Sometimes it’s not what you’ve got or even what you do with it– it’s how you do it. At McCain’s Washdyke plant, tiny slip-ups in the manufacturing process can eat a big hole in the bottom line. The solution: lean manufacturing, a seemingly common-sense concept that still caused shockwaves when it burst out of Japan in the late 1980s.
Story by Rosa Studholme, photographs by Shirley Nolan
You don’t have to look far when visiting the McCain Foods processing plant in Washdyke to find out what makes it tick. Posters on walls around the site spell it out in black and white – the plant’s plans, its improvements, its vision. Information is readily available.
“We have a strategic plan for this plant,” plant manager Karl Thin tells me.
And that plan is made available for everyone – the good, bad and the ugly. Financial results are printed off and placed where they can be easily accessed by staff. “No information is hidden,” Thin says.
“I think that’s the biggest change I’ve seen. When I started [in 1994] I asked for information and I was told ‘we don’t need to know’,” he says. Now “all that stuff’s there on the board. It’s there on the wall for people to reference. We are one team.”
McCain is one of Timaru’s largest employers and it’s this focus on staff that’s seeing vast improvements take place throughout the operation. There are around 150 permanent staff employed at the Washdyke plant – that number boosted to 190 including casuals. The season runs nearly the full year from the last week of January to late December. Each year, the site turns nearly 120,000 tonnes of potatoes into French fries.
When you’re dealing with such large volumes, small improvements at every stage of the manufacturing process can make a big difference to the bottom line. To this end, in 2007, the company introduced its so-called McCain Competitive Edge (MCE) management approach. The aim: plant-wide improvements in safety, quality, cost levels, staff development and overall effectiveness.
MCE uses two processes – “lean” and “six sigma” – in its drive to reduce variation and improve quality. Speaking broadly, lean manufacturing is the philosophy of making continuous improvements to operations – the idea that things are never running at 100 per cent efficiency but can always be improved upon. Thin describes six sigma as one of the mathematical tools that can be used to monitor and track improvements.
The plant’s continuous improvement manager Bhavit Gyan says the results have been stunning: a 95 per cent reduction in workplace accidents, 28 per cent drop in water consumption and five per cent reduction in energy use.
Another impressive result is in what the company calls quality performance, which ensures only the best potatoes end up as French fries on kitchen tables. “Quality performance was 17 to 18 per cent, which is product that didn’t make the grade the first time,” Thin says. “[With] the work we’ve done, the closer number is five per cent. That’s a huge improvement from a commercial point of view.”
He also cites budget targets as an example of improvements that have been made through lean manufacturing. “In the 2008 fiscal year we missed budget by about 2.5 per cent. We came under budget last year at about 0.5 per cent.”
“Lean”, with its emphasis on statistics and exact, correct procedure, might be seen to treat the people in the plant as just another set of machines. McCain, in contrast, has included staff development as a central part of its approach.
As part of the MCE vision, the plant has joined forces with local tertiary institutions – the NZITO (New Zealand Industry Training Organisation) and Aoraki Polytechnic – to provide training for its staff. Through the scheme, employees are able to gain valuable formal qualifications while they learn on the job. In exchange, McCain is able to grow a perception of the company as an “employer of choice” and reap the benefits of more skilled staff.
“The human resources strategy has been a journey for us,” Thin says. “The focus has been more and more around our employees.”
The company sponsors staff members at each level of the tailor-made Aoraki qualification in frontline management – level two, level three and level four. “We put as many of our frontline managers as we can through it. It fits nicely for us,” Thin says.
Gyan says he has seen firsthand how the training provides motivation and a sense of pride for senior leaders. He now has team leaders throughout the plant that can implement the “lean” principles he first introduced four years ago.
“Before it relied on me to do ‘lean’,” he says, but the new, trained team leaders have freed him up to work on “higher level stuff”.
The scheme works both ways – Aoraki also sends its students to the plant for practical experience. Aoraki training solutions co-ordinator Trish Terpstra says the venture with McCain has worked well and is a good way for staff to get into study. “They come away more confident in their abilities,” she says. “It changes how they think about processes that they do at work and how they can help make changes within that to make it work more efficiently.”
As part of a global company, the Washdyke plant is able to learn from its international counterparts. “Postcards” are sent from McCain operations around the world so that stories that can be shared with the rest of the group. The Washdyke plant itself submits at least one a month. Schemes introduced there have been recognised around the global McCain network.
“We learn from their successes and also learn from their failures,” Thin says. “Actually we don’t call them failures, we refer to them as opportunities.”
It might sound like something any employer would say – but, on the shop floor in Washdyke, it’s clear to see the positive impact of thinking lean.