Why -- and how -- continuous improvement teams achieve results that many processors only dream of.

The Japanese call it Kaizen, though to some the English translation -- continuous process improvement -- sounds almost as foreign.

In Belvidere, Ill., home to Pillsbury's Green Giant frozen vegetable plant, workers have more prosaic names for it. Like the Twin-Tube Changeover Team. The Spin Downtime Team. The Bulk Freeze Improvement Team.

Green Giant may preside over the land of Ho-Ho-Ho, but the results these teams are achieving are nothing to laugh at. The Twin Tube Team, for example, has managed to significantly reduce average changeover time, thereby reducing vegetable inventories. A few years back, the Bulk Freeze Improvement Team re-engineered a tunnel freezer to freeze rice and pasta, and in so doing reduced ergonomic, waste, repair, training and annual labor costs.

Kaizen. The lesson is simply that if individuals and groups take responsibility for problems, they also feel empowered to solve them. One of the tenets of Kaizen is that management demonstrates belief in the concept by encouraging -- and supporting -- participation from everyone. In Green Giant's case, the Belividere staff is structured in 48 business teams, plus ongoing improvement teams. Another is that if a process or product can, in fact, be improved, a measure exists to quantify the improvement. Fewer injuries. Fewer defects in the finished product. A third principle is that continuous improvement doesn't necessarily require large capital investments.

Of course, food processors make substantial capital investments in plant and equipment all the time. While those expenditures are probably justified, it's also true that the so-called team effort is sometimes subordinated by automated plant systems in the push to improve process productivity and plant efficiency. After all, automation helps to eliminate human error. And in the calculus of modern manufacturing, hardware and software investments pay back, whereas plant workers merely collect pay.

Which isn't to suggest food processors are strangers to continuous improvement work teams, self-directed work teams, semi-autonomous work teams and their ilk - in fact, some 42 percent of respondents to Food Engineering's 2001 Best Practices Survey indicated their plants had recently reorganized portions of their operations along just those lines. Truth is, work team models have been floating around American business in one form or another since the 1940s. Green Giant organized its first team on a trial basis in 1987. Kraft Foods' involvement with classic continuous improvement work cycle teams and self-directed work teams dates back to the early 1990s. Even many consultants to the food industry, such as the Cincinnati-based engineer/architect Hixon, have well-oiled work teams in place throughout their organizations. Hixon's approach, according to director of corporate development Steve Schlegel, is sometimes contagious with clients. "From time to time we see processors incorporating elements of our [work team] program into their organizations," he said. "And we customarily ask them to help us measure the performance of our teams: How innovative were they? Did change orders or cost of services fall within an acceptable spectrum?"

So perhaps more surprising than the 42 percent of processors that work in teams is the 46 percent continuing to report no change in the traditional "command-and-control" management structure of their workforce. On the other hand, many food plant operators simply don't have the time or incentive to initiate a project as sweeping as the complete overhaul of their management and labor structures. Further, books, web sites and other sources of information tend to abstract the subject to the point of absurdity, leaving their users to puzzle over terms like "outcome interdependence," "interdependent feedback" and "task significance." As a result, many companies - food processors included - don't see the significance. Others find inspiration in more tangible concepts, such as General Motor's Saturn experience, which in the 1990s became the poster child for total quality management, team building and similar management initiatives.

As the story goes, GM recognized that a world-class compact car could not be created within its existing divisions, whose cultures were not only rife with skirmishes between labor and management, but also inhibited by a restrictive UAW contract. So a new company was formed. A new plant was built in Spring Hill, Tenn. And 99 employees were recruited from GM's ranks of labor and management to go and work there. The "99 club," as it came to be known, visited 60 benchmark companies to learn how productive organizations operated and returned to Spring Hill with the idea of developing a team/partnering approach, a concept that came to encompass all aspects of business, from engineering and assembly to marketing and advertising. Cross-functional teams were organized. Training exercises, which accounted for 5 percent of all work time, focused extensively on team-building. Workers were invited to participate in improving the production process and treated as equals on the shop floor. Objectives and rewards were based on organizational goals so that, in the case of manufacturing, a portion of employee compensation was based on plant quality and productivity. The results were spectacular.

