Want Continuous Improvement? Lean In to your Organization

Dieters aren’t the only ones cutting down on fat. Most food companies are encouraging their staffs to learn the ways of lean manufacturing.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

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Alan Lambert

Alan Lambert (left) leads a kaizen event focusing on ergonomic issues in the production environment. Food & beverage companies are finding that training workers in the techniques of waste reduction can produce significant improvements. Photo: Risk Management Group

Like sharks, organizations must keep moving forward or they sink like stones. The best way to keep moving is to pore over existing practices and find ways to execute them better.

That, in a nutshell, explains the popularity of lean manufacturing and other formalized approaches to continuous improvement. Formalized programs to re-examine existing practices have become mainstream in food and beverage organizations.

In Food Processing’s 2014 Manufacturing Trends Survey, a slight majority of industry professionals indicated their companies had instituted formal improvement programs. Lean initiatives were being pursued at more than a third (35 percent), followed by 5S (28 percent), TQM (24 percent) and Six Sigma (21 percent). Kaizen events, value stream mapping, Poka-Yoke and OEE metrics were among the additional tools cited. As the ratios suggest, use of multiple methodologies are common.

Lean implies a lack of fat, and the elimination of fat, or waste, underpins most continuous improvement efforts. But waste reduction isn’t the only goal pursued. Injury reductions, supply chain efficiencies and other objectives drive many of today’s initiatives. The common thread is the formal structure these methods provide. Consider them an interactive version of the company suggestion box.

Structured programs require formal training, and companies often run into difficulties when trying to mesh the various continuous improvement methods and in sustaining the gains they first achieve.

In a presentation at the American Society of Baking’s annual conference in March in Chicago, Derek Contreras, production resource leader at Bimbo Bakeries USA, Horsham, Pa., cautioned against reliance on trainers from outside the organization. Consultants can provide useful tips, but improvement programs often falter after they leave. “If you want something to be sustainable, the associates must be engaged,” Contreras advised.

Contreras described the company’s use of 5S, kaizen events, value stream mapping and other methodologies to address training needs, raw material waste, rework and downtime. In attacking changeover time, the bakery applied 5S, Poka-Yoke and value stream mapping, aiming to cut in half each changeover. Ten changeovers a day at the divider are typical, he said, and shaving 15 minutes from each changeover would save $200,000 a year at each of the firm’s 34 bakeries.

Sponsorship by senior management and leadership by plant managers are necessary to implement improvement efforts that align with organizational goals, but they must be “driven from the bottom up,” Contreras said.

All of the systems cited by Contreras are useful, but gains will prove unsustainable without a fundamental change in an organization’s culture, insists Andy Carlino, a founder of the Lean Learning Center in Troy, Mich. From his perspective, lean is the overarching structure that turns improvement programs into collaborative efforts.

Campbell Soup Napoleon Ohio

Cans still constitute the majority of condensed-soup containers produced at Campbell Soup’s Napoleon, Ohio, plant, but several other packaging options exist, requiring a focus on continuous improvement to add flexibility to high throughput. Photo: Campbell Soup Co.

“Six Sigma is an extremely powerful tool for working on very complex issues,” he says, “but it’s only useful for big problems, not everyday continuous improvement operations. “5S and kaizen also are tools of lean, but if you have a hammer, every problem is a nail. You have to understand the purpose of a change before you select the tool.”

For example, 5S -- shorthand for sort, set in order, shine, standardize and sustain -- is often viewed as simply good housekeeping, but Carlino characterizes it as a standardization tool for identifying abnormalities. The floor of a NASCAR shop is kept spotless not because the crew has a cleaning fetish but because it helps highlight any fluid leaks. “Visual management could to the same thing,” he notes.

Getting lean religion

Food company personnel were few and far between when Carlino’s firm conducted lean training sessions in the mid-2000s. By the beginning of the century’s second decade, half the trainees hailed from food and beverage. A contingent from Glanbia was among Carlino’s early disciples, but after some early victories, the Idaho firm’s lean initiative faltered and recidivism surfaced.

Not until a new executive manager joined the Twin Falls, Idaho-based dairy processor in 2010 did the effort begin to yield consistent, sustainable improvements. Supervisors who clung to a command-and-control style and failed to listen to what subordinates were saying were replaced. Within two years, the retooled program was generating eight-figure savings at three plants, but the safety and quality improvements from an engaged workforce were deemed the biggest benefit.

Glanbia’s implementation reflects the mix and match hybrids that organizations with a long track record in continuous improvement have adopted. Campbell Soup Co. illustrates the scenario. Employee engagement and team building have been emphasized throughout the organization for more than a decade, and the current manifestation is HPO, shorthand for high performance work organization.

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