The application of lean principles to U.S. manufacturing operations took hold in the 1990s when James Womack, Daniel Jones and a group of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers introduced the concept of lean, or the elimination of waste from a manufacturing process, as shorthand for Toyota’s production model. Since, countless businesses in all industries have adopted the continuous improvement mindset implemented using lean methodology.
“There are universal truths that apply in almost any industry,” explains Chet Marchwinski, communications director of the Lean Enterprise Institute, Inc. (LEI). “No matter what business you’re in, you need to get the right product to the right customer at the right cost if you’re going to survive and prosper. Customer value is created through the proper sequence of steps occurring at the proper time — the value stream is horizontal. Lean teaches us to focus on the horizontal flow of value and forces us to get out of our silos and evaluate how value is flowing toward the customer.”
In the animal feed business, regulations and market conditions have pressured companies to streamline their processes to deliver timely, accurate and cost-effective products to customers while widening profit margins.
Chris Petersen has been Ridley Inc.’s, an Alltech company, director of lean for nearly two years, bringing his training with the Lean Enterprise Institute and Six Sigma certification to the company’s 30 feed mills.
“Lean is not a new term or concept; it’s a proven thought process, a proven structure,” Petersen explains. “There are a lot of tools in the lean tool box, but it becomes more about problem solving and working with employees than the tools themselves.”
Petersen explains Ridley has used lean principles to improve customer experience and employee morale.
Building a lean culture
The implementation of lean principles requires a cultural shift from the top down. In the words of James Womack: “It’s a lot easier to act your way to lean thinking than it is to think your way to lean acting.”
Petersen agrees, “You have to overcome some of those preconceived barriers and change the ‘this is how we’ve always done it’ mentality.”
He suggests the best start is often opening the discourse to all employees.
“Ask them their opinion on how it could be done better,” Petersen says. “This creates trust and demonstrates that their opinions and values matter in trying to improve the business.”
He stresses it is a manager’s job to create a lean culture to make employees want to contribute to the company’s success.
When employees can see that goals are being met as a result of their buy-in to lean thinking, it builds excitement about the process. “Employees want to be part of that [winning] team,” he says.
Improved customer experience
In an effort to gain buy-in from its employees, Ridley shares all positive and negative customer communications via a message board. Success stories and challenges are also shared at team meetings to “bring the employees closer to the customer,” noting that it’s especially beneficial for back office employees, who may never interact directly with clients.
Petersen suggests understanding the customer’s expectations and their needs, then evaluating your current processes to figure out what’s required and what can be improved upon to close any gaps.
“Operational metrics paint a nice picture. If you understand some of the basic needs, you support it with hard facts, such as on-time service or a quality perceptive. You should be able to measure that though customer feedback.”
For this reason, Petersen is a proponent of tracking the purpose of customer calls and conducting surveys.
“You can measure the impact of [your continuous improvement program] by how many times that phone is ringing in a day and the reasons why they are calling,” he explains. “When your phone calls start to die out, you know you have started to achieve a better result because the customer experiences it.”
He admits the results can be mixed because disappointed customers are the most vocal; however, when you start receiving unsolicited, personal letters from customers thanking you for the service that you’re providing, you’re on the right track.
“Sharing customer feedback empowers employees and prompts them to care maybe a little bit more,” he says. “You’re not producing a batch of feed — you’re producing a product for this customer for this particular livestock that adds value into the food stream.”
Lean in action
The implementation of lean methodology often takes little monetary investment because it tends to center around being more efficient within the existing workflow.
Petersen offered five examples of how Ridley was able to use lean principles to improve its operations:
• Process mapping: The packing line at one facility was going down five times in four hours at an average 15 minutes per instance. Petersen conducted a process mapping exercise to begin to understand where they were losing efficiency upstream. He discovered the operator was running his line as fast as possible without considering what was happening on either side of him.
“This individual looked at me and said, ‘Chris, you’re telling me if I go just a little bit slower, I could get more done?’ Yes. Process mapping brought this all to light for us.”
• Beyond manufacturing: Lean practices, such as 5S methodology (Sort, Set in order, Shine, Standardize, Sustain), outside of the manufacturing processes of a company. For example, Ridley has a 5S team in its corporate office that uses the methodology to ensure products are replenished and work stations are maintained.
“We conduct a 5S audit on every employee work station to make sure that things aren’t slipping,” Petersen explains. “We work with employees to build an efficient work station for their job. We then conduct quarterly audits to benchmark the success of the program.”
• Regulations: Ridley is currently exploring ways to apply 5S tool to recent regulations, such as the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), as it “complements all of our other initiatives to achieve the requirements there.”
• Labeling: A 35-year employee mentioned that the labels on his switchboard had worn off over time. Though he knew the switches by memory, the addition of new labels would allow other employees to navigate the machine’s controls when he was unavailable. One small step helped make the mill more efficient.
• Excess motion is waste: As the demand for a species-specific product increased, the necessary ingredients were still being stored more than 50 yards away from the mixer. The mixing operator recognized this, moved the ingredients closer and evaluated which other infrequently used ingredients could now occupy the storage space.
“Anytime there is excessive motion — the human body moving, walking, lifting, carrying or transportation — how do you get those things as close as possible to where you need them,” he says. “It can be amazing what simple, low-cost storage alternatives can do for your workflow.”
Starting your lean journey
For feed manufacturers looking to implement lean principles in their plants, designated employees could attend one of the many training and certification programs available throughout the country or the company may choose to hire a lean consultant to evaluate the manufacturing workflow.
In time the lean investment pays for itself in improved customer satisfaction or experience ratings and heightened employee morale, which in turn, can improve the overall financial or “business health” of the organization.
“A lean transformation does not happen overnight; it will take dedication and continued practice,” Petersen says. “I can assure anyone that the efforts will pay off.”
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