Question is, how applicable is the Saturn story to endeavors like food processing? Very, according to Don Penkala, a former General Mills plant manager who in 1992 formed Granite Bay Consulting, which focuses on optimizing operations in manufacturing environments. But, he hastens _to add, continuous improvement teams -- or any type of team, for that matter -- aren't necessarily the answer for all processing facilities. "The first question to ask is, 'Are teams really the right response?'" he says. "If your plant has a lot of operational problems -- quality, productivity, efficiency -- and managers simply don't have the time or resources to address them all, then you might want to consider forming one or two pilot teams for critical areas or functions. But if you're in a situation where your managers don't want to give up control, don't see themselves as coaches and don't want to invest in employee training beyond regulatory and safety issues, then the team approach probably isn't appropriate."

Evolving paradigms

Penkala recalls that work teams were "all the rage" ten years ago, but notes that interest in the concept has waned a bit since then as a result of new management techniques and organizational models coming into vogue. That may explain why the path to better plant productivity is littered with failed work teams. "Managers viewed it as a fad and then moved on to something else." Penkala says. In other cases, upper management may have implemented the concept simply for the sake of doing so, and then scratched it off its "to do" list. Mission accomplished. Next item.

Not quite. "Teams are a way of life, not just an agenda item," Penkala said. As such, they require genuine and continuing support from plant managers and other members of top management. But the onus of making them work falls squarely on the shoulders of middle management - those who traditionally oversee the activities of plant line workers. In the past, some members of middle management tended to resist organizing teams that had the authority to set goals and make changes, fearing that one of the unspoken objectives was removing their jobs from plant rosters. Often times their concerns were justified. In one case, a Fortune 500 food company boasted of eliminating $7 million in supervisory overhead by reorganizing operations into teams.

But the objectives and structure of work teams have changed a bit in recent years. "Very few companies -- maybe 10 percent or so -- reached the point where they were able to eliminate middle management positions," Penkala said. Today, most of them no longer wish to do so. Instead, managers and workers tend to follow the model of coach and player, who together focus on specific goals or conditions the team can actively influence.

"A real balancing act"

Green Giant plant manager Vince Castle recalls that when management first implemented teaming at the Belvidere facility, "the focus was on getting the teams to direct or manage themselves." That remained the case until relatively recently, when it became apparent that the plant could further improve its performance by providing each team with a leader. "It's a real balancing act," he acknowledges. "If you put all of your effort into developing teams, you find that you sometimes don't really have an end goal in sight." Providing the Belvidere teams with leaders was part of an effort to focus more pointedly on developing -- and meeting -- specific, measurable objectives. "We'd reached a plateau," Castle says, "and it was time for leaders to step in and take a more prominent role so that teams could keep moving forward." The team leaders also provide the continuity necessary for teams to build on past achievements, given the inevitability of employee turnover. "If workforces never changed, we might not be going down the team leader path," Castle said.

Where do leaders come from? At the Belvidere plant, a "site leader" assigned to each shift not only oversees existing team leaders, but also takes an active role in developing new ones. Castle noted that some team leaders emerge from the ranks of hourly workers. Some, he observed, are 20- and 25-year veterans of the plant, while others have just a few years of on-site experience under their belts.

At a pair of training centers on the plant's grounds, site and team leaders engage team members in exercises to develop or sharpen both their technical and communications skills. Exercises and discussions also focus on meeting particular objectives, which typically address the issues of safety; quality; cost; or customer satisfaction. More often than not, Castle and other plant leaders help to shape these objectives by annually setting goals for the plant in each of these areas. This information is typically communicated throughout the organization, allowing department managers, site leaders, team leaders and team members to develop specific challenging objectives to help meet the plant's goals. It is then left to teams to devise strategies for meeting the objectives they have set for their departments. Having everyone on board, he adds, brings "tremendous clarity" to issues," Castle said. "If you get everyone's ideas, you're also going to get better answers."

According to Schlegel, whose design firm is a member of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Center for Quality of Management, the idea is to break down company objectives into subsets and then deploy subset teams to work on specific parts of the objective, much as the Belvidere plant does. "How do you eat an elephant?" he asks. "One bite at a time." Alignment on key issues from top-to-bottom and bottom-to-top provides everyone in the organization with a proverbial knife and fork. "If you're addressing a lot of different issues randomly, you're not getting enough bang for your buck, regardless of whether the company architecture is command and control, self-directed teams or what have you," Schlegel says.

Visiting the Belvidere plant, one is struck by how well it all works: the easy comradery among leaders and the workforce; the way that managers, team leaders and line workers can finish each others sentences when describing a particular team's goals; or the way managers defer with a nod to leaders or team members when asked about a particular accomplishment. Distribution team leader Russ Kitsemble matter-of-factly relates how he and his teams of forklift operators recently integrated frozen and dry distribution into a single, centralized distribution center supported by cross-functional work teams. "We had our forklift operators in training for six months, going back and forth between dry and frozen, but now we're seeing significant cost savings," he says. "And we're making better utilization of our people. Less overtime." Cases per wage hour, he says, are currently running better than plan, and it has been 27 months since any recordable accidents have occurred in distribution. In the area of quality, each forklift operator monitors a "zone" in the distribution center for signs of handling damage, creasing damage and so forth. Based on their findings, the team devises strategies to minimize or eliminate such problems.

