Continuous improvement that sticks

by Dr. Glen Miller
Share This:

On Oct. 30 during the most recent Worldwide Food Expo (WWFE), I had the honor of presenting and discussing the challenges of implementing Lean in the food-processing industry during a morning long workshop. The session connected the principles of Lean to the goals of sustainability. The idea is to make a case for combining Lean, safety and sustainability into one continuous improvement initiative.

There are so many things to do that one robust approach should address most business goals regarding reducing costs. Waste, injuries and energy all have associated costs. Consequently, the primary goal of reducing costs should be the driver of a comprehensive program.

Continuous improvement

The concepts, principles, tools and thinking for Lean all stress continuous improvement through the minimization of waste. Small wins are expected and respected. Every day improvement contributes to the bottom line. One powerful way to maintain continuous improvement is the use of Lean’s most basic tool, Kaizen. Kaizen is simply the Japanese construct for group problem-solving. This Lean tool provides a method of problem solving that should become the way business is done every day.

During the WWFE workshop, numerous comments and concerns were addressed regarding maintaining a Lean program. A number of attendees had worked toward Lean during their careers. Many had seen benefits initially, but then expressed concern and frustration that the principles and practices of Lean just did not seem to stick. So where do meat and poultry processors struggle in their approach to Lean? This common theme begs the question: Why does this robust cost-reduction method wither?

Deployment strategy

A significant problem exists in the deployment strategy or approach. Medium-size meat-processing companies cannot afford a traditional deployment of Lean or any other process improvement initiative. Large companies often implement Lean/Six-sigma with a large budget and to great fanfare and promising rewards. This rather typical approach has high cost and questionable ROI. Usually months go by before everyone is trained. During the training, not much is implemented. When implementation starts, it is often targeted toward a big and complicated problem. Big and complicated is not the fundamental strength of Lean.

Lean thinking focuses on little changes, often with little expense, for small but daily reduction of costs. Small and inexpensive requires the input of those doing the work. They have ideas that can cut costs and their involvement is the first substantive step toward ensuring that Lean becomes the way of doing business.

My point is there is a leaner approach to deploy Lean principles in your enterprise. In short, once leaner Lean gains traction, it keeps on cutting costs and producing more quality product for less. The key is to set up a system that taps the savvy of managers, supervisors and workers to reduce costs. Moreover, this system has to start small. Start on one line to ensure focused and important results can be seen by line workers and supervisors and that the results are clearly evident to them.

A leaner approach

Here are some tips for incorporating leaner Lean:

• The top executive or owner must communicate to all that today is the start of a Lean journey. Communicate clearly that the corporation owns and supports this process and has high expectations for participation and ownership by all employees.

• Hire a savvy consultant to work with line leads and supervisors to get started. The consultant’s role is to help supervisors lead and workers identify waste and support them in generating "quick-hit" changes to minimize waste.

• Start on one production line. Focus on baseline work activities, such as rework, start-up or changeover time duration and output. Start with the basics.

• The consultant should take every available opportunity to model "in the moment" problem solving or kaizen. The components of "in the moment" problem-solving are: clarify the problem, generate potential solutions, select the best solution, implement and measure results (compare to baseline). Moreover, the results should be tracked and posted on the production line.

• On the second or third day of deployment, the consultant should move into the background. The supervisor will hold his or her "in the moment" problem-solving sessions. The sustainable point here is that the supervisor learns Lean by doing, on the plant floor and not in the classroom.

• Once the supervisor is well-grounded in identifying waste and problem-solving, then that supervisor becomes the Lean champion and moves to the next production line. The supervisor then becomes the company’s Lean consultant with more in-house champions to be coached and involved as the Lean deployment moves from line to line.

• Retire the consultant from direct coaching.

• Executives and the plant manager ensure its Lean champions continue to reduce waste through problem-solving. Verification of continuous improvement is done by monitoring results and direct observation in the plant.

• Once Lean problem-solving gains full traction, retain the outside consultant for the next steps in the deployment (i.e. strategic problem solving for production planning, improving metrics, etc.). The same process is then repeated.

The supervisor’s role and behavioral change from immediate correction or "fire fighting" to the more substantive root-cause problem solving is the key to sustaining Lean. The supervisor should hold short shop-floor meetings to clarify the root cause of a problem, generating solutions and determining expected results. These short meetings support the notion that processes can be changed. Furthermore, changes must be measured to ensure they actually improve output, reduce rework and lower costs.

Dr. Glen Miller is Senior Lean Consultant for Performance Essentials Inc. More information can be obtained regarding Lean Manufacturing at

Comment on this Article
We welcome your thoughtful comments. Please comply with our Community rules.

The views expressed in the comments section of Meat and Poultry News do not reflect those of Meat and Poultry News or its parent company, Sosland Publishing Co., Kansas City, Mo. Concern regarding a specific comment may be registered with the Editor by clicking the Report Abuse link.