Bilingual approach to Lean breaks down barriers to success

While Lean manufacturing concepts are taking hold in a variety of manufacturing industries, the food processing sector has been slower to adopt its principles and tools. Certainly, food processing companies with typically thin margins can quickly realize the benefits of Lean in improving profitability and productivity.

By William Mullane, TechHelp June 15, 2007

While Lean manufacturing concepts are taking hold in a variety of manufacturing industries, the food processing sector has been slower to adopt its principles and tools. Certainly, food processing companies with typically thin margins can quickly realize the benefits of Lean in improving profitability and productivity. Until now, however, the potential improvement opportunities may have been lost in translation.

Great American Appetizers, located near Boise, ID, has a diverse workforce that produces premium, custom-made appetizers for the food service trade. In two years, GAA introduced 40 new products and doubled its sales. In order to accommodate the rapid growth and meet customer demand, the company looked for outside assistance.

“We don’t want customers to pay for our inefficiencies, so we’re striving for continual progress,” said Steve Cordova, GAA’s vice president for operations. Familiar with Lean from previous work experience before joining GAA two years ago, Steve knew the potential that Lean could offer to the company in reducing waste at all levels. Yet Lean training and implementation could have been difficult in their plant given the communication and cultural barriers that existed with such a diverse team.

Photograph courtesey of Great American Appetizers/TechHelp

Idaho’s TechHelp was able to provide the opportunity GAA needed to tackle their communication and Lean challenges at one time through a U.S. Department of Labor program that helps subsidize Lean activities at Northwest food processors.

TechHelp is a partnership of Idaho’s three state universities and is an affiliate of the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership. It provides technical and professional assistance to Idaho’s manufacturers, processors and inventors to strengthen their global competitiveness through continuous product and process innovation.

Food processing specialist Jeff Kronenberg of TechHelp and the University of Idaho worked with GAA on some assessment projects to determine areas where the company might focus for improvement, and identified the company as a strong candidate for the grant-funded training support.

The training program helps food processing companies more quickly and effectively adopt Lean principles by better integrating their diverse workforce into the process. “The DOL grant provided the company with funding to jumpstart their Lean transformation,” said Kronenberg, “with training and tasks that focused specifically on bridging the gap with all the company’s employees so that they could become more active and involved in the overall process.”

Getting started

In the initial phase of the grant project, 75 of GAA’s managers and employees participated in three days of training. First, the company’s limited-English speaking employees participated in a two-day interactive workshop titled “Lean English Essentials,” teaching basic Lean concepts. The third day, “Bridging the Cultural Divide,” helped company personnel gain appreciation for the diversity in their company and improve their abilities to communicate across cultural barriers while working together to implement Lean strategies.

“We needed to bridge the gap and understand our differences,” said Cordova. “The workshop did just that: bringing management, support staff, floor supervisors, line leads and operators all together. It was a real eye-opener for everyone, and made everyone understand how the company operates and feel more connected. In the end, everyone accepted more ownership of the process and became more hands-on and able to participate in decisions that affected the whole plant.”

Another aspect of the grant helps the company develop Lean champions, including a bilingual champion. The Lean champions received training in a number of Lean fundamentals, including 5S, Set-Up Reduction and Cellular Flow. “GAA ended up identifying four Lean champions,” said Kronenberg. “Steve was one, along with the company’s technical services manager, plant superintendent and a plant maintenance manager. The company really embraced the project.”

With that initial preparation, “TechHelp then worked with GAA over a four-month period to introduce and implement Lean into its diverse workforce with a series of Lean programs, including Kaizen and Value Stream Mapping,” said Kronenberg. And today, more than a year later, “We have even more on the calendar, including Sanitation 5S, Rapid Changeover and TPM,” reported Cordova.

Finding value in Lean

It’s no wonder that the company has embraced their Lean transformation. The results they achieved clearly demonstrate the value that has been realized:

  • Sales have increased $4.2 million

  • GAA saved $340,000 in labor, materials, energy and overhead

  • The company avoided a $3.5 million plant expansion

  • Operations moved from 7-days to 5-days, which led to improved employee morale and empowerment

  • 5S Visual Workplace activities created a safer, more intuitive and more efficient workplace.

    • “The results are beyond our expectations,” said Ellen Meyer, GAA president. “Not only have we saved money and increased sales, but the enhanced connection with our employees and their heightened involvement with the company’s operations are invaluable and will provide benefits for years to come.”

      GAA’s reported results are similar to those achieved by other companies who have participated in the regional grant program in the last 2sed their productivity and competitiveness and have documented significant savings.”

      “OMEP plans to use the curriculum resources and successes we achieved through this project to encourage other companies to address their own language and cultural barriers while implementing Lean,” said Kautz.

      Lean manufacturing emphasizes eliminating waste in the business enterprise, as those familiar with its principles know. “Helping limited-English speakers participate in improvement programs in the plant enables companies to utilize — not waste — the knowledge and talents of those who are directly involved with work processes, but whose voices may not have been heard,” says Kautz.

      Author Information
      William Mullane is the Marketing and Public Relations Manager with Idaho TechHelp. He can be reached via e-mail at . TechHelp provides technical and professional assistance to Idaho manufacturers, processors and inventors. TechHelp’s Website is .