Back in 2012, workers at the Snyder’s-Lance Salty Snacks plant in Charlotte, N.C., were better at riffing on their ineptitude than they were at making salty snacks. Among their nicknames for the plant: “The Island of Misfit Toys,” “The Australian penal colony,” and “Siberia.”
They called their sister plant in Charlotte, which made the sandwich crackers, by another name: "the center of the universe,” because it got all the attention. “The salty side of the business was just something to have when they would go to convenient stores to fill out the brand portfolio,” recalls Plant Manager Arbie Thomas.
Thomas had been reassigned to Charlotte after the company shuttered another snack plant in Knoxville, Tenn. He called 2012 “the worst year I had ever had in my career.
"I think my team had the same sentiment,” he said. “We knew something needed to be different.”
A ray of hope appeared when corporate announced it was replacing obsolete equipment at the plant with a new kettle and packaging system. The old equipment, which produced Cape Cod Potato Chips, was very difficult to run--making it impossible for the team to maintain consistency of product. “It was really the first big capital that had been put into this facility in a while,” says Thomas.
The change could have ended there, but Thomas and Operations Manager Andy Blackburn saw the investment as the catalyst to turn the culture around. And turn around it did. Since 2012, the Salty Snacks plant has cut quality complaints by 70%--the lowest such number across the company. In 2014, the plant actually received more compliments than complaints—a phenomenon almost unheard-of in the snack world, says Greg Flickinger, vice president of manufacturing and corporate engineering at Snyder's-Lance.
The accolades keep rolling in. From January to May of this year, the plant received three times as many complaints. It has cut cost-per-pound by 15% and reduced downtime by 47% and waste by 32%.
From Bug to Butterfly
With the new equipment on the way, Thomas and Blackburn rallied for training at the Charlotte-based Center for Intentional Leadership for all the plant salaried leaders and hourly leads. There, the team learned the importance of understanding what goes on below the surface, what drives employees’ behaviors and results, to get everyone engaged and “working toward a common purpose,” says Thomas. The conversation changed, allowing them "to become more open and honest and start thinking about what we were doing as leaders.”
They discussed the prevailing loser culture at the plant, and ways the could change it to a culture of winners. They laid out a plan called Operation Metamorphosis .
“I went into a quarterly meeting with a slide that showed the worm, the cocoon and the butterfly, presented it to the group and said, ‘We’re going to be different. This is where we are now, and we’re going to totally transform ourselves,’” says Thomas.
To build engagement, they formed teams--the environmental and sustainability team, the safety team, the quality circle team—and encouraged employees to join according to their “passion.” The teams were given authority to recommend changes, and plant leaders could spend money to make those changes. They also got sharp-looking shirts—green for the environmental team, orange for safety. (Everybody wanted that shirt,” remembers Thomas.)
“One thing we recognized is that we have a lot of great people in our plant, but in the way we were doing things, we only knew one side of that person,” says Blackburn. “If they were a bag operator for us, that’s how we utilized them, but they may also have a passion for safety. They may have a passion to improve quality.”
They gave employees leadership roles within teams. “We gave them goals—instead of ‘hey, make the same number of cases each hour, they’re also working on reducing our landfill footprint.”
The green team took a field trip to the company’s landfill and to the recycling plant “to see a different side of things.” Back at the plant, the realized a hurdle to recycling was that all waste went into the same color trash bags and people got confused about where to put recyclables. So they changed the recycling bags to blue and the landfill bags to clear to better distinguish them.
The safety team members did a safety audit of the production line and made recommendations. “I’d put those on my sheet and get those turned in and communicate with my leadership to get things fixed,” says Blackburn. “In the past, they talked to their team leader—now they can talk to their [peer] group” and make it happen. The results were faster fixes and better communications between shifts.
During daily pre-shift meetings, teams took turns presenting what they were working on or bringing awareness to issues at the plant.
“They gave people a voice and also an opportunity to take authority for making things happen,” says Flickinger. “Once you started to give people that authority, you opened the door” for change.
Building the Best Chip Plant
Once the kettle line was up and running and the teams were in place, “people started to feel like we’re winning and that there’s a new direction,” says Thomas. “As leaders, we were like, ‘What’s next?’ We really felt we had the wind to our backs and we could do anything we wanted to do. So where do we truly want to go? And so we looked at our house, our future. In our lens, we wanted to be the best chip plant in the snack industry.”
They announced their mission in the keynote address at the quarterly meeting and put up a sign in the front entrance of the plant: Charlotte Chip Plant: Best of the Best, “and you can’t miss it when you walk in,” says Blackburn. “Whether you’ve worked here 30 years or your first day, you’re seeing the expectation and know where you’re going.”
They also built in recognition, large and small, including a quarterly recognition where the top team gets a trophy and a daily "Cheers for Peers" segment at the pre-shift meeting where employees can recognize people on their own teams--or adjacent teams or sister shifts—for doing something exceptional. The honoree gets applause and a mention in the company newsletter.
The peer recognition helped align the company’s values with the “pirate code” or “shadow values” of the plant, says Flickinger. “They got real time verbal recognition on the spot with their whole team, so they create an avenue where the team itself was creating the alignment of the values because the examples were coming out. And when the recognition came, then all of a sudden people felt as if, ‘Wow, I’m doing that too, I want to get recognized.'"
The “Misfit Toys” references began to fade. “You stopped hearing about ‘oh, we’re on our island,” says Thomas “ … and we started talking about best of the best, talking about the values, the future. The whole language changed. It’s not a loser culture anymore. It’s a winning culture.”
Everyone's a Leader
They also developed leadership work standards with input from workers on the shop floor. Daily reviews emphasized short conversations with those employees.
“What I think made our leader work standards so effective was it wasn’t going out and doing a checklist or looking at a dial or setting,” says Thomas. “It was going out and having a conversation with the operator at that operation and going, ‘OK, basically give me a one or two minute report about what’s going on in your work area. What can I help you with as far as your problem-solving?’”
Every worker was given some degree of decision-making power--a far cry from when Thomas started at Charlotte. Back then, “I felt like I had a plant full of human alarms. They were out there just kind of minding things. If something went wrong, they would wave their hand and a team leader or a subject matter expert would come by and solve the problem.
"Part of the cultural change was ‘Hey, you own it, you’re the bagger operator today for these two machines. Let’s get in and troubleshoot. Don’t wait on somebody.’”
The changes helped them improve the flow of product to packing stations, eliminating clutter and adjusting the plant layout.
There was a learning curve, of course. “Some leaders were more comfortable with sitting in an office, and some love going on the floor—and it’s hard to get them off the floor, but maybe they weren’t looking at the things we should have been looking at,” says Blackburn. "So we had to retrain everybody, and change their muscle memory of how they’re a leader in this plant.”
It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it, says Thomas. “It’s been a lot of hard work, a lot of discussions and a lot of internal conversations. We’ve had times where we’ve had to back step and take a different approach. Even today we’ve got our fair share of challenges. But I will tell you it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.
“2012 was the most miserable year of my career, but since then has been the most rewarding.”