A member of the plant's L.I.F.E.(Living in an Injury Free Environment) steering committee, Joyce Carlson describes semi-monthly observations she performs in order to ensure that members of the sauce pouch line she belongs to are avoiding movements or practices that could lead to injuries. She then files her reports to plant safety coordinator Marcia Barefield, who sifts through data from Carlson and other observors throughout the plant to determine what, if any, actions are required to prevent accidents. By all accounts, plant safety has improved since Barefield, a former line worker and committee member, assumed the role of safety coordinator in 1999. "Some of her predecessors had two, three degrees after their names, but it wasn't until -- well, let's say Marcia and her committee came together with a passion and desire to achieve great safety performance," Castle says. Indeed, in Barefield's first year as safety coordinator, total recordable incidents decreased by 38 percent and total worker's compensation costs decreased by 41 percent. Last year, total recordable incidents fell by another 52 percent. It has been 775,000 hours and counting since a lost time accident (LTA) was last reported at the plant. Not content to rest on their laurels, Barefield and her team introduced a program this year requiring any employee that has suffered an injury explains the nature of that injury to his fellow team members. The team must then devise an action plan to ensure that similar injuries don't occur.

"Don't mimic"

Of course, teams don't simply spring into being any more than they instantly achieve the types of results the Belvidere plant routinely does. Since most plants have to start somewhere, "read books, attend seminars, visit other plants," Penkala advises. "Don't mimic," Schlegel adds. "Think about whether what you observe applies to your situation or not -- or how you might apply it to your situation. Thinking about how the team concept fits or doesn't fit." Assuming it does, he suggests establishing a champion of teaming internally to bring the concept to fruition, and then talking to customers so that management has a better understanding of what they desire or expect.

Internally, plants should begin by measuring current performance, says Penkala, explaining that for each process or area there should be key performance indicators that quantify productivity, quality and delivery. Next, he advises, set smart goals, meaning objectives that are specific, measurable, actionable and timely. The next step is to identify obstacles that impede achieving those goals. Are problems resulting from operator training? Operator error? If that's the case, the team should develop solutions to improve operating performance, such as an operator training plan consisting of updating manuals or refresher training for all employees. Next comes the plan's execution, which ideally includes specific responsibilities and due dates. Progress should be discussed at least weekly to ensure timely execution of the plan. Finally, measure performance to ensure you're achieving your goals.

The case for incentives

Penkala said that incentives sometimes spur teams to work harder, though he notes that management's plans to reward a job well done often need to be negotiated with union leaders. "Unions typically don't have a problem with incentives or rewards, as long as the improvements being made don't lead to layoffs and management shares its gains equitably," he noted. One recent trend, he said, is to keep base pay as low as possible but allow employees to reach a pay scale that is well above average as a result of an incentive program. "Again," he emphasized, "a lot is going depend on management's relationship with labor."

At the Belvidere plant, management has implemented a gain sharing program in which 50 percent of plant favorability (cost performance vs. fiscal operating plan) is allocated to a pool shared among all team members. The plant has also initiated a safety reward program based on the number of months employees log without injury. At three months, employees receive a $15 media play gift certificate, at six months a catered dinner and at twelve months a day off.

Success in these and other areas sometimes hinges on how the teams are actually structured. By shift? By process? By plant? Each has its pros and cons, according to Penkala. While plant teams attempt to break down barriers by between departments to get everyone working toward a common goal, the drawback is that the team is so large and the goals so broad that employees see the big picture, but have a hard time understanding how they can make a difference. Conversely, teams broken down by process or shift have an easier time focusing on operating performance in their work areas, but may have trouble seeing the big picture and understanding their role in it. Penkala advises that the best solution is to develop many smaller empowered work teams with cross-shift and cross-process interfaces.

As for seeking assistance from consultants like himself, he says, "We're useful in helping management identify where teams may have the most impact and are most likely to succeed, but they can't do the job for you. We guide, we hand hold and we perform evaluations at key milestones, but it's ultimately their baby. We don't see ourselves with clients for periods of years. In other words, management can't hire us and then sit back and expect us to do it for them."