Cargill Corn Milling -- Team Wahpeton: IW Best Plants Profile 2007

Dec. 14, 2007
Performance by Design. Cargill's Team Wahpeton earns accolades for its combination of proficiency, productivity and team-based excellence.

Cargill Corn Milling -- Team Wahpeton, Wahpeton, N.D.

Employees: 119, non-union (165 including contractors)

Total Square Footage: 240,825

Primary Product/market: high fructose corn syrup, corn germ, corn gluten meal and corn gluten feed

Start-up: 1996

Achievements: on-time delivery rate of 99.9%; selected as a Cargill Best Plant in 2003 and 2007 (internal company award); finished product first-pass yield of 98.2%

U.S. farmers are absurdly proficient at growing corn. That reality sits just fine with Cargill Corn Milling -- Team Wahpeton, which is wholly proficient at processing that corn into a variety of products it delivers to customers in 27 states and five Canadian provinces. In fiscal year 2007 it delivered more than 15,000 shipments from its site in southeast North Dakota, which operates around the clock and 365 days per year.

IW's 2007 Best Plants

See the other winners of IW's 2007 Best Plants award and find out how they made the top ten.

The facility's combination of proficiency, productivity and team-based excellence has sown enviable performance metrics: In the past three years Team Wahpeton's productivity has grown by more than 39%, first-pass yields have increased, and OSHA-recordable injury and illness rates have dropped to zero.

A strong focus on collaboration drives Team Wahpeton, explains Richard Geurts, assistant vice president and general manager. In fact, collaboration was built into the highly automated facility, which Cargill leases (recently renewing a long-term lease) from ProGold LLC, a partnership that includes the Golden Growers Cooperative, whose members supply the facility with the majority of the corn it processes. The "built-in" collaboration is evident in the centralized control room and operations center, which contains as its centerpiece a horseshoe-shaped ring of 14 monitors that spell out in real time what is happening throughout the mill and refinery operations. Based on the information on those monitors, operations technicians take the actions and make the adjustments necessary to keep production running smoothly.

The centralized operations allow the operations technicians to easily and immediately communicate with one another about the goings-on in upstream and downstream processes, particularly important for a continuous flow operation that uses heat, mechanical and chemical processes to make its products, and for which operating within strict parameters is paramount. The central control room also enhances learning. (Exit the control room into the actual milling and refining areas, and one is confronted by an entirely different dynamic -- seemingly endless piping, huge pieces of equipment, overlaid with an aroma of processing corn.)

Refinery operations technician Janet Engelhart collects an in-process syrup sample.

Operations technicians are required to learn and maintain proficiency in three job skill blocks, ultimately demonstrating competency without direct supervision. The ready access of fellow operations techs in the control room only aids that learning process. It also is here that the daily production meetings occur.

But collaboration extends far beyond what is built into plant design. It is built into the culture as well, as evidenced by the plant's very name. Teams and teamwork drive Team Wahpeton. For instance, there's the safety team, which leads the plant's safety efforts; the innovation team, which promotes and supports the employees' improvement suggestion program; the energy team, which investigates opportunities for energy reduction; and the plant leadership team (PLT). Of the PLT, Geurts says, "If I have an idea, they make it better. If they have an idea that I can help with by removing some of the barriers, that's what I'll do."

All employees are involved in many activities for good reason, says Alan Viaene, wet mill manager. All are responsible for the success of the facility. "One team alone doesn't do it. Twenty-seven teams alone don't do it. It takes all teams working together," he says.

From Ideas to Innovations

Employee ideas drive continuous-improvement culture. Web-based tool aids the process.

A great idea is a terrible thing to waste. And if that great idea goes unspoken, then waste is pretty much the guaranteed end result. Cargill Corn Milling-Team Wahpeton refuses to let those great ideas go unspoken, not by demanding that its employees generate a given number of suggestions per quarter, but by giving workers every opportunity to contribute to the continuous-improvement culture that drives excellence across the facility.

