I once consulted at a poultry processing plant. One day, a shop floor worker had just had it: “That’s it,” he said. “This is too disgusting; I can’t do it anymore.” He walked right off the floor.
The boss came to me and asked, “Mike, can you just go down and make it look like you know what you’re doing?”
He walked me there, and I immediately saw a big pile of chickens just sitting on the floor. I said to him, “Well, that doesn’t look right.”
“Congratulations,” he said. “You’re now in operations.”
And that’s what led to my career as an operational consultant.
Wings take flight
At this organization, this factory was known as the “ivory tower.” It was directly across the street from the corporate headquarters, employees at the plant worked hard to be the very best, and its reputation was excellent. Still, company decision-makers knew there was room for improvement, so my team was brought in to see if anything could be done better.
My boss and I walked in, and, as always, were met by a skeptical factory floor manager. He reminded us that his plant was number one. There was no way we’d be able to find anything.
As my boss and I began our tour, he reassured me, “If you find something, I will back you 100 percent.”
We walked onto the floor and immediately noticed that a worker was picking up a bag of chicken wings off a conveyor belt and moving it six inches to the right to another conveyor belt that was about four inches higher. My boss and I smiled and elbowed each other in the ribs.
We told the plant manager that we already had an idea, and we pointed out what the worker was doing.
The manager replied, “All right, guys: Bags can’t go up by themselves because of gravity.”
“There are other ways,” we told him. “The fastest, easiest and most cost-effective would be to simply raise the first conveyor belt so it flows smoothly onto the second. They have adjustable legs, after all.”
At that point, he realized we had a point. “Okay, I’m too close,” he admitted. “Outside eyes are very good.”
That led to a 26-week project on eight different lines. During that time, we identified many improvements. We verified that pallets of wings could be brought to the line more efficiently without running the risk of thawing while waiting. (Because the line was at 33 degrees Fahrenheit, 15 minutes plus line time would not risk losing quality.)
We also figured out how to more effectively sanitize a new spiral freezer, which was causing a line to start two hours late every day. Because the freezer was still wet when employees started the cool-down process, this would cause ice to form, and then the freezer would jam. We solved the problem by reordering the steps the sanitizers performed and adding large fans to dry out the freezer before starting it up each morning. Best of all, we convinced the freezer manufacturer to pay for those fans.
At the end of the 26 weeks, the senior vice president of the company told my boss and me that we had done very well. We had improved the best plant, and that verified the potential at all the others.
Michael McGinty is an independent consultant with more than 15 years of business operations, plant management, continuous improvement, project management, profit optimization and supply chain experience. He may be contacted at email@example.com.
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