Lack of time and commitment usually prohibits organized teams in food manufacturing plants. However, high-performance self-directed work teams have achieved sweet success in a few plants.

InFood Engineering's 1998 State Of Manufacturing report (September '98), 33 percent of respondents reported that their companies had organized self-managing work teams, slightly up from 30.5 percent in '97. Nearly two-thirds of these (65 percent) said the concept is working; 35 percent reported it is not working.

According to FE research, the major reason for failure of self-directed work teams in food manufacturing plants is lack of management commitment. Management is reluctant to relinquish its traditional authoritarian role.

Corporate managers may not allow the time required for self-managing teams to develop. But food plants committed to the success of high-performance self-directed work teams -- and supported in their efforts by management -- have achieved amazing results.

Green Giant: teams cut changeover costs

Pillsbury's Green Giant frozen vegetable plant at Belvidere, IL, organized its first team on a trial basis in 1987. That team was so successful that it inspired management and the work force to establish a team-based culture.

Today, the plant employs 425 team members structured in 44 business teams, plus ongoing improvement teams. Team members assume responsibilities formerly held by traditional supervisors, including labor and vacation scheduling; job interviews (internal and external); developing safety plans; facilitating team meetings and team-member training; presenting costs and communicating issues at team meetings; and assisting with weekend preventive maintenance.

Two four-member Green Giant improvement teams -- the Twin-Tube Changeover Team and Spin Downtime Team -- presented their remarkable achievements in reducing downtime and boosting productivity to an appreciative ovation from plant managers and engineers attending Food Engineering's Plant Tech '98 Conference last June in Oak Brook, IL. Goal of the Twin-Tube Team: reduce changeover time on the twin-tube vertical form/fill/seal machines (which bag frozen vegetables) to 15 minutes, said Forklift Operator Steve Mikrut. Prior team training included computer training, conflict resolution, problem-solving, fishbone diagram, "pole" analysis, and an 11-step approach to downtime reduction. Product Supply Operator Deann Popovich outlined the team's approach.

First step: Arrange with production scheduling the best possible sequence to run varying vegetable products. Next, the team applied the 11-step changeover-reduction process. This included reviewing (and subsequently revising) written changeover procedures; videotaping and documenting current changeover procedures; classifying changeovers into four categories; and listing duties for each category.

This exercise revealed which segments of the changeover process consumed the most time (the "long poles.") For example, among different tasks performed in the freezer, the most time-consuming was cleaning the bucket conveyor. Options evaluated: changing procedures; modifying equipment; and purchasing new equipment.

The team brainstormed and researched design ideas. Some could not be justified because of cost or physical limitations, others were "quick hits" which could be implemented in a short time at relatively low cost. Two "quick hit" design changes: a pneumatic blower near the bucket-fill area, which made it easier to clean the bucket and was installed by one mechanic over a weekend; and a mezzanine enclosure, to keep the buckets cold and reduce frost buildup. The second "long pole" was adjustment time at the bagging machines.

One "quick-hit" idea was to standardize machine settings for each product. Optimum settings were developed and documented over several weeks, then posted for the operators. Over a six-month period, said Twin-Tube Operator Tom McGill, the team reduced average changeover time from 33 to 15 minutes. This saved more than 196 production hours annually, which translates into 105,000 additional cases and savings of $18,885 per year.

Reducing changeover time dramatically reduced vegetable inventories from eight weeks to 15 days, for annual savings of $774,900. Combined savings in changeover and inventory reduction: $793,000. To maintain these results, the team developed a standard operating procedures (SOP) book covering startup, operation and shutdown procedures for all positions in the plant's quality area. The Spin (sauce pouch included) line packages Green Giant Create-A-Meal products, which combine vegetables, rice or pasta, and pouched sauces. In December 1996, the SPIN line was faced with a deficit of $30,000 below its baseline in the plant's financial plan.

The Spin business formed a cross-functional group to assume leadership in improving the line, said Relief Technician Simon-Peter Broughton, with a core group forming the Spin Downtime Team. The goal was to be baseline or above within two months. The Spin Team applied a production-tracking software tool to analyze each line and found that changeovers were the major cause of downtime, Operator Chris Beauchem continued. The team then filmed all three shifts running different products, determined that changeovers averaged 59 minutes, brainstormed with all shifts and applied the 11-step downtime-reduction process. Using a baseball analogy, the team prioritized improvement ideas: A "strikeout" was difficult to accomplish and produced small payoff; a "quick hit" was easy with small payoff; "extra innings" were difficult but had a big payoff; a "grand slam" was easy with big payoff. "Quick-hit" example: revising product-flow patterns (eg., broccoli to broccoli, rather than broccoli to cauliflower and back to broccoli) to the product wheel (which weighs product components flowing quickly in sequence) to reduce cleaning time during changeovers. "Grand slam" example: revised SOPs for changeovers. "Extra-inning" example: a new high-pressure air-cleaning system. Team members formerly had to "wait in line" for access to air hoses, and the hoses weren't producing enough pressure for effective cleaning.

