A Lean Slaughterhouse?


Have Knife, Will Travel: A Slaughterhouse on Wheels (WSJ-Free)

So I realize this article and post might be controversial. My point isn't to start a “meat is good” or “meat is bad” debate. I know that conditions in slaughterhouses can be horrific for animals and human workers. That said, I eat meat and normally don't worry about it. If you're a vegetarian, you might want to skip to another post.

The WSJ wrote about a mobile slaughterhouse that has been approved by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). There's only the one in existence and it's an interesting story with some Lean parallels.

What's the problem statement for farmers who raise cows and pigs?

To have his hogs butchered legally, farmer Bruce Dunlop could haul his animals by ferry and truck 150 miles to the nearest federally sanctioned slaughterhouse.

Federal rules and consolidation of the nation's meatpacking industry have made it increasingly costly and cumbersome for small farmers to bring their animals to slaughter. According to the rules, animals intended to be sold as meat must be killed at a slaughterhouse with a federal inspector present. (Some states allow state inspectors to do the job.)

But the number of plants under federal inspection has dwindled to 808 nationwide, down from 1,750 three decades ago. Today, many farmers and ranchers must travel hundreds of miles or out-of-state for a legal slaughterhouse. Wyoming, for example, has no plants under federal inspection. It has 27 with state inspectors, but under federal law, the meat can't be shipped across state lines.

Travel distances – waste of transportation…. increased costs and time delays for ranchers and their supply chains.

A bit of inventiveness is changing the game — bringing the slaughterhouse TO the farmers.

Up rolls a diesel truck pulling an 8-by-12-foot trailer fitted with a sink, a 300-gallon water tank and a cooling locker with carcass hooks. A butcher in a floor-length apron kills, skins, guts and trims the pigs into slabs of meat that are then hung in the cooler and trundled to a packaging plant. Soon the meat is stocked in the freezers of shops on the island and across Washington state and Oregon.

I know, not a pleasant topic. But, it's a great example of “right-sized” equipment, instead of large, centralized “monument” slaughterhouses. This allows farmers and ranchers to be competitive on a smaller scale, offering “local” meat to those who are interested in “eating local.”

The end result is just as bad for the cows and pigs… but leaner for the producers. Maybe this concept spurs some ideas about what you can do to “rightsize” your production and operations capabilities — small and mobile instead of huge “efficiencies of scale” based plants.

Have you used a similar concept in your business?

Final thought – I'll give the government, for once, credit for NOT squashing innovation:

At first, the agency was wary, having never approved such a thing before, says Gregory Sherman, an Agriculture Department supervisor in Everett, Wash., who took part in evaluating the application.

“It was certainly unique,” Mr. Sherman says. “But we didn't want to just say, ‘Sorry, you can't do this' because it hadn't been done before.”

Too often, “it's always been done this way” is such a barrier to improvement. But not in this case.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. I think this is a great idea. Having grown up on a crop farm where we often raised one or two beef cattle for our own use, I can relate to the logistical problems and extra expenses having to truck livestock in “batches” a long way creates. This is a good solution. As for the controversial aspect of butchering living things for food–I believe that if more of us had to see and even participate in this activity we would have a greater respect for those creatures who give their lives to us for our use. The fact that no one wants to see it or know about it is what leads to the abuses and horrible conditions for the animals and the workers. If we were closer to it we might be more humane about it.

  2. I don’t see how this is much more effective than farmers driving to plants. Sure it might save them money on transportation, but who’s paying the bill for this mobile meat killing machine? Are they making one per animal raising state, region, or just a few that cross all over the place.

    What about if a farmer only has a few animals for slaughter. Is it going to make the trek over to them? What if something happens to the animal? Is it cheaper than the farmer driving a smaller vehicle to move this thing?

    I think there is one benefit thought [although being a veg-head i’m not quite sure, but my meat eating econ teacher mentioned this in class and had a group do a model based on setting up a slaughter house and dry age plants in georgia]: won’t the animals taste better with the slaughter coming to them? The animals won’t get tense and need a relaxation yard to release the chemicals built up from the stress of moving which cause the meat to be tough.

    Maybe while we’re on the subject of innovation. Maybe we should look into the logistics of fed exing animals, or possible come up with a pipeline to ‘slurry’ the animals back and forth.

    I don’t wanna be a total prick. I do like the idea of right sizing and literally putting your equipment on wheels, but i have my worries about cross contamination and analysis of savings.

  3. My point isn’t to start a “meat is good” or “meat is bad” debate … If you’re a vegetarian, you might want to skip to another post.

    Ahh, you know we can’t resist commenting :).

    Seriously, I became a vegetarian years ago due to myriad sustainability issues, one of which being the costs and ecological toll of transport. Course, having made a decision like that, one tends to bolster one’s decision with supporting reasons to such extent that were meat production sustainable, I wouldn’t eat it now anyway :).

    The end result being there’s got to be some energy savings with this system but I wonder about rendering and hide production. Will those buyers come by to pick up too? Or will the remainders be disposed of (another toll)?

  4. My brother-in-law has a mobile slaughterhouse come to his farm and do a steer or pig or two at a time. (This is not a USDA approved truck – the meat is just for family consumption, but it is licensed, etc., to do this work.)

    The HUGE advantage of this system is the minimal trauma to the animals before being killed. Instead of being squashed on transport truck, terrified, driven long and uncomfortable distances, unloaded in a frenzy in an unfamiliar place with the smell of death ahead of them, they are lead directly from the field to the back of the slaughter truck, through a familiar farmyard. They are content and calm until the very end.

    I am not a big meat-eater, and rarely if ever buy meat retail because I am concerned about the treatment of the animals. But knowing that the beef and pork I get from my brother-in-law was loved and contented until the very end allows me to at least think that I am doing what I can to diminish factory animal farming.


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