CASE STUDY – This Chilean agrobusiness company achieved great results in a very short time by applying lean to standardize its processes and improve its productivity. They are now berry fond of the methodology.
Words: Rodrigo Herrera with Marcelo Pinto
At Vilkun, we have been making an innovative product for the past 15 years. Our mission is to select the best Chilean berries and turn them into dehydrated, freeze-dried, and frozen fruits that can be used in mixes. There aren’t a lot of references out there for this kind of product, both in terms of recipe and manufacturing process: in fact, when I joined the company, I struggled to understand its application.
From an equipment standpoint, our 140-people plant in southern Chile is quite advanced, but that didn’t prevent us from experiencing a number of issues in our process prior to the arrival of Lean Thinking in our organization in 2020. Our main problems were high operational costs and a lack of standardization between different shifts, which affected our competitiveness.
The Value Stream Map we drew – the first real step in our lean journey – revealed that shifts didn’t work in the same way: there were “instructivos” in place (standard operating procedures, so to speak) but people didn’t really follow them. The VSM also showed us that we had a lot of work-in-progress in the Drying area and that many of the boxes that reached the Packaging area were rejected due to quality issues. We had to do something, and lean appeared as a great opportunity to bring some orders to our work.
So, we organized several experiments and pilot projects. At first, we added every issue we encountered to the “to-tackle” list, but before long we realized we couldn’t deal with it all at once. We decided to prioritize those problem that, if solved, would give us the most value. At that point, we created working teams, each of whom would identify and apply a countermeasure to the problem they were focusing on. That’s how we really started to bring change about.
The working teams began to work on three key areas in which we were experiencing business-critical issues. In particular, they focused on:
- The standardization of the recipe to ensure the best possible yield of raw materials and more stability in the product (which has to maintain its nutritional and texture characteristics until it reaches the customer’s dining table. We ran several experiments with different parameters in place and changed the process until we got a recipe we were happy with. (We also managed to reduce our raw material consumption by 15%.)
- The creation of a supermarket to ensure the availability of syrup and avoid delaying the process. We analyzed consumption, defined the critical stock we need to always have available and built a pull-based replenishment system around that.
- In the Packaging area, we tried to tackle the rework issues that we found, increasing the number of “ready to export on the first try” boxes by approximately 40%. As we tried to do that, we learned that the rework needed to correct defective boxes was a clear result of the variation between shifts. We used a Pareto to analyze the main reasons for defective boxes and try to make the product fit for dispatch before we packaged it, thus avoiding rework. Helping people to understand the waste that hid within those rejected boxes was a game-changer in Vilkun’s lean journey.
AN OBSTACLE ALONG THE WAY
We were happy with our recipe. It had been the result of several experiments and PDCA cycles, and of a lot of hard work. We had finally managed to identify the recipe and standardize it across our shifts. We had improved the yield and were fairly confident with what we had achieved, despite the difficulties inherent to working with a natural product as innovative as this – which is notoriously difficult to handle in a manufacturing environment.
When we dried the product, we were typically within the parameters, but when it was inspected in our warehouse, we were told it was not fluid enough for packaging. We had to reduce the amount of water in it. This was a big blow for the team. We thought we had done so well! Furthermore, with the new restriction, we simply couldn’t seem to get the product out. Our plant works 24/7, and every time we fiddle around with the recipe, we had to stop the production process. Orders started to pile up and the Sales department started to put pressure on us.
It became clear we couldn’t procrastinate anymore. We had to go back to square one, no matter how frustrating. Marcelo Pinto from Lean Institute Chile was on site that day, coaching one of our teams. He helped us to organize our thoughts and over the coming days we managed to redesign the drying process. Eventually, the hard work paid off and we succeeded in improving efficiency in Drying. It was all about persistency! We also received great support and sharing the burden of figuring out the different steps of the process proved to be the right approach. That’s when we learned an important lesson: we can solve any problem if we work together and approach it scientifically.
Another thing that really strikes me about our journey to date is that we were able to achieve a lot within a short span of time, and with no investment. Simple experiments can have a huge impact, and for our people there is reassurance in knowing that we can try something new and, if things don’t work, just go back on our steps without wasting any money.
LEAN: A REVELATION IN THE VILKUN LEAN TRANSFORMATION
With Lean Thinking, we discovered a new way of working, one in which we collaborate on solving problems, by giving everyone a clear responsibility and following up on what we discuss.
Daily Management was absolutely key for us, to ensure we can sustain the results we achieved and continue to use the tools effectively. We have now adopted it as our way of working, with the Packaging department having been particularly eager to interiorize it.
People warmed up to lean quickly, even though there were some misunderstandings at first and shifts started to compete with one another. They thought we wanted them to simply produce more, so we had to explain to them that the idea was to carry out the proper corrective action early enough that we could correct problems before they became too big to handle. Today, everyone gets it. The atmosphere at work has greatly improved, too.
To make sure our people got onboard, we taught lean principles and practices to 15 key players in the business – including supervisors and area managers – so that they could then share their learnings with the rest of the team. But the change we experienced would not have been possible without a fundamental change in leadership culture: today, Vilkun’s leadership team challenges front-line people more than ever before, but also provides them with the tools they need to do their job the best they can. We understand that people come to work not only to operate a machine or complete a task, but to participate in process improvement.
Lean has taught us the importance of encouraging people to ask questions, share their opinion, and always highlight problems. After all, they are best placed to suggest ways to improve the process, because they know it best. Once our team saw it was okay to change things and that leaders were there to support them and answer their questions, they embraced the new way of working and never looked back.
For more content on lean in the food industry, click here.
Rodrigo Herrera is Deputy Manager of Production, Maintenance and Process Engineering at Vilkun.
Marcelo Pinto is Project Manager at Lean Institute Chile.