The new air system provides more hoses, more pressure, and saves five minutes between changeovers for a two-year payback. The case packer was identified as the second major contributor to Spin-line downtime, said Relief Operator Carol Popovich. Glue dried before it could properly seal a box, so a new glue vendor supplied a "quick hit." Case-packer changeover and operating SOPs were revised with input from all three shifts, resulting in a "grand slam." The number of people rotating on the case packer was reduced from as many as five to two -- one operator and one backup for each shift -- for an "extra innings" improvement. The team's goal of baseline or above within two months was achieved in just one month, followed by continuous improvement. Product changeover time was reduced by 64 percent (from 59 to 21.5 minutes); case-packer downtime was reduced by 40 percent and bagger downtime was reduced by 33 percent. By May of '97, the Spin Line's year-to-date contribution to financial plan had risen $108,500 above baseline -- and was trending up!

Quaker Oats: teams spur turnaround

A semi-autonomous team structure based on labor/management trust saved the Quaker Oats plant at Danville, IL -- with its hundreds of jobs -- from probable shutdown in the early '90s. Plant management represents a remarkable partnership between Quaker Oats and Local 347 of the American Federation of Grain Millers (AFGM). Today, the 500,00 sq.-ft. plant employs 552 people organized by Business Leadership Teams (BLTs) into flexible manufacturing teams producing bagged ready-to-eat (RTE) cereals and granola bars.

The turnaround has been so dramatic that Quaker Oats Danville was named one of "America's Best Plants" by Industry Week magazine in October 1998 -- the only food plant among the 10 manufacturing facilities so honored. Back in 1990, a study conducted for Quaker Oats Co. by the consulting firm Booz, Allen & Hamilton recommended consolidating manufacturing at Quaker's three Midwest plants to one site. The Danville plant, which had endured a 1988 strike by the AFGM and was among Quaker's high-cost producers, was an obvious candidate for closure. "We formerly had an adversarial relationship with management," recalls Walter "John" Pigg, Jr., recording secretary for Local 347 and a member of the union executive board. "I had to write grievances to get elected to union office -- that's how the members gauged how well I represented them." The Booz Allen study "was a wake up call," says Plant Team Leader Steven F. Brunner, who took over as plant manager after the study was released. "But we had time to turn things around."

Plant management and union officials first launched a study to elicit employee concerns. About 250 people devoted more than 2,000 manhours to the study, on company time with pay. Job security emerged as the major concern. Next, management and union leaders convened for five days off-site to develop a vision statement, which begins: "Our future, in a global marketplace, will be secured by inspired employees who instinctively respond to the needs of the consumers, customers, business owners, community, and each other." Plant leaders then benchmarked Danville against 15 to 20 other manufacturing plants, union and non-union, including Mexican plants. "We realized the competitiveness of Mexican plants, even with workers making less than $2 per hour," says Pigg. Some of the U.S. plants had established self-directed work teams.

"We knew we couldn't copy them entirely, but we collected bits and pieces that would fit our plant, our culture." Apart from recognizing individuality -- that individuals are different -- there was no master plan for establishing a team structure at Danville, says Brunner.

The plant started forming teams in 1993, and teams were negotiated into the union contract in 1994. Management consultants Wallace W. Graham, a former Frito-Lay plant manager and president of W.W. Graham & Co. (Tempe, AZ), and Dr. Phil Bromley, principal of The Belgard Group (Orlando, FL), helped the plant initially develop its team organizations. During the various stages of team development, Brunner points out, "you can't base progress on morale. Morale goes into the hopper. It's natural for people to deny and resist change. You must recognize that, you must go through that, to get to the excitement and commitment stages. You can't control people into commitment or empowerment -- it must be voluntary." Training at Danville is both social and technical, combining classroom sessions, on-site training, informal on job training and computer-based individual training for both employees (known as associates) and managers.

Training in social skills includes conflict resolution, decision-making, facilitating (for team leadership), feedback, conducting meetings, supplier-customer relationships and business strategies. Technical training includes SOPs for all plant processes and equipment; PLC control; statistical process control; electronics; problem-solving; machine-specific training; and qualitative measurement. A plant training center (only two to three years old) provides training manuals, audio/visual aids, and a computer center equipped with PCs and CDs for individual learning. Training PCs are also located on the plant floor; computer-based training is available at plant-floor HMIs (human machine interfaces).

Associates communicate via e-mail throughout the plant and throughout the company. Associates also help develop training programs. "As teams mature, they recognize their own training needs," Brunner observes. "Our training budget today is 100 times what it was 10 years ago -- with no increase in manufacturing cost per case!" Associates must verify what they have learned, and earn more pay as they demonstrate higher skill levels. The lead business units at Danville are the four Business Leadership Teams (BLTs): RTE, Snacks, Maintenance, Shipping/Receiving. Each BLT is headed by two union leaders and one management leader, and incorporates its own engineering, quality-assurance and support people. BLTs organize their own flexible production teams as needed (on average, about 55), determine the number of associates required per team and per shift, and set team goals for social, technical and business performance, adds RTE Leader Fred Mikalik, vice-president of Local 347.

