CALGARY — The news concerning E. coli contamination at the XL Foods plant near Brooks, Alberta has not been good. People have lost their jobs, consumers have become ill, the product recall has expanded across North America, the company is experiencing economic loss, and the reputation of the beef industry and the Canadian food inspection system, have been compromised.
Information is coming in bits and pieces but two items sounded peculiar. First, reports concerning the speed of the line, and second, delays in assembling testing information for inspectors. Why are these peculiar? Let me take you back to 1896.
That’s the year Henry Ford completed his first version of the automobile, the "quadricycle." Ford’s creation was hand crafted, taking several months to assemble. (Embarrassingly, Ford built his first quadricycle in a shed with a door too small to accommodate the vehicle forcing him to demolish part of the wall. It turns out even geniuses can paint themselves in a corner.) Hand crafting each car was simply too slow to be economic. Ford needed a method to make his new vehicles quickly, one after the other, lowering the production costs and making the price attractive to the American market. But how?
Ford found the answer in the slaughterhouses of Chicago, where he saw carcasses hung from hooks and attached to a moving chain mounted high in the ceiling. The product moved past workers standing along the line who completed various "disassembly" tasks.
This was Ford’s inspiration. He used conveyor belts to move automobiles past workers at various stations who, rather than disassembling, added parts, building the automobile as it moved along the belt. The assembly line was born. Modern manufacturing, and arguably American economic supremacy for the next century, was the result.
American manufacturing muscle proved itself in the Second World War and it was after this that waves of Japanese scientists, engineers and managers went to Henry Ford’s factories to learn the secrets of American success. Turns out, the Japanese did more than copy, they innovated. By the 1980’s, Japanese manufactured products, from radios to automobiles, were flooding American shores.
What had long been dismissed as junk was now superior in quality to American-made products. It wasn’t long before captains of American industry were flying to Japan, visiting Toyota factories just as their Japanese counterparts had done with Ford factories decades before.
Two things surprised American visitors. The first were cords. Long cords hanging from the ceiling with handles attached. When workers felt that product quality was being compromised, they pulled the cord, slowing or stopping the production line, giving people time to get it right. American managers were aghast. Taught that above all else, never slow the line, American managers preferred to correct product issues after the product was finished. The Japanese had learned that this was a far more costly approach.
The second surprise was measures. Charts and graphs populated the walls and stations of factories. American command and control management believed that only managers did the thinking, and so, only management would have the need for this kind of information.
The American approach of capturing, summarizing and reporting on things monthly, to people not in a position to take any meaningful action, was seen as waste to the Japanese. They believed the whole point of information was taking action — correcting errors and maintaining quality. Measures were typically taken by the workers on the line, who also plotted and interpreted the results enabling immediate action to remedy problems (including pulling those cords).
As surprising as it was at the time, this is the way manufacturing is done today. From China to Europe and back to America, various monikers like Toyota Production System, Lean Production, Factory Physics and Advanced Manufacturing, all emphasize putting production-line speed, and information, into the hands of the front-lines, maintaining quality while reducing costs.
So it’s peculiar hearing concerns about the speed of the XL Foods production line and how this contributed to blocked waste disposals and insufficient cleaning time. Why wasn’t anyone pulling the cords to slow or stop the line?’ And why the delay in providing the appropriate testing and inspection documentation? Isn’t this information made immediately available to the factory floor or quality assurance?
The meat processing industry served as the inspiration for modern manufacturing techniques that made the automobile possible. It may be time for the new manufacturing to return the favour.
Robert Gerst is a partner in charge of operational excellence and research & statistical methods at Converge Consulting Group Inc. He is author of The Performance Improvement Toolkit: The Guide to Knowledge-Based Improvement.