Lean By Example
Two Minnesota manufacturers open their doors to share how continuous improvement reaps a cornucopia of bottom-line benefits and companywide successes.
BY SUZY FRISCH
What could a manufacturer of natural and organic foods possibly learn from a corrugated box maker or a high-tech metal fabricator? A whole lot, it turns out--especially when all of the companies are committed to the continuous improvement process and want to share their best
In April, employees of SunOpta, a manufacturer of natural and organic foods, convened in the Twin Cities for a continuous improvement summit. With workers located at 49 sites around the world, SunOpta wanted an opportunity for those engaged in continuous improvement
initiatives to network, share ideas and visit two Twin Cities companies that are lean manufacturing veterans.
"We're in a competitive market, and using the continuous improvement process to drive out costs is something we need to do to remain competitive," says Scott Gordon, vice president of operations for SunOpta's ingredients group in Cambridge. "We have worked hard to
implement our continuous improvement program so that we can realize improved operating efficiencies and remain competitive in the marketplace."
Staying competitive is important for SunOpta, which is a relative newcomer to continuous improvement, so it was important to see lean initiatives in action. Fortunately for about 40 employees who attended the summit, two Minnesota manufacturers shared their experiences with
personalized tours. Central Container, a Brooklyn Park-based manufacturer of packaging supplies and solutions, and Pentair Technical Products, an Anoka company that makes Hoffman enclosures for electronic controls and components, opened their doors to SunOpta.
While it might seem unusual to allow outsiders to tour manufacturing operations and give away details about how a company becomes more productive, those involved with continuous improvement say it's a core philosophy to share what you know.
"We think it's the right thing to do, and that sharing best practices is the right thing for North America to be competitive worldwide," says Ed Polin, GreenLeanSM manager at Central Container. "We've prototyped and engineered a lot of packaging that we've designed
but we may never sell a box in the United States if the project gets taken offshore. We see companies 'in-shoring' now--bringing jobs back to North America. And that's good for all of us."
Ontario-based SunOpta started getting lean in 2008, when the company hired Tony Tavares as chief operating officer. A veteran of the food industry and lean manufacturing, Tavares has spearheaded the effort to institute continuous improvement efforts across SunOpta.
With three groups--SunOpta Foods, Opta Minerals and SunOpta Bioprocess--this is no small task. The foods group alone has five divisions that source, process and distribute natural and organic food products from seed through packaged goods. Getting SunOpta's operations running
efficiently was especially critical after the company acquired 31 business operations in the past decade. In total, SunOpta has 2,300 employees in Canada, the United States, Mexico, China and Ethiopia. Five of its locations are in Minnesota, including two in Alexandria and one each
in Breckenridge, Fosston and Hope.
"With the growth and acquisitions, there was recognition that all of the organizations had unique cultures," says Vanessa Harrison-Chambers, SunOpta's continuous improvement manager. "What the leadership wanted to do was to create synergy with the sites across all of the
divisions and create some energy around building the continuous improvement culture."
To get the lean ball rolling, the company hired two key employees: Bill Van Heeswyk, vice president of continuous improvement, and Harrison-Chambers. They began introducing continuous improvement concepts at the SunOpta sites, engaging staff in the process through Lean 101
classes. They also named lean champions for each location to keep continuous improvement projects moving forward and started identifying potential processes that could be improved.
"Continuous improvement is really about engaging the staff," Gordon says. "Communicating with them and engaging them at all levels-- from senior management to the person on the floor managing the project." A big part of that communication is creating an open atmosphere
where people feel comfortable sharing their ideas on potential changes to make operations more efficient.
Branding SunOpta's lean program with the name Process Excellence through People (PEP) highlights the company's focus on getting all employees involved in the lean culture. SunOpta also formed a corporate steering committee made up of cross-functional employees. Together, the
committee provides guidance and support to help shape the sites' next steps for process improvements. At the same time, each site has its own steering committee to shape the location's next PEP steps. A quarterly newsletter keeps all of the sites apprised of changes at different
locations and helps maintain lean momentum, says Harrison-Chambers.
Continuous Improvement in Action
In the past year, SunOpta's divisions already have undertaken hundreds of small changes--and a few big ones--to improve communication, operate more efficiently and make processes more efficient. Probably the biggest undertaking was both a lean and a green continuous
improvement move. Recently, SunOpta installed a new system in Cambridge to capture methane produced in its wastewater treatment system and convert it to power for its boiler, Gordon says. Before, that gas would be released into the atmosphere.
After installing new equipment, SunOpta retains the methane, cleans it and uses the gas in its boiler to heat water. This alone will save the company 40 percent on its natural gas bills and reduce its carbon emissions by 25 percent. "It ties into what we're trying to do with
both continuous improvement and minimizing our impact on the environment," Gordon says.
Another fruitful move came when SunOpta installed interactive white boards at all of its locations. As in many companies with 24/7 operations, employees were heading straight out the door after work--often without sharing information about what happened during the previous
shift. Vital details, data or process improvements were lost. Now, using the interactive white boards, SunOpta holds a daily PEP talk with employees from both shifts to exchange information during the three shift changes.
