Top-down success

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When management sponsors Lean practices and accepts input from supervisors, Lean can significantly change profit margins for the better. But leave out the supervisors and Lean becomes just another management initiative that started with promise and sagged under the weight of every day routines and habits.

Lean at its most basic level embraces a deep respect for continuous improvement. Little changes mount up to significant cost savings. Moreover, continuous improvement contributes directly to gains in capacity. Although it is easy to discuss this fundamental concept, it is not as easy to implement in the American framework of management. Many meat processors are relatively small, family run businesses. The family has built a viable enterprise with hard work and frugal expenditures. When capital is appropriated, it often is earmarked for equipment or to add a new product line. For many meat processors, this has been a profitable business strategy. Today’s processing industry, however, is becoming more competitive and more demanding. The current realities of the meat and poultry business demands cost cutting and efficiency gains without large expenditures. This is the music of the Lean enterprise and the lead drummer is the supervisor.

In meat and poultry plants, supervisors are promoted from the ranks of production workers. They often times are the best workers and have learned the fundamentals of machine operations and production. However, they have also picked up at least some of the ineffective habits of that particular processing plant. Ineffective habits have to change, and the supervisors have to change first. Since the supervisors are the leaders in the plant, it is imperative that they see operations through "new eyes." To see waste, supervisors need to know what it looks like. I favor coaching supervisors while in the plant and "in the moment."

Just last year I was consulting in a large ground beef plant. Early one morning, I noticed the formulator leaving the grinding area. The supervisor and I followed the formulator. We wanted to see where he was going during the critical time of start-up. I counted 157 steps out of the grinding room, through several other production areas and several bends. What was he doing? He was retrieving "foodgrade" grease to smear on the grinder couplings. The supervisor immediately saw the waste through "new eyes." We even laughed because we could not decide whether the long walk was a transport or motion waste. Regardless, time was wasted.

Immediately the supervisor implemented a resolution. He moved a small container of grease into a cabinet next to the grinder. Not a penny was spent for this improvement and cost savings. This is Lean at the most basic level.

Once supervisors begin to see waste in their plant, they can learn more about Lean principles and tools. As always, 5S is a great tool to get started in the plant. After supervisors witness waiting, transport and motion through "new eyes," they become much more receptive to having tools, equipment, parts and materials where the operators and technicians need them. Remember to emphasize that storing tools in a meat tub is not 5S. The basic but sometimes missed construct of 5S is that the tools are sorted and staged.

In short, anyone can see that a tool or part is missing. This is not true if they are in the same place, but that place is the bottom of a meat tub. Another factor for implementing meat plant 5S is that the sorting and staging must allow efficient and effective sanitation. If flanges, housings, couplings and other equipment are hung or staged in a fashion that is easy to clean, maintain, retrieve and store, then your supervisor can work to sustain this effective and important Lean practice.

Use ‘visual factory’

Another effective tool is using visual factory. In the early stages of a Lean deployment, I often gain attention and traction for Lean by emphasizing start time. Every meat processor knows that if a shift is started well, operations have a better chance of running well throughout the day. Start up is crucial. Nothing helps more than a clear goal for "meat in the box." Since the plant has to be released by QA and the USDA, actual start-up time on the clock may vary. However, the length of start-up time should be the goal.

Encourage the supervisor to set a time, say 75 minutes, from turnover until the first full box on a pallet. Line leaders, operators and technicians will pull together to meet that goal. Of course they have to know the goal, and that is why it is called visual factory. Put up a big white board and post the goal. To make it more visual, have a picture of ‘meat in the box" laminated and posted right next to the goal. Again, the cost is about $10. The return is huge.

Daily brief kaizens is the third tool in initial deployment of Lean. To effectively implement kaizens, line supervisors must calculate output and rework. I am not referring to end-of-week totals or balance score cards for the entire business. I’m talking about ‘meat in the box" per production line. For simplicity, let’s call "meat in the box" output. If you have a labeler, you have a method to get the count. Take an hour count periodically over a couple days. The supervisor should ensure he measures output during the first hour after start-up. An hour after a change-over is also a good time to measure. Then set a standard. Now the supervisor has a base line for measuring improvement.

Rework is the counter balance to output. When, labels are inaccurate, smeared or misplaced, that is rework. Meat being cut incorrectly is also rework. Weight is not within specification is rework. Again, measure and find a baseline. It is often easier to deduce rework rather than take a count. For example, if your first shift starts with 10,000 trays and at the end of the shift 1,000 are still on a table and 9,000 packages are in boxes, then there is no rework. It is easy to change the numbers to demonstrate rework. So let’s take this example and change 9,000 to 8,000. Now the supervisor knows that his shift trashed 1,000 trays. If they are worth 20 cents each, the direct cost is $200. Now that the supervisor has fundamental operations metrics, the brief kaizen can address solving production problems.

Keep a plant floor kaizen short – never more than 30 minutes. Why short? Primarily, because Lean is all about continuous improvement and that requires changing a little every day. I have found that if supervisors can not take 30 minutes or less to solve at least one problem, then Lean is not becoming the way that plant does business. With the metric baselines established, the brief kaizen format should include a problem, several possible solutions (sweat equity solutions) and expected results. Expected results should be written as a number, percentage or ratio. If the solution did not reduce rework or increase output, then kaizen again and try another solution. As line supervisors utilize the three tools outlined in this article, day in and day out, then cost savings and increased capacity will surely follow. More importantly, your plant has the traction needed to continue on the Lean journey.

Dr. Glen Miller is Senior Lean Consultant for Performance Essentials, Inc. More information can be obtained regarding Lean Manufacturing at

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