How is a company like an orchard? In the minds of some consultants, we're all field hands and they're the Johnny Appleseeds of change. And the right way to work those trees? It's advice we've all heard: pick the low-hanging fruit.
SeaBird Associates Inc., a Boca Raton, Florida sales-consulting outfit, gives this advice on its SalesDoctors Web site: "Take an orchard view of the situation." In case of a severe frost, say these consultants, "your sales team needs to adopt an emergency 'low-hanging fruit' plan."
Karl F. Muller, principal of the Williamsburg, Virginia-based consulting firm Muller, DeBettignies & Co., has a background in manufacturing management and now specializes in gainsharing. "Low-hanging fruit is something visible - bad quality, unnecessary overtime, wasted materials — that we can get our hands on right away, something that doesn't require an accounting degree to understand," says Muller. "People walk into an orchard, and they always want to go after the low-hanging fruit first. That's the obvious place to start in business too."
Obvious, maybe. But also — wrong! We turned to the Fast Company Consultant Debunking Unit (CDU) to put this wisdom to the test: fruit or fertilizer?
According to Albert Pell, whose family has run Pell's Citrus & Nursery in Osteen, Florida for five generations, consultants wouldn't last a day in his orchard. "An inexperienced picker would pick the low-hanging fruit first," Pell says. "But an experienced picker would know to start at the top." The reason: starting low makes the picker's job harder, not easier. "If you're experienced, you rest the bag - which is around your neck and shoulders - on the ladder. You fill it as you go down, so it's full when you get to the bottom."
Even worse, picking the low-hanging fruit first would probably mean taking underripe fruit and leaving ready-to-eat fruit on the tree. "The lower fruit would need to be picked last to give it more time to develop," says Eric Curry, a plant physiologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Tree Fruit Research Laboratory in Wenatchee, Washington. Curry says that most pickers go through the higher, riper fruit two or three times before they finally get to the low-hanging crop.
Joe Grant, a farm adviser at the University of California Cooperative Extension in Stockton, which offers research results and hands-on advice to California fruit growers, agrees with Curry. "When growers send pickers to the field, they don't advise them to pick the low-hanging fruit first," Grant says. "They tell them to pick what's ready to pick. And the first fruit to ripen is what's high up and well exposed to the sun."
Harder picking and poorer fruit — not much there to recommend the consultants' approach. But wait! According to Dana Faubion, an extension agent at Washington State University in Yakima, the apple industry is making the whole proposition of "low-hanging fruit" not only wrong but also obsolete.
"In the past," Faubion says, "we had larger trees that required ladders. The new trees are 'pedestrian' trees that don't require ladders. So instead of picking the low-hanging fruit, the industry has lowered the tree." Now that's thinking outside the, uh, orchard.
A version of this article appeared in the October/November 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.