Last summer, during Food Engineering's PlantTech conference, we presented the results of the magazine's 2001 Best Practices Survey, assuming attendees would be wowed by the heaps of data being shoveled at them."Some 72.9 percent of respondents implemented a HACCP plan to better assure plant sanitation and food safety; another 27.6 percent established a pay-for-skills system to improve labor's performance; some 45.6 percent..."
On it went. After the session, someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Very good. But how well are these initiatives working?"
Surveys, as most of you know, are about numbers, but it's unwise to assume there is safety in them. In past Best Practices surveys, we blithely presumed that if you were voluntarily implementing a HACCP plan, then you were at the vanguard of food safety.
Which isn't to suggest that you aren't. But this year, we weren't quite as quick to trot out the blue ribbons. Rather than tell you what constitutes a best practice, we decided to let you tell us. In other words, we not only asked you what you were doing, but how it was going.
As the following pages show, opinions vary widely on the efficacy of particular systems and practices, let alone the necessity of adopting them. Take automation. Nearly half of respondents who indicated they worked in "moderately labor-intensive environments" also felt the degree of automation in their plants was perfectly adequate. And only 50 percent of respondents whose plants implemented supply-chain management software felt there had been a vast improvement in that particular area. More difficult to determine is whether the other 50 percent were dissatisfied because a selected software program fell short of the mark or because it was improperly implemented. Perhaps those respondents weren't favorably disposed to the software in the first place.
Such are the vagaries of surveys.
But, as we've learned, it doesn't hurt to ask.
Panel ProfileThis year's survey respondents comprise a venerable group: About 55 percent of them have 20 years or more experience in the food industry, while another 29 percent have 10 to 19 years experience. Only three percent have four years experience or less.
Forty percent of respondents work at flexible plants capable of producing several different products on the same line with quick changeovers; 29 percent work at facilities dedicated to long production runs of the same product or same few products; and 31 percent work at plants with both dedicated and flexible production lines.
The majority of respondents work at plants with 249 employees or less. The breakdown is as follows: 1 to 19 employees, 26.5 percent; 20 to 49 employees, 17.6 percent; 50 to 99 employees, 19.1 percent; 100 to 249 employees, 18.4 percent; 250 to 499 employees, 9.6 percent; 500 to 999 employees, 6.6 percent; 1,000 to 2,499 employees, 1.5 percent; and 2,500 employees or more, 0.7 percent.
Not every respondent answered every question on the survey. Accordingly, the percentages shown in the following graphs represent the percentage of respondents answering a specific question.
Workforce/TrainingAlthough a number of new training strategies and practices have come into vogue in recent years, the majority of survey respondents still believe there is no substitute for good, old-fashioned on-the-job training. The fairly conventional practice of cross training also scored well among respondents. Support for on-site classroom training was relatively solid, though respondents showed less enthusiasm for company-bankrolled training at local colleges.
According to the survey, professional training programs, tuition reimbursement programs and training partnerships with universities are not especially effective recruitment tools. Nor are they particularly helpful in retaining employees.
Instead, bonus programs, benefits packages (medical, dental) and good work conditions have significantly greater pull with employees.
Nearly 30 percent of respondents indicated their plants recently made changes in the traditional management/labor workforce design in order to improve product quality and plant efficiency. An overwhelming majority of these respondents -- 82 percent -- organized into self-directed work teams; self-directed work teams with a team leader; or management-directed work teams.
Forty percent of respondents indicated it was too soon to tell whether reorganizing has, in fact, resulted in productivity and cost improvements
For those whose plants organized into self-directed work teams with team leaders, 92.3 percent believed improvements had resulted from reorganization. Respondents whose plants organized into management-directed work teams viewed the reorganization as an improvement by a ratio of 2:1. By comparison, only one-third of respondents organized into self-directed work teams reported increases in quality or efficiency.
MaintenanceLast year when we queried respondents about maintenance, an astonishing 40 percent indicated their programs were reactive in nature. In other words, "run it 'til it breaks." Only 25 percent of this year's respondents fessed up to the same practice. A statistical quirk or progress? Hard to say.
Among this year's respondents, a negligible 2.6 percent are employed in plants where condition monitoring tools are used. However, nearly 56 percent indicated their plants maintain routine preventive maintenance schedules, and 8.5 percent noted they have a predictive maintenance program.
Only 7.5 percent of respondents characterized their current programs as "very efficient," suggesting that maintenance remains a poor stepchild amid the din and clamor of processing operations. Not surprisingly, a whopping 84 percent of respondents relying on reactive maintenance characterized such efforts as "somewhat" or "very inefficient." As one respondent put it, "We react and [instead] need to fix [machinery] before it breaks."
Those respondents whose plants perform routine preventive maintenance reported more positive results: 56 percent characterized their current maintenance programs as either "very efficient" or "efficient." Respondents whose plants are developing predictive maintenance programs reported similar results.
A full 53 percent of respondents indicated that none of their plants' maintenance tasks is automated. Among those whose plants do automate, the majority of applications involve parts inventorying; work-order generation; and spare parts ordering. Automated fault detection and monitoring; machine failure analysis; and predictive failure alarms aren't used as routinely.
Food Safety/SanitationEmployee training and HACCP programs continue to dominate efforts to improve food safety. But what about other methods?
Although anti-microbial treatments and rapid microbial detection systems aren't as prevalent, they rate very highly among those who use them. HACCP programs were also seen as useful -- just not as overwhelmingly so. For instance, only about 40 percent of respondents whose plants use either voluntary or government-mandated HACCP plans cited these measures as "very useful," as compared to the 53 percent of respondents who rated rapid microbial detection systems just as enthusiastically.
While only 2 percent of respondents involved in voluntary HACCP programs rated them as "not useful," nearly 14 percent of those involved in government-mandated programs expressed disappointment with them.
In terms of effectiveness, employee training rated lowest among all food safety measures presented to respondents. Only about a third of those whose locations emphasized employee training in food safety rated these programs as "very useful." Some 47 percent of respondents rated such programs as "somewhat useful."
Half of those whose locations added sanitary equipment were enthused with the results. By comparison, only 41 percent of respondents whose locations improved employee training to improve sanitation rated the results as very useful. Another 52 percent rated the results as somewhat useful.
ManufacturingA disproportionately high number of responses came from employees of smaller food companies, where automation is less likely to be roundly implemented.
Respondents who do work in fully automated locations tend to be very satisfied with current automation levels at their locations. In fact, none expressed dissatisfaction with that particular aspect of plant operations. Although respondents working in moderately labor-intensive environments were split on whether increased automation was desirable for their locations, respondents in highly labor intensive plants were clearly looking for some relief.
Among respondents who saw improvements in plant operations last year, 43.6 percent of them attributed these advances -- at least in part -- to improved automation/process control. (By comparison, 60 percent said improvements were due, at least in part, to improved employee/operator training, especially in terms of man-hour productivity and inventory reductions.) Automation/process control was particularly effective in reducing manufacturing cycle times, order lead times, finished goods inventories and waste.
Nearly half of respondents indicated their companies recently took steps to improve supply chain management with one of the following methods: establishing supplier partnerships (34 percent); establishing partnerships with carriers (19 percent); establishing consumer response or continuous replenishment with retailers (14 percent); implementing supply chain management software (7.5 percent); or establishing browser based communication with suppliers and customers.
Companies that implemented supply chain software seemed to enjoy the greatest results, with 50 percent indicating a "vast improvement" in supply chain management at their locations. By comparison, only 7 percent of companies with newly established supplier partnerships likewise saw vast improvements, though 56 percent indicated supply chain management was "somewhat improved."