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Accelerating Digital Growth at John Deere

How does a 180-year old company stay resilient? Julian Sanchez, Director of Digital Innovation at John Deere and Craig Sutton, Manager, Manufacturing Innovation and Technology Strategy at John Deere will explain how remote data management, manufacturing automation and a stable commitment to digital transformation have helped the company navigate change over the years. With an emphasis on customer support, adaptability, and speed-to-value, Julian and Craig will demonstrate what resilience has meant to John Deere and how enterprise leaders can accelerate digital growth in their own organizations.

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Craig Sutton, Manager for Advanced Manufacturing, John Deere
Julian Sanchez, Director of Precision Agriculture, John Deere

Farming as Innovation

When I talk to farmers globally, many of them will say that they usually get about 40 chances to run an experiment throughout their lifetime. The typical farmer will inherit or buy some land, start farming in their late teens, and then stop doing it or start handing over the farm in their 60s.

Essentially, they have 40 years of running a non controlled experiment, and in many cases, a non-repeatable experiment. Every year they're trying to make a tweak, and as it turns out, their most important business partner is the weather, which also happens to be the most unreliable business partner you could ever have.

This means that these folks must be resilient and proactive. They need to think and plan for everything and anything that could be unexpected, so that they can make a living.

We bring that perspective to John Deere. We're a company that's over 180 years old, and we've been along the ride with farmers for that whole time. In the last 20 years, Craig and I have been privileged enough to be along that ride. We want to share with you three stories from our career that relate to innovation and resilience within agriculture. We also want to leave you with some takeaways that hopefully apply to your organization and maybe even your lives as you build resilience, not during times when resilience is required, but just throughout how you do business or how you live your life.

Building Resilience in the Early 2000s


In the early 2000s, I was a young engineer in the company. A lot of things were going on, but I truly had the privilege to get assigned to, what was called the “Precision Farming Group.” 

At the time, we were looking at different technologies and sensors that were coming on, and would started looking at some GPS receivers and even software. We functioned like a mini startup inside of John Deere at the time. 

One day, I received a call from one of the senior engineers that was in the group and he said, "Hey, we want "to bring a group of people out to the test bar." And we believe that we've come up with something that we think is really interesting and really like to get some feedback, how would you like to do it?” 

Of course, I was ready to help. I pulled up at the test site and I saw what looked like a normal John Deere piece of equipment there and a normal John Deere tractor, but I noticed a lot of additional antennas were on top of it and a few different sensors. The senior engineers instructed us to drive through a field. The tractor was equipped with what we now call auto pilot. The tractor started just driving itself, and it truly felt like a magical moment. 

I remember leaving the cab and feeling exhilarated by the experience. I called my dad right after to tell him about the experience. There is this other type of feedback of going but what I mentioned farmers want to farm they want to drive. They want their hands on the wheel. Farmers don't want vaporware. It was very interesting at the time, because, as magical as it was, there was like this other inherent resistance.

The big takeaway here is that you have to believe to be resilient over time. You have to have moments of magic, and you have to believe in the magic and sometimes it's not perfectly clear from the onset that you've got the right business case or that you've got it perfectly nailed down, but if enough people step around or experience something that feels like magic. Be an organization and be an individual that allows those types of ideas to come through and to experiment and to test them. 

For us, it's become the foundational technology that unlocks value for farmers for the past 20 years, and by the way, continues to be for the next 40 years. 


Going Bigger


I grew up on a farm, and farmers were being asked to maybe do more in the same window and the same window of time that they had and taken on more land. Traditional thinking that John Deere always had about covering more being more productive is you just just go bigger, right? 

If you're using a 12-row planter, well, let's just go to a 24-row planter. We've doubled the output. This philosophy grows with the need. Capacity changes but practice doesn’t. Therefore, we really had to look through it and say, “what is it that we can do to actually drive productivity?” 

The answer was complicated. The problem is the mechanical devices that are on a planter. They're designed to put a seed in the ground very precisely at a very specific spacing, and if you go faster, you start losing that which then results in lost productivity. 

We had to look at the concept of going faster, in which we had to go to the foundational levels of building up just the whole mechanical process. In fact, we actually switched it to what we call electric drives, where we could actually electrify every single row unit on a planter and it can precisely put the seed in the ground known at a more optimal speed. Instead of just building wide products, we were able to make more manageable pieces of equipment.

Innovation Over Time


Throughout our 180 year history, there's been numerous times where, if you want to continue to stay alive and be resilient for years, you have to be willing to change the paradigm, on top of which you innovate.

For the longest time it was let's make it bigger. And let's make the engines more powerful. It took a reimagination of the technology we were going to use, and by the way, the transformation we're going through right now takes development further by trying to make equipment smarter.

I could spend several hours talking about all the very cool and useful digital solutions that we have and that we offered to our farmers. This transformation was interesting because the company also had to change from the inside to achieve that transformation.

For example, when I started trying to hire a more diverse work from different academic and experienced backgrounds, I noticed that our HR systems really only had three or four slots. Candidates were engineers, accountants, or marketers. We’ve recently recognized computing languages as a skill in internal human resources records.

Application Across Business


Our first two examples really focused on what we're doing, but what has really been changing and what we were talking about is how we build in resilience and innovative thinking. I think what's really interesting is not only is it the academic background that we get from intellectual thinking, but I think if you also look at a company that's grown globally, and all the different views of the world, all the different backgrounds that we now bring in, we know that there are certain people that may not have the years of experience of farming, but they do have a lot of experience in the concept of data analytics, and the way that they can see processes that way.

It’s to your advantage to lean into the diverse thoughts that are coming, especially from dissenting views. It's really been pretty amazing as you kind of walk through the John Deere facilities today of just seeing the diverse backgrounds in education, the diverse backgrounds in the people in their and their lifestyles that they came up through all coming together to really still solve the same problem.


In times that require resilience, again, it's not about engaging in conversations related to resilience when you're faced with those moments. It's about building a DNA through your existence and developing that playbook along the way.

Our three takeaways were,
have a culture and have an attitude that embraces the magic. Those magical moments don't ignore them. Be willing to change the paradigm under which you innovate. And don't just focus on the what, but constantly recognize that the “what” doesn't happen until you completely address the “how.”

I'll end with just a positive bit of news here that I think we all need here in 2020. And that is, Craig and I, through our work and through our families, especially in the case of Craig, we talk to farmers a lot. And you should be happy to know that this year, most of the crop is in the United States and I will say even most of the crop is in the Northern Hemisphere.

Wherever farming can be done right now, it is happening and for farmers again who deal with the weather as their business partner, all of these moments in time that add challenges it's just one more thing for them and back to back to Craig story like his dad told them, we're going to get the crop in the ground and that's just always their attitude and makes me feel good because we we need to continue to have food in the world and thankfully to these folks will make it happen every year.

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