Sometimes the simplest solutions are the best. In one lunch meat slicing room, significant cost savings were gained by smoothing out the transition between shifts. The problem was observed using “go see management.”

Shift turn-over was a confusing time. The second shift arrived at 3:25 p.m. The first shift started walking away from the line at 3:28 p.m. The downtime and rework spiked during that transition. At first the line supervisor was not that aware of the inefficiency.

However, once the transition problems were identified, the supervisor had an effective solution. He did three things. First, he slowed down the cycle time around 3:25 p.m. Secondly, he let one line worker leave at 3:27 p.m. while he took her spot. The second line worker left at 3:28 p.m. while the second-shift line workers began to arrive. The supervisor and the line workers kept the line moving during this transition. The results were less packaging waste.

Not all worked smoothly the first time this transition method was implemented. A new problem arose when the second-shift packers did not arrive soon enough to handle the increased production. The first time through, packages piled up. This problem was easy to fix by ensuring a more orderly progression of packers to the end of the line.

Reducing waste
Over weeks and months this type of “continuous improvement” reduces waste. In this particular department, approximately 40 packages are saved each day per line by implementing a shift turn-over process that maintains flow. No money was spent to implement this solution. However, money is now being saved every day.

Another simple solution is to clean the labelers often. I do not need a statistics degree to observe or prove that labelers can often be the cause of rework. Oftentimes, the simple solution is to clean the equipment. It also helps to have the cleaning equipment and solution near where it is needed.

One of the simplest remedies I have witnessed is an alert system. The Lean tool is simple; if people notice a problem, they need an effective means of communicating what they witness. Here are some examples of what I have seen in numerous meat plants.

It is common for packers or operators to bang on metal to gain attention. I have seen this on box chutes to signal a need for boxes made somewhere out of sight. Much banging goes on when packing is separate from processing. Sometimes there is a window or an opening, but rarely can people communicate between stages of the process. Therefore, people resort to banging or yelling that is usually ineffective.

The worst situation I witnessed was 10-lb. ground beef chubs that were produced in the grinding area. Once formed, the chubs were conveyed up and over the remaining part of the plant. The conveyor was at least 14 feet above the floor and ran for about 50 yards before the chubs came down to floor level and into a pack-off room. The packers could not see or hear the chub processors.

An engineer would probably want to re-design the entire production floor. However, after about 40 chubs became wedged and then tumbled down to the plant floor, we came up with a simple solution: buy and use walkie-talkies. The walkie-talkies provided a means to communicate between the portioning and packing ends of the chub line. Other alert systems are bells and/or lights. These simple devices can save significant amounts of rework and wasted meat. Moreover, the addition of alert devices does wonders for reducing the dents in stainless steel caused by the former method of banging out an alert.

Organize tools, materials
The simplest way to save time is to organize tools and materials where they are needed. By this time most readers know what 5S means. Surprisingly, many plants still do not implement this simple tool to save time and money. In short, 5S requires operators, mechanics and workers to have their tools and materials where they use them.

For example, think about your patty plates or dies. They are different for different-sized hamburger patties. Often only one or two sizes are used on one machine. Also, some sizes are not used anymore. However, I bet that all patty plates are stacked in one cart or rack. 5S requires us to clear out the unused or underused plates and stage often-used plates near the equipment. This concept is the same whether the production is meat balls, sliced chicken, pork sausage or ground beef. Move out the unused and stage the routine. The savings in time are measurable. Continuous improvement is often about doing the simple things well. It helps to establish short but routine meetings to identify problems and seek the simple solution. I favor a narrow and deep approach. Narrow means one line or perhaps a particular value stream. Apply Lean thinking and tools to this one line. Every shift makes improvements. Supervisors begin to understand the simple but necessary actions to improve production.

Deep means to continue on the one line or value stream until there are significant improvements and the workforce finds Lean thinking to be the way to do business. Once Lean catches on in the value stream, plan to move that value stream supervisor and a key worker or two onto another value stream within the plant. You need not worry about technical expertise. Lean is a process.

The Lean-savvy supervisor can now teach the next supervisor how to spot root problems and improve production. This narrow and deep approach takes awhile but it sticks. Remember, it’s simple, but very few meat processors deploy and lead Lean so it becomes “the way we work around here.”

Glen Miller is Senior Lean Consultant, Performance Essentials Inc.,