Does Lean help or hinder quality and food safety? According to several quality assurance managers and at least one food-safety scientist, Lean manufacturing is more than a way of eliminating waste from the production floor, including quality enhancement. QA managers say the data required to maintain Lean manufacturing is also useful in monitoring and improving product quality.
An example offered by QA managers is the trending of fat content in beef supplied. A ground beef processor wants the actual content of lean and fat to be the same as their specification. In reality, these numbers or ratios vary. When the processor trends fat content versus what was ordered, they have metrics that can help reduce the variance. The processor communicates discrepancies, the supplier tightens its inspection and the supply of meat becomes a more consistent quality. This is not to be an adversarial relationship between processor and supplier. What works is a relationship where the supplier of meat is informed when standards are not met or trending down. If a collaborative relationship is developed, feedback and metrics on trends are read as a way to improve quality and address problems early.
For food safety, the metrics used for Lean are very beneficial for sampling and traceability. For Lean, supervisors and workers need accurate and timely metrics. Throughput and rework are two metrics that must be trended per production line. In one ground beef plant, the collection of 15-minute production data is retrieved from the labeling equipment. This data is not perfect because some labeled product may have to be reworked. Nevertheless, labeling data is very helpful for trending throughput. To implement Lean, supervisors constantly need to check whether kaizen solutions are improving throughput.
Coincidentally, this same trending data is helpful in determining what package, box or boxes may have pathogen levels that exceed prescribed levels. Timely data collection improves traceability and has obvious benefits to quality and food safety.
Product shelf life and appearance are also important aspects of quality. Quality assurance managers working for pork and beef processors agree that customer feedback regarding shelf life and appearance can be very helpful for improving Lean initiatives. As one quality assurance manager stated, "Customer complaints are more eyes on the product and helps us make adjustments."
Feedback from clients and end-users should be compared to Lean metrics maintained by the processor. For example, if rework is down but complaints about appearance are up, perhaps the processor is sacrificing appearance for more throughput and less rework. Packages may be passing through without upholding the high standards necessary for good and profitable customer relations. Misaligned labels, trimmings and color affect the customers’ view of quality within any meat product. Ground beef processors using modified atmosphere packaging need to be particularly sensitive to customer feedback regarding color. Basically, the color of ground beef is how the customer judges quality or in customer terms, freshness. For MAP ground beef, the customer feedback data should be compared to processor tests run on color and shelf life. Data from customers helps operators maintain their focus on quality and safety issues. This focus supports corrective actions and leads to better quality and heightened food safety.
Foreign material exclusion (FME) is another area of quality for food processors that is supported by Lean tools and principles. In particular, 5S can be very helpful by minimizing the potential for foreign material to enter food. 5S is the Lean tool requiring parts and equipment to be shiny, set, sorted, standardized, and sustained. In short, 5S requires processors to keep parts and equipment organized, clean and handy. This Lean tool demands that an operator or maintenance technician knows how many bolts, washers and gaskets are in the disassembled basket. In turn, they know how many are used for assembly. Maintenance workers and operators should always count small parts for disassembly and assembly. A good theme is: "three sheet-metal screws out, three sheet-metal screws in." That theme applied to all equipment and parts is a big step toward quality control of foreign materials exclusion.
Effective quality assurance
The last quality issue described is quality is primarily a function of production. Effective quality assurance and quality control is every employee’s job. Quality-assurance policies are most effective when production workers are knowledgeable and concerned about quality. The best quality control is typically found in the plants where all workers are keenly aware of quality issues that affect the product they are producing.
Quality technicians are a major part of this equation however; effective processes that maximize food safety and quality are primarily done day in and day out by production workers. In my consulting work, I call this approach "quality to the line." It works when quality managers and technicians coach production workers regarding quality issues. A simple example is when the line operator does a spot check on the metal detector. Another example is the packer that sorts out poorly or improperly packaged product. For good business and best practice quality is everyone’s job.
Lean practices strive to help meat processors become more efficient while eliminating waste. To become efficient the processor seeks to perform work correctly the first time. This time- honored notion also ensures that quality and food safety are integral components of production.
Dr. Glen Miller is Senior Lean Consultant for Performance Essentials Inc. More information can be obtained regarding Lean Manufacturing at www.performanceessentials.com.