First there's the Innovation team, whose mission states: "To foster innovation we will enthuse, educate and support innovation activities." The team is led by co-champions, who serve two-year terms.

Then there's the process the organization uses to collect, review and move forward improvement ideas. Employees are encouraged to submit ideas via a Web-based system from Imaginatik that Cargill calls "Ideas to Innovations," or i2i. Employees are encouraged to submit ideas about anything, while sometimes management issues challenges to identify focus areas for improvement ideas.

Innovation team members review the ideas every two weeks. Ideas considered feasible move on in the process and are assigned a mentor until implementation. Depending on an idea's complexity, that mentor may be the person who generated the idea or it may be someone else.

The Web-based system also promotes the Team Wahpeton philosophy of collaboration. The tool allows others (beyond the person who originally submitted the idea) to view the submissions and add comments, building on the idea. "Think of it as a blog in today's world," says Team Wahpeton.

While participation is not required of employees, the plant had set -- and surpassed -- a goal of 75% participation in the innovation process this fiscal year.

At the plant level, ideas and the mentors of those ideas are recognized during morning meetings, in the Corn Chronicles newsletter and elsewhere. The business unit level also recognizes innovation with an annual program called the Corn Milling Innovation Awards. Team Wahpeton had two winners (who receive plaques) last year: Operations technician Jay Olson won for an idea that involved teaming with a sister plant and logistics to increase trailer sizes and thus reduce freight charges, and Mike Richter won for his leadership and the use of the self-mentoring process to implement ideas and promote innovation.

Safety is No Accident

For Cargill Corn Milling's Team Wahpeton, safety receives top priority and continued attention via several approaches.

One of the basic principles by which Team Wahpeton operates goes something like this: "Everyone leaves the same way they came in, maybe a little more tired, but safe." Those words were more than backed up by safety performance metrics in this Cargill facility's 2007 IW Best Plants application. Indeed, the plant answered "zero" when asked to provide both the incident rates for total OSHA-recordable injuries and illness cases, as well as OSHA-recordable injury and illness cases with days away from work, job transfers or restrictions.

Safety achievements such as these don't happen by accident. At Team Wahpeton, as at many other IW Best Plants winners, safety is everyone's responsibility. A safety team provides leadership and direction for that effort, and a behavioral-based safety program called TOPS (Teams Observing Plant Safety) gets everyone involved.

TOPS is a proactive approach to safety, versus a reactive approach, Cargill notes. Its goal: to eliminate unsafe behaviors and unsafe conditions, not punish such behaviors. For that reason, Team Wahpeton takes a "no name, no blame" approach to its behaviorial-based program.

Fully 100% of Team Wahpeton's employees are trained safety observers, with training provided during new hire orientation. Nobody is forced to perform observations, and nobody is forced to be observed. Indeed, persons performing tasks must give an observer permission to watch them work. That said, 85% of employees conducted at least one observation in the past year. "Nobody wants their co-workers to go home hurt," notes Cargill.

It is not required that observations be performed by employees familiar with the task being performed. "It's not 'knowing the task,' it's 'knowing safe behaviors,'" one employee noted. Indeed, getting fresh eyes looking at an area of the plant may provide revelations. In fact, that is a component of the facility's safety audits, which are physical audits conducted by teams of two or three people and involve the entire plant. Audit teams then review their audits with the managers of the areas under review.

As effective as Team Wahpeton has determined TOPS to be, it is part of a larger safety program. For example, the facility has an on-site hazardous materials team that conducts quarterly drills. There is also a "confined space" rescue team, as well as more than 50 certified first responders at the plant. In addition, an annual plantwide evacuation drill is held.

About the Author

Jill Jusko

Bio: Jill Jusko is executive editor for IndustryWeek. She has been writing about manufacturing operations leadership for more than 20 years. Her coverage spotlights companies that are in pursuit of world-class results in quality, productivity, cost and other benchmarks by implementing the latest continuous improvement and lean/Six-Sigma strategies. Jill also coordinates IndustryWeek’s Best Plants Awards Program, which annually salutes the leading manufacturing facilities in North America.

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