Some food processors might hear the word design and envision a blueprint for constructing a plant where their products are created. But what if that blueprint extended to organizational design that helps guide a processor to success within that plant?
Darin Zehr, general manager at Commercial Food Sanitation, explained at Process Expo 2023 how the principles of design can apply to employees, maintenance, sanitation, safety, and overall efficiencies when creating a company culture and setting goals, and how all those elements working in unison can put processors on a path to greatness.
“I don’t think anybody’s ever walked out of a manufacturing facility and said, ‘Wow, that is a great operation. Look how chaotic and messy that place was,’” says Zehr. “Once you design something, you’re stuck with it, so better design equals better business results—that’s why we spend the time on design.”
Here, Zehr details how some of the overlooked aspects in a food processing operation can be incorporated into an organizational design plan that can pay dividends for years after they’re implemented.
Why is design needed?
Zehr says design strategies are necessary when there’s a desire to change as an organization, and that processors should think beyond incremental improvements and strive for long-term greatness when making those decisions.
“Think first about the overall impact of design decisions and then how best to maximize the outcome of those design opportunities,” Zehr explained, using the example of Ferrari and Rivian vehicles as being “designed and built for greatness from the wheels up. They weren’t designed to be common cars, and they’ve set a pace [to follow] that sometimes we miss in the food industry.”
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Zehr adds that design opportunities happen when “we’re either building something, rebuilding something, or adding a piece to our operation. We could also be trying to reduce something, like the risk of food safety and reducing downtime, or we’re trying to increase something, like our capacity and capabilities. Ultimately, when we’re in a design moment, we want to maximize the opportunity we have. We have to design upfront with the mentality that we want something great to come out of this, just like those vehicles I mentioned.”
In food processing, according to Zehr, the daily focus on meeting production goals and solving short-term problems can cause an operation to miss how interconnected a plant really is, and that any opportunity to significantly improve depends on removing silos among departments—from the shop floor to executive offices—to strengthen the overall operation. Zehr says without cross-department collaboration when design opportunities arise, a company can never achieve sustained greatness.
“If you look at a manufacturing plant, there’s many components where design strategy can be applied, including equipment, people safety, food safety, maintenance, and production,” notes Zehr. “The facility itself is like a living, breathing machine that’s going all the time, so when you’re designing, it’s like putting puzzle pieces together. Too often, one piece is forgotten until the end, or maybe not remembered at all, like in maintenance or sanitation for example.
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“Then that missing puzzle piece always has to be managed for the life of the facility,” Zehr continues, “and it has to be managed with resources, people, and money. It makes for an inefficient situation. So rather than people working in silos and looking out just for their own section and forgetting about that missing puzzle piece, they should be working together and understand that for production to be successful, maintenance needs to be successful too. And for maintenance and production to be successful, sanitation needs to be successful, and so on.”
Zehr told the story of a former co-worker named Richie, who had never advanced beyond the ninth grade in school, and came from an underprivileged background. He was, however, a superstar operator at the plant, and could tear down, clean, and maintain the equipment effortlessly.
“Because of that skillset, Richie worked with us on a plant expansion, where we were bringing in equipment that was very similar to the equipment that he ran,” explains Zehr. “Richie came up with an idea when we were looking through expansion drawings to modify some of the equipment that would make it easier for an operator to access that equipment. The OEM offered us an option to buy equipment customized with Richie’s modifications, and that [modification] paid for itself within four weeks. Richie’s idea saved about 20 minutes every turn, every changeover, and every cleanup. Richie really was thinking different—he was designing for us as a company.”
Richie’s input into a plant expansion project is an example of tapping into expertise from all levels of an organization to improve the operation and the bottom line.
“Engage with your experts. If you have a food plant, you want people that think broadly, and not just focus on what they do best,” Zehr says, adding that cross-departmental engagement about hygienic design, sanitation, maintenance, and people safety, can help deepen ideas for operational improvement that can have a lasting effect for years.
“Think about Richie. Richie was an operator that engaged with our leadership to work on strategies that had a big impact [on our operation]. That’s win-win for us,” Zehr says. “You want people that are engaged upfront, and they’re excited and feel like they’re making an impact and not fighting every day just to get by. That to me is the difference between designing just to solve an issue or designing to be great.”