Living Lean
By Kathie Canning, contributing editor

With a new line and a new plant manager, Advance Brands’ Orange City, Iowa, plant decided the time was right to implement lean manufacturing and other positive changes.
“Change before you have to.”
— Jack Welch
Smaller players in a crowded field know they must initiate — and embrace — changes if they want to win. And employees at Advance Brands’ Orange City, Iowa, plant certainly are accustomed to change. In fact, they’ve seen the facility through two major expansion projects in less than six years.
The most recent of these was a $20 million, 31,000-square-foot expansion in late 2005, which added a “mega” line and 120 new employees. The “crown jewel” of the plant’s six lines, the mega line boasts one of the fastest chicken nugget/popcorn chicken lines in the world. In addition to these breaded items, the line processes chicken strips and meatballs.
Yet another major change came when the Oklahoma City-based company hired James Hall as plant manager in August 2006. Hall, who came to Advance Brands from Pierre Foods in Cincinnati, has a military and technology background and has been instrumental in implementing lean manufacturing principles — along with Six Sigma and some elements of Kaizen — into the mega line.
“What it really comes down to is the elimination of non-value-added work,” Hall stresses. “Customers pay for value. They don’t want us to build costs into product.
“Lean manufacturing reduces the number of steps it takes to produce a quality product,” he continues. “And it forces you to work consistently — it makes our people smarter.”
Brian Kraus, director of quality assurance for the Orange City facility, calls the introduction of lean manufacturing and Six Sigma a “milestone” in plant operations.
“It’s a culture change that we’re going through right now — it never ends,” he says. “Being a smaller company, we had to do something to differentiate ourselves. Six Sigma has played a big part in our quality role, in conforming to customer specifications and consumer expectations.”
The principles of Kaizen — which speak to continuous improvement — also are effecting culture change, says Hall.
“It moves the culture into identifying ways we can improve every day,” he says. “It combines the components of lean manufacturing, where the whole focus is to eliminate wasteful activity and waste in your process, with the Six Sigma philosophy, which says to do my root analysis, etc.”
The result? Hall says operators with “normally challenging” equipment are now figuring out how to make their equipment run better than before.
This reality speaks to anther facet of the ongoing cultural change — getting every employee involved in the processes. Essentially, operators have learned to take ownership of the products they produce.
“We decided to really focus our efforts on building our internal customers, which are our employees,” he says. “We’re putting a lot of effort into conducting onsite training with our supervisors, with our managing group as a whole, with our operators. We’re not just talking about it; we’re physically doing it.”
A Six Sigma SQDC (safety, quality, delivery, cost) board in the hallway leading to the mega line reflects key metrics. Here, key operations, quality and maintenance staff meet twice a day to go over specific metrics and discuss ways to improve.
“We can visualize certain key elements of a process and what drives the quality,” stresses Kraus. “We can visualize how successful or how unsuccessful a process is, and we have key players that can offer countermeasures to fix things. It’s really great hearing the operators coming up with answers to do that.”
The facility also has a number of other initiatives in place to ensure superior performance in the quality arena.
“Quality assurance provides a verification process that we are, in fact, accomplishing that,” says Kraus. “We have an auditing system for raw materials, meat or raw ingredients, packaging — we have criteria these suppliers must meet.
“We also have auditing processes set up from the grinding/blending process through cook-fry-freeze and packaging,” he adds. “Each of the steps has a very specific set of audits that are performed by the QA staff to ensure our operators are following the requirements.”
Food safety is of the utmost importance, stresses Kraus, something every employee must keep in mind. The plant performs a three-step validation process following the sanitation group’s daily cleanup, he adds, relying on both visual inspection and microbial swabs.
On the employee-safety side, strategically placed “safety scorecards” are set up to go from green to red anytime an accident occurs.
“It’s a visual, so it doesn’t allow an organization to hide,” Hall stresses. “We want our employees to understand that something went wrong and it needs to be addressed.”
Operators rotate position every hour to reduce ergonomics-related stresses. In addition, the plant does a tremendous amount of auditing in the safety arena as a tool for improvement.
“We ask operators on the floor to be our coordinators,” Hall explains. “We ask our supervisors in all of the departments to work with these coordinators so we know from an employee standpoint what things they need to be safer, and we provide them.”
Hall notes that the facility is gaining ground in safety. In fact, two of his departments cut safety incidents in half last year.
The facility also has been proactive on the environmental front, especially in terms of wastewater treatment. In fact, the plant recently partnered with Iowa State University to examine ways to reduce the biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) discharge from its wastewater pretreatment facility.
“We’re in an initiative to drive out pollutants,” says Hall, “and to look at how we condition our water that goes out to the city.”
Even seemingly less-significant issues have been affected by the larger cultural change. For example, a walkthrough of the mega line also reveals numerous efforts to save time and make routine tasks easier.
Employees don protective helmets atop the obligatory hairnets — in colors matched to specific job descriptions — making it a cinch to determine who’s in charge or who’s new. Yellow paint outlines on the floor mark what belongs there — everything from tables to garbage bags. Even the supply cabinets sport labels to show where specific supplies belong within — an idea that came from the operators.
Each piece of equipment making up the mega line includes a “one-point lesson” to help newer operators. Also posted on all key equipment are a standard operation sheet, a rapid response plan, critical control points and a quality checks sheet. Operators not only are given a degree of responsibility to make line-level decisions, says Hall, but also must set hourly goals for themselves.
And when it comes down to it, that’s what the productivity and quality improvements are all about — individual people taking on responsibility and making a measurable difference.
“It doesn’t matter what shift you’re on; it doesn’t matter what position you’re in,” Hall stresses. “If you don’t give ideas that have value, we take that to heart.”