"They might spend 10 minutes dialing into issues that they overcame," Gordon says. "It helps to make sure that all of the information is being exchanged, and that the efficiencies gained on one shift are not lost on another due to a lack of communication."
The visual boards also announce information about safety, quality, production targets or scheduled maintenance. While SunOpta distributed this information before, the boards are a more consistent format for company communication. In addition, employees have access to idea
cards, on which they can submit their thoughts on specific ways to make operations more ecofriendly, efficient or safe. Their suggestions then go to a committee for consideration.
"The visual boards and idea cards allow people to be more engaged in what's going on around them," Gordon says. "Ultimately we see improved efficiencies because employees are more engaged and they understand why they are doing things, not just because they were told to do
it and don't ask questions. They understand the thinking behind the decisions we're making on a day-to-day basis."
At the Summit
SunOpta had made great progress in its early continuous improvement program, but it wanted to keep the ball rolling. That prompted the team to gather for its first lean summit, spread over two and a half days in the Twin Cities. There, the company's continuous improvement
champions networked with each other while hearing about successes at different SunOpta sites. They also learned from outside guest speakers who are lean specialists and toured the two companies to get a firsthand look at their process improvements.
"We recognize that continuous improvement is a journey and that you never really finish," Van Heeswyk says. "We're early in our journey and, while we have a number of initiatives underway, we want to talk about going forward. Collectively, it's [time] for us to do an
internal reflection on our initiative so far, reinforce the vision and have a good discussion about things we need to do on this journey."
One of the companies that SunOpta toured was Pentair Technical Products, which has been engaged in lean initiatives for at least 11 years, says Dennis Spiess, director of operations. The tour covered several areas of the company where Pentair has improved its business
The SunOpta group also visited Central Container. The companies got connected when SunOpta contacted the Association for Manufacturing Excellence, an organization with a mission of shared excellence. Polin, who has served as a national board member, a regional director for 20
years and immediate past regional president, was happy to spend several hours showing SunOpta employees his company's continuous improvement work.
Giving lean tours is something Polin does regularly. "It's very powerful and motivating to actually see a practice in action," he says. "You can talk to individuals who are working on lean processes and see the motivation they bring rather than just reading about it or
hearing about it at a seminar. You're getting information from other practitioners, not just consultants."
Well known in lean circles, Central Container has more than 125 employees who design and manufacture packaging for a diverse array of businesses that operate in the medical, industrial, food and recreation industries.
Though the company had done some continuous improvement work previously, Central Container really got committed to lean four years ago when it hired Polin, whose work in continuous improvement stretches back nearly three decades.
Since then, Central Container has become seasoned in the art of continuous improvement--both traditional lean and also with a focus on green initiatives. It all started when the company hired a third party to conduct a customer survey asking how Central Container could improve
its performance. The No. 1 response was that Central Container should reduce its cycle time, especially on the front end.
Polin and Central Container took that request head-on, ultimately finding ways to reduce cycle time by 80 percent, from more than a week to less than a day to process an order. Key to the company's dramatic time savings was adopting a continuous flow manufacturing system
instead of batch manufacturing. Batching is highly inefficient, and it gobbles space as materials pile up while waiting for their next step, Polin says.
The shift in manufacturing style was a huge time and space saver, as was another undertaking: to clean house. Central Container got rid of excess materials and machinery--1,000 items in total, including storage racks and pallets. Then it changed the layout of its building and
redesigned the work flow, moving assemblers closer together so they could more easily do single-piece manufacturing.
Operations became more compact, eliminating nearly 400 miles of driving by internal fork truck drivers. Overall, these changes freed up 21,000 square feet of space in its facility, Polin says, which allowed Central Container to easily absorb the operations of an acquired
company without having to expand to another building.
Additional time and financial savings came from switching to a paperless system for purchase orders. The software eliminates the need for paper documents and multiple copies for the 22,000 orders Central Container took last year. Polin is especially pleased about eliminating
the time, space and energy previously spent on copying, sorting, filing and storing the paper.
Finally, Central Container focused on reducing its energy consumption. The company improved the energy efficiency of its motors by installing capacitors, which brought their capacity from 80 to 99 percent. It also swapped out fluorescent light bulbs for LED tube lights; these
bulbs are 30 to 40 percent more energy efficient and contain no mercury. With these changes, Central Container now saves about 15 percent on its energy bill--more than $30,000 a year.
In total, Central Container's continuous improvement initiatives have saved the company nearly $340,000 by running its operations more efficiently, improving quality and making changes to be greener. That includes eliminating waste in seven areas: energy, water, materials,
garbage, transportation, emissions and biodiversity.
"By reducing waste in these areas, we were able to keep from building a new building on land that was still in a natural state and help the environment," Polin says. "The thing about lean is that when we moved in here in 1993, our revenue was half of what it is today, and
we're doing all of that work in the same space."
When SunOpta's employees came through the doors of Pentair and Central Container, they saw the nuts and bolts of how these businesses became leaner and more efficient. And when they returned to their own workplaces they could apply some of those concepts to SunOpta's
Continuous improvement is all about helping other manufacturers stay competitive in global markets, expanding manufacturing operations and jobs in Minnesota and beyond and aiding fellow manufacturers. Showing off their results to others is icing on a lean cake.