Teams are line-specific or service-specific and focus on supplying their internal customers. An RTE production team, for example, is aligned with a cereal line from raw-material storage through secondary packaging. Team leaders assume all the responsibilities formerly handled by production supervisors, assisted by team communicators. All team members have quality assurance responsibilities, but there's a quality professional assigned to each team. The Maintenance BLT organizes sanitation teams and flexible multi-craft maintenance teams incorporating engineers, mechanics, electricians, electronic technicians, welders, machinists and pipefitters. A Preventive Maintenance (PM) team conducts PM but also trains operators in routine troubleshooting and PM functions.

A maintenance-project team plans to bid on work in competition with outside contractors. There's no defined limit to team authority. "Test it!" says Brunner. "They can shut-down equipment for safety or quality reasons, and have never been criticized for it." In addition to making process control and quality assurance decisions on-line, teams decide if and when they need to work overtime, when associates will take vacation days, and coordinate these with the plant scheduling department. "Teams make decisions within their sphere of influence," says Pigg. In addition to production teams, the BLTs form project engineering teams as needed. About 130 small engineering projects (under $25,000) totaling about $1 million are completed annually by associates. Although there are seven professional engineers on staff "we have 550 engineers," says Engineering Manager Warner W. Freese. "Associates can be project leaders or co-leaders along with engineers." In addition to leading major engineering projects, Freese provides the necessary skills and support to these teams, who align their projects with business principles, then cost-justify and execute them. The payback of passionate empowerment is evident in continuous improvement at the Danville plant. Some results over the past five years:

  • Manufacturing cost per case down 37 percent;
  • First-pass yields for snack products up 37 percent;
  • First-pass yields for all finished products now 99.6 percent;
  • Standard order-to-shipment lead times down 30 percent;
  • On-time delivery rate 99 percent (based on customer-request date);
  • Product-development cycle time down 75 percent.

Additional measures of team and associate commitment at Danville: Total plant production has doubled since 1990. Eighty percent of associates are Quaker shareholders.

Rich Products: self-directed teams are the icing on the cake

Rich Products Corporation headquartered in Buffalo, NY is the nation's largest privately held, family-owned food manufacturer. The company's plant at Niles, IL started-up in October 1994 with self-directed flexible work teams producing non-dairy creamers, icings and toppings. From startup, the plant has integrated engineering innovations, computerized process controls and an empowered workforce to create a culture of continuous improvement and customer focus. The plant's organization chart, in fact, appears inverted as compared to a traditional organization: The customer, shown at the top, is serviced sequentially downward by plant teams, team leaders and resource managers to Plant General Manager Bob Farmer at the bottom.

Currently, 75 associates are organized into four teams: Logistics, Technical Services (including QA and sanitation); Conversion; and Maintenance. Team leaders develop production schedules, coordinate shifts, function as coaches, facilitate team decisions by consensus, and guide team members in their training paths. The Conversion Team, for example, is structured into four basic areas or "skill blocks:" batching, whip-fill; liquid-fill; and secondary packaging, explains Supply Chain Manager Dan Reiser. Associates are trained in both technical and team skills; are cross trained in at least two skills; and can move up in each skill block through three levels of expertise: operational; self-directed; and self-managed.

Technical training includes SOPs, computer skills, quality-assurance checks, logistics interface, routine preventive maintenance and troubleshooting (although the Maintenance Team handles heavier maintenance and repair jobs). Team members have on-line QA responsibilities and the authority to shut-down a line if product-quality specifications are not met.

The Logistics Team, for example, tests incoming raw materials such as vegetable oils, corn syrups and emulsifiers for temperature, color, clarity, pH and refraction index and can refuse to accept deliveries, says Assistant QA Manager Lisa Rossi. Training in team skills includes coaching, facilitating, communication, safety, initiative, leadership and team training.

An associate must qualify in both technical and team skills in at least two skill blocks, demonstrate his/her proficiency to be certified in each skill block, and earns more pay when certified in more skills. Associates also serve on process improvement teams which focus on continuous improvement, and align team goals with business goals. Examples: yield-improvement; startup; shift-transition; downtime; and waste-elimination.

One example of how empowerment and teamwork inspire innovation: the Conversion and Maintenance teams together engineered improvements to the non-dairy frosting gallon-size filler which boosted production speed by 20 percent -- from 25 to 30 gpm -- surpassing even the supplier's expectations. Additional measures of continuous improvement at Niles include: Waste reduced by 25 percent per year over the past three years; and yields on the liquid-gallon filling line up 2 percent in one year.