard operating procedures (SOPs) has become a hot topic across the dairy industry.

When a handful of people operated the dairy, employees could store “the way we do things around here” in their heads, and usually these mental SOPs worked fine.

On today’s dairies, however, many people are completing tasks, often people who may not get to see the big picture. The need for accepted, documented and communicated protocols is essential to achieve and reduce risks – especially risks associated with drug use.

The dairy’s veterinarian is uniquely qualified to assist in the development of SOPs. Let’s first consider developing accepted procedures.

The veterinarian can “speak for the cow” or represent the best interests of the cow in terms of animal welfare: cow comfort, disease control, residue prevention, cow flow and parlour management, to name a few. Serving the best interest of the cow usually will lead to a more profitable dairy.

In the example of the relief worker who did not like wearing milking gloves, I was able to explain that the skin wrinkles in her hands are a bacteria highway to a cow’s udder.

Smooth gloves that are kept clean prevent mastitis. She agreed to try using gloves and, after a while, got used to wearing them – and the cows benefitted.

Formulating SOPs is definitely a team event. Depending on management’s interests, their veterinarian can captain the team or be enlisted as a process expert.

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Veterinarians can provide industry insight, as they have observed what works and what doesn’t work on many dairies.

Veterinary education supports the discipline of protocol development. Whether the veterinarian or management leads, make sure the team includes workers who will actually perform the procedures.

The first step is to set goals with the team. Examples of these goals are to reduce respiratory disease in our calves, lessen clinical mastitis cases or to lower the somatic cell count through excellent milking procedures.

With the goal in mind, the team captain documents a draft protocol. The draft is the first attempt at documenting how the process should be done: a list of the steps to perform the procedure properly.

The captain distributes the draft to all team members, making sure to clearly state that this is a draft, meaning you are interested in their opinions and expect to make changes. Through team discussion, the protocol is revised.

While the protocol at this point may look good on paper, you need a guinea pig to test it. Find someone outside the team who is not extremely familiar with the procedure and have them try to follow it, step by step.

This will demonstrate how easily a new employee will be able to learn and perform the standard operating procedures. If a stumbling block is identified, modify the protocol or the documentation.

If workers feel that they had a part in developing the protocol, they are more likely to “buy in” and actually execute the procedure as written.

However, be clear that, while everyone’s opinions are valued and will be considered, the manager has to make the final decision as to the protocol adopted, and all team members and all staff will be expected to follow the standard operating procedure. Your veterinarian can support you by explaining how each step of the protocol impacts the goal.

With the relief milker situation, I explained that soiling left on the teats prior to attaching the milking units is a source of bacteria; bacteria causes mastitis and mastitis leads to a higher somatic cell count. As an outside expert, your veterinarian can support your decisions.

The communication plan is probably as important as the protocol development. Too often, I’ve seen well-developed and documented SOPs that fail to impact operations and advance the dairy’s goals. They are put in a file and never seen again.

A better idea: Frame your SOPs and hang them on a highly visible wall in the workplace. Also be attentive to language and literacy levels among your staff.

You may need a translator to effectively communicate. Also, almost anyone today can produce a basic video presentation that can be much more effective than written or spoken words.

An example of procedural drift happened in a calf barn where I was called in to consult on unthrifty calves with a high death rate. When the evening feeder was interviewed, it was discovered that she was mixing the milk replacer powder at half strength.

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We discovered that the employee who had trained her, after initially following the established measuring protocol, was now eyeballing the mixing.

The established employee had a good eye. The new employee did not. This likely would have been prevented by a well-run training program with periodic retraining sessions.

It is tempting to think that if I train employee A and he does a good job, he can train employee B. Then employee B trains the new hire, employee C. This training approach accelerates procedural drift.

Procedural drift is to be expected as part of the human condition. To combat procedural drift, retrain all employees on a scheduled basis.

In this training, re-emphasize the importance of and the reasons for following the SOP, as well as the procedural steps. For consistency, all training – repeat as well as new hire – should be done by the manager or a designated trainer.

Justifiably, we in the dairy industry are devoting a lot of attention to standard operating procedures. However, to make SOPs a tool for success rather than just the latest management buzzword, you need thoughtful and inclusive development that leads to acceptance, and consistent and ongoing communication and training.

That’s what it takes to get you from the document in the file cabinet to “the way we do things around here.”  PD

PHOTO
Formulating standard operating procedures is a team event. Depending on management’s interests, the veterinarian can captain the team or be enlisted as a process expert. Veterinarians can provide industry insight, as they have observed what works and what doesn’t work on many dairies. Veterinary education supports the discipline of protocol development. Whether the veterinarian or management leads, make sure the team includes workers who will actually perform the procedures. Photo courtesy of Scott Pertzborn.

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Scott Pertzborn
Veterinarian
Lodi Veterinary Care



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