Black Box Thinking: The Agricultural View

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In the last 70 years the number of fatal accidents in the aviation industry has been reduced by 94%.

The chances of an accident is one flight out of two million. This impressive improvement has not been achieved by chance but simply by learning from past mistakes and making the necessary changes required in order to prevent it happening again.

Much of the improvement has been possible due to the introduction of the black box flight recorder which records vital data during the flight.

However, equally important has been the culture within the industry which sees failure as a learning opportunity and encourages its employees to report failure, which is then disseminated throughout the entire aviation industry and not just companywide. And here lies the key to success; only through failure and learning can we be successful.

If we see failure as a sign of weakness and something to be hidden away and forgotten about because it compromises our own estimation, or people’s perceived impression, of our ability, then we are unlikely to learn and become successful.

Continuous improvement

In dairy farming we need to continuously improve our business performance in order to become successful and, although we can all identify failures, do we have that black box of information to hand in order to identify where the failure originated and what the predisposing factors were which led to failure, so that we can learn?

There is no doubt that today’s dairy receives and collects information from a wide variety of sources. Unfortunately most of it is not utilised for learning or decision making.

I recently gave a talk on the topic of “black box thinking” (based on Matthew Syed’s book) at a Grassland Society meeting and went about highlighting all the different types of information we have at our disposal. The one thing that came across strongly was that nobody present in the meeting had a means or the time to collate and analyse the data available. What we often see is a situation of analysis paralysis.

  • Milk records
  • Breeding records
  • Trim records
  • Milk quality
  • Staff rotas
  • Feeder wagon loading records
  • Forage quality
  • Diet analysis
  • Soil analysis
  • Vet and med records
  • Fresh cow checks
  • BCS checks
  • Activity data
  • Lying times
  • Rumination times
  • Milk cultures
  • Blood tests

Learning from Team Sky


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Marginal gains are there to be made, but we can only make them if we can analyse the component parts of the process of producing milk.

Sir David Brailsford’s success with Team Sky was down to stripping the race process into its component parts and identifying where marginal gains could be made. For example, all the cyclists sleeping on the same mattress every night of the Tour is a marginal gain, as the quality of sleep is better and the cyclist will perform better the following day compared to a bad night’s sleep.

Identifying of marginal gains can quite easily be done on any dairy farm. It can be done to identify the cause of a problem or to find those marginal gains necessary to improve profitability. Take for example issues with lameness; what are the component parts?

Cow comfort
Stocking rate
Lying times
Condition of surfaces
Condition of cow track
Routine trims
Correctness of trimming technique
Dealing with lame cows
Foot bathing
Any one of these components could be responsible, but in most cases it will probably be a combination of any of the above. The question is what do we have in the black box that can help us get to the bottom of the issues?

Here are some thoughts:

  • Trim records identify the type of lesion and the main issue with lame cows. Lesion type is associated with a specific trigger.
  • Trim records can also identify patterns of lameness. For example, is it associated with rough tracks in summer?
  • Lying time data or calculations can identify the adequacy of cow comfort.
  • Keeping a record of building stocking density can help visualise the effect of overcrowding on lying times and lameness.
  • Are we recording how compliant our staff are with foot bathing and foot trimming protocols?
  • Diet formulations and forage quality can be useful to identify links between lameness and nutrition.

Without accurate data in our black box it is easy to make assumptions as to the cause of a particular issue. A lot of time can be wasted if we try to rectify a problem based on an inaccurate assumption of the cause.

The black box thinking approach is constructed on learning from failures and identifying the cause of the failures based on the availability of accurate data.

To conclude, we can only become successful if we learn from our failures but we need to embrace failure and look at it as an opportunity.

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If you would like more information on identifying your marginal gains please contact one of our Dairy Specialist team.

Dr Huw McConochie
Head of Dairy Technical Services