Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Impacting Your Community with Kaizen

Last week, as a volunteer, I facilitated a safety kaizen event at the Northern Illinois Food Bank facility in Park City, IL - one of three operated by the NIFB. Around 200 food banks are located throughout the United States. Think of them as distribution centers that supply food pantries and homeless shelters with food for the needy. The event was sponsored by the Association for Manufacturing Excellence and there were a total of 12 kaizen team participants.

The Park City site primarily processes frozen meat products that are donated by large grocery chains. When meat reaches the sell by date the store freezes the packages and stores them in a bulk container until they are picked up by the NIFB. After pick up, the meat is stored in a large freezer at the Park City site. Groups of volunteers working 3-4 hour shifts then sort the meat by category (beef, pork, poultry, etc.) and repackage it in 20 pound boxes after applying a "not for resale" label over the existing barcode label - a simple enough process. Yet this process, like all processes, can be taken apart and put back together in a better way (kaizen). The kaizen team's objective was to improve the volunteer experience - or to say it another way - to reduce the ergonomic risks associated with all of the material handling that occurs. Since the primary goal of all lean efforts is reducing business process cycle times while focusing on the customer, kaizen teams generally use stop watches to measure the current state cycle times. Then after they implement their work process changes they measure the process cycle times again to recognize their impact. Obviously when cycle times are reduced the labor content required is also reduced. Since the NIFB uses volunteer labor, freeing up labor or even reducing labor is unimportant. Instead they prefer to involve many people in the work process because it builds a base of community focused volunteers upon whom they can rely upon. Therefore this kaizen team's focus was the safety of the volunteers and not cycle time.

A traditional kaizen blitz would occur over multiple days. This introduction to safety kaizen event was only one day in length which meant many improvements were identified but few were implemented. The broad goals of this AME event were two. The first was to expose this not-for-profit organization to lean. Secondly to demonstrate to the external attendees the impact on a company’s safety program if you think of safety as a continuous improvement activity versus the traditional view that safety is driven solely by compliance to regulations. Giving individuals the gift of time to focus on safety can have a dramatic impact on work place safety. In this case the kaizen team identified a list of 97 possible improvements to the sorting and re-packaging process.

After introductions the team began their day with a short lean safety training session. They were prepped to observe the work performed with an eye for safety improvement. Body positions, material handling methods, workspace layouts and storage containers were all triggers that would be used to identify changes to work methods. Next the NIFB staff demonstrated and trained the team to sort and re-package the frozen meat. Following this training the sorting and packaging line was fully set up with frozen meat and the team worked and observed the current state process. This experience, combined with the earlier lean safety training, helped the team identify the 97 potential improvements.

The team’s next step was to develop two potential new packaging line layout drawings. After some discussion it was agreed to set up a one piece flow processing line on both sides of the tables, used to move the frozen meat, and to move the sorting step to the opposite end of the line. The equipment was moved and meat was again processed by the team. This new layout yielded multiple benefits. The obvious one quickly noted by the NIFB staff was a 30-40% reduction in the floor space required. Other improvements were:
Reduced soft tissue injury risks
Reduced time to train volunteers
Visual workflow with clearly defined roles
Standard work
Packaging line load leveling

Incorporated in this new layout design were multiple scaling stations that would allow the volunteer packers to pack into a box sitting on a scale base. This eliminated the constant walking back and forth to a common scale station to check the weight of the box. Another item the team identified that would require capital spending was label dispensers. Clearly the task with the longest cycle time and an obvious ergonomic risk, due to the constant pinch grip required, was to pick up a roll of labels, peel the label from the backing and then apply it over the existing label bar code. Because the NIFB is a not-for-profit organization they do not have the funds required to purchase the scales or label dispensers that the team identified. If you or your company would like to contribute toward the purchase of this equipment please get back to me and I will put you in touch with the manager of this facility.

At the end of the day we re-set the packing lines as they were when we arrived. Then as part of our event wrap up all participants were asked to share their thoughts about the day's activities. First to comment was the NIFB manager who had been on the team. He had that wild eyed "holy sh##" look on his face that all first time participants on a kaizen blitz team display. His mind was swirling because he was trying to internalize all he had seen and learned during the day. Change, real change, had been proposed by the team in the form of 97 potential improvements and he was responsible to make the implementation decisions. He was now charged with the difficult part of lean - redirecting the culture. I recently presented at a small trade association gathering in Las Vegas. Feedback from the organizer was that some attendees felt my presentation on lean was too simply. Yes lean is a very simple common sense approach yet it is very difficult for business leaders to accept and implement for it requires leadership to redirect the culture of their business. Most do not have the stomach for that difficult multi-year task.

Lean has become part of our everyday language yet there are still many small businesses and not for profit organizations that do not understand the value this simple concept can have on their businesses. There are also thousands of lean thinkers who have the ability to impact not-for-profit organizations in a positive way. My challenge to each of you is to find a way to use your lean skills outside of your work setting. Find a not-for-profit, a school system, or a local governmental organization in your community where you can make a difference. You will find it to be very rewarding work.

Stay safe.