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A recipe for continuous improvement success

20 March 2017

Suzanne Gill reports on the important role that continuous improvement has to play in ensuring food processes remain profitable in an ever more competitive environment. 

Working to constantly improve the efficiency of a process is one of the most important ways that businesses can successfully reduce their operating overheads – a particular need for many food manufacturers. On the whole, the food processing industry is in a mass production, low-profit margin sector. Keeping costs down is vital to ensure continued profitability and help reduce overheads where possible. Continuous improvement can, for example, offer a way to recoup the costs of fluctuating ingredient prices. 

Continuous improvement (CI) is a method that has long been employed to identify opportunities for streamlining work and reducing waste. The practice is often formalised through the use methodologies such as Lean and Six-sigma. Six-sigma is a statistically-based quality improvement methodology. It uses an approach that ‘defines, measures analyses, improves and controls’ to solve an underlying process problem or to reduce process variation, product waste or cost, by improving the efficiency and effectiveness of a process. Lean is a systematic method for the elimination of waste within a manufacturing system which puts a focus on what adds value to a process by reducing everything else.  Often different strategies are combined to provide a more proprietary CI solution.

One of the best ways to make improvements on a food production line is to bring together different teams from across the plant, including general operations, quality assurance, engineering, packaging, production and maintenance. All have the capability to focus on the core concepts of CI and generally, the output value of the combined teams on a CI project will be greater than the sum of their individual efforts. 

Greencore Group, an international manufacturer of convenience foods, offering a wide variety of chilled, frozen and ambient foods for retailers and foodservice customers, is doing just this. 

Greencore believes that its people are central to everything it does, including helping to ensure that it is able to continuously improve its business and its processes. The company manages this through what it refers to as ‘The Greencore Way’. This is a model that encapsulates the values and principles that enables Greencore to succeed, and is based on four main principles – putting its people at the core, producing great food, driving business effectiveness and delivering cost efficiencies. The company’s continuous improvement managers are tasked with identifying and leading potential manufacturing improvements and efficiencies. Jon Bremner has this responsibility at the company’s Warrington site, where both Lean and Six-sigma principles are employed. He works closely with the senior leadership team at the site to build appropriate teams to deliver agreed programmes of work and liaises with other Greencore sites to share knowledge and best practices. 

“Every Greencore facility in the UK is currently working through the Six-sigma belt training structure,” said Bremner. “We are aiming to train 12 yellow belts in Six-sigma every year. A typical yellow belt could provide the company with some significant annual savings..” 

Incentivising staff
Greencore has a policy of incentivising its staff to come up with CI ideas, with a reward scheme in place for successful ideas. Bremner explains further: “Every new Greencore recruit undergoes a continuous improvement induction session and this covers areas such as waste reduction, product quality and standards.” This strategy helps empower all Greencore staff to come forward with their ideas and it is a strategy that has certainly paid off.

One big win for the Warrington plant, for example, came from a production line supervisor who identified a solution to reduce product waste. Meat sauce is cooked up in one-tonne batches and is then discharged into tubular capkold bags and stored for use when required in a variety of the company’s ready meals. 

Traditionally, the tops of the bags of sauce were simply cut off and the contents tipped into a hopper. Any residue left in the bag would have to be manually squeezed out which left a lot of wasted sauce in the bags. The production line supervisor suggested that a simple device be added to the side of the hopper to help operators more quickly and cleanly empty the bags. These devices have since been installed on every depositer in the factory and is being employed in other Greencore facilities too. “This simple device has provided significant cost savings for the Warrington site alone,” said Neil Greenfield, engineering controller at Greencore Warrington. “The solution is now also being used across other Greencore sites, delivering savings for the wider company too.” 

However, it is important to note that CI is not all about cost savings – outcomes could just as easily result in improved levels of staff happiness, making jobs safer and easier, for example. “We are keen to encourage such creative ideas, continued Bremner. “Continuous improvement could involve using a different product, a different supplier, or a different machine. Or, it could involve a different cleaning regime. It is important to empower staff to come forward with their thoughts about how things could be done better. We now have a growing culture within Greencore around continuous improvement and more staff are coming up with ideas, with zone managers, engineers and technicians regularly feeding ideas up to us. Our strategies are paying off and we find that staff are keen to take ownership of continuous improvement projects.” 

Setting goals
So, how does Greencore set its CI goals? “The senior leadership team sets strategic business targets in line with The Greencore Way principles” explained Greenfield. “We could be looking to improve performance, to ensure employee safeguarding, or to meet changing compliance requirements. 

Continuous improvement managers should also be involved at an early point in the installation of new equipment and lines too, advises Greenfield. “Whenever we consider new equipment for the plant we will involve health & safety, continuous improvement, and engineering operations, who all have different areas of interest which need to be properly considered before any new machinery is installed on site.”

At Greencore’s site in Warrington, for example, the decision was made recently to install a new pasta cooker. The site already has one pasta cooker, but as demand increased there was a requirement to cook more pasta in aging pot boilers which required 10 people to run and which also posed a potential health & safety issue. “The new pasta cooker that has been specified has ticked all the CI boxes,” said Greenfield. “It will do the work of the four pot boilers plus a lot more and only requires two people to operate it, in a more comfortable and safe environment.” 

As more automated solutions slowly make their way onto the food production plant floor, will this reduce the need for CI strategies? Bremner thinks not. Indeed, he believes that CI is a precursor to any automation. “Continuous improvement is all about removing variation from the process and automation relies on minimal variation, as there is less human interaction. I believe that continuous improvement can help reduce process variability which will then enable more sophisticated automation to be employed in the sector.” 

Greencore Warrington is already moving along this path. “We have employed automated solutions such as multihead weighers to help tighten our ingredient variation tolerances. This is allowing us to accurately measure the weight of chicken pieces going into ready meals at accuracies of up to two decimal places,” said Bremner. 

Bremner believes that automation could have an important role in making improvement gains for smaller food processors too. “Even simple tasks like automating the tray denesting process can be a significant step forward for a small business. Labour is one of the most expensive commodities so automating a simple process like this can provide big cost savings,” he said.

“At any one time we could be working on between eight and 12 improvement projects within the plant today and continuous improvement is at the heart of everything we do at Greencore,” concluded Greenfield.” 

As Greencore’s strategy demonstrates, CI can have a big impact in ensuring continuing success for food processors. However, it is important that any projects include all departments. Project success also replies on the input and engagement of all members of staff.  

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