Employees drive continuous improvement – and award-winning results – at ConAgra’s Council Bluffs, Iowa, entrée plant.


If two heads are better than one, what happens when there more than 900 minds engaged?

Visitors to ConAgra Foods’ frozen plant in Council Bluffs, Iowa, quickly learn that success can indeed be a case of mind over matter . . . or perhaps better put, minds over manufacturing.

This large operation certainly requires it. ConAgra Foods’ Council Bluffs plant spans nearly 600,000 square feet under roof with more than 800 hourly and salaried employees producing as many as 189 retail and foodservice SKUs.

Moreover, Council Bluffs is one of ConAgra’s more complex operations. Responsible for some the latest Healthy Choice and Marie Callender’s dinner lines, Council Bluffs handles everything from bone-in chicken and sliced beef to such small ingredients as cranberries, diced apples, squash, tomatoes, asparagus and bacon.

Big plant, big opportunity
Calendar 2006 found ConAgra looking to improve operations performance and efficiency while it reduced  rising industry costs. With that, the company developed the “ConAgra Performance System” (CPS), a continuous improvement initiative based on Lean Manufacturing methodologies.

ConAgra selected Council Bluffs as a lead pilot plant for the CPS program. Located just 10 minutes away from ConAgra’s Omaha, Neb., headquarters, Council Bluffs would be close enough for operations officials to visit. Moreover, the big plant represented big opportunity.

Pardon the play on words but CPS proved to be the perfect food for thought for the Council Bluffs team. After just 24 months, this plant earned ConAgra’s 2008 “Frozen Foods Supply Chain Excellence” award for its continuous improvement work and results.

“CPS gave us a tremendous lift,” says Todd Clark, Council Bluffs plant manager. “Many companies and plants take on [continuous improvement] and are unable to unlock its full potential. We have been successful pushing it through our entire facility, are sustaining it, and now you’re seeing our metrics improve every year.”

Clark says Council Bluffs improved annual overall yield loss by a whopping 26 percent during fiscal year 2008 (June 2008 to June 2009). This translated to an estimated $10 million in raw material savings. He says CPS also drove a 9.1 percent improvement in schedule attainment and 5.7 percent improvement in schedule adherence.

By other measures, Clark adds that predictable, consistent production has enabled Council Bluffs to reduce both its finished goods inventory (a 12.2 percent improvement measured by days of supply) and its raw material goods inventory (a 5.4 percent improvement measured by days on hand ).

“ConAgra is focused on driving working capital out of the system,” he says. “Having stable production systems in one of many enablers to reduce working capital.

“As part of our continuous improvement journey, we will continue to strive to become a ‘high-performance’ culture where greater stability in manufacturing means that your employees spend more time proactively driving continuous improvement than they do firefighting the daily activities.”

Paradigm shift
Clark says Council Bluffs previously had a “typical command-and-control culture” where managers and supervisors gave all directions.

“Now we’re teaching and enabling our employees to make those same decisions as business owners – regardless of where they work in the plant,” he says. “This [change] involved a significant paradigm shift from the traditional roles played by employees, supervisors and managers.

“Once we took on the CPS initiative, the leadership roles in the plant were changed forever. It meant [supervisors] modeling the behavior, and being willing to make some sacrifices in order to drive long-term improvement.”

ConAgra structured CPS on eight different pillars or areas of concentration. These include efforts on (1) environment, health and safety; (2) continuous skills development; (3) focused improvement methods; (4) planned maintenance; (5) program management; (6) work simplification; (7) lean supply chain; and (8) food safety and quality. Each pillar has established guidelines and metrics employees can understand and evaluate.

Interestingly enough, one of Council Bluff’s biggest successes came out of its biggest challenge. When a top ConAgra brand (undisclosed) started growing at a double-digit pace, production strained to keep up.

“We simply could not produce enough finished product on that line because they were selling everything we could make,” says Clark. “We had to find a game changer so we could support the brand at the lowest possible cost.”

Clark and his team threw themselves into the process. They worked side by side with hourly employees on a 15-month autonomous maintenance team. Clark’s team focused on carton packaging and case-packing equipment and learned about machine operation, defect recognition, maintenance schedules, center-lining, and root cause analysis tools.

ConAgra then empowered many of these operators to make production line improvement changes.

In the end, the autonomous maintenance team introduced changes and improvements that resulted in a 29 percent increase in daily case output from the prior year.

“CPS starts with small teams like the one we had with autonomous maintenance,” Clark says. “We were using the equipment as a tool to engage our people. A year and a half ago, our OEE for that line was about 46 percent. This year, it’s operating at 70 percent, and we helped the brand generate several million dollars in additional sales because we manufactured more product. It was a small investment that yielded an even bigger output.”

He continues, “Once you get as many as 900 people thinking about solving problems, your rate of improvement grows quickly,” says Clark. “That’s what we’re seeing in pockets of the plant. This process instills a feeling of pride and ownership in our people. They’re learning that they can impact the business and we’re teaching them how. Our initiatives have to come together and complement each other so that the plant will continue to improve.”

As with any significant change, communication is important on many levels. Visitors can see how Council Bluffs lines employee hallways with color-coded charts that quickly convey line and shift goals and performance data.

“We are proud of our diverse work force in Council Bluffs.  We have 20 different nationalities and six different languages spoken in our facility. We’ve learned to simplify our communication to convey the most important things we want employees to take away. Meanwhile, we’re surveying employees and asking for feedback,” he continues. “We want them to tell us if we’re communicating the right things. We’re also are working at improving the way we implement and communicate reward and recognition programs.”

He concludes, “I’m proud of the results we’ve generated during our short journey. However, the No. 1 story here involves the dedication and development of our people to drive those results.”

ConAgra Foods Inc.
Location: Council Bluffs, Iowa
Plant manager: Todd Clark
Employees: Approximately 835 (hourly, salaried)
Products: More than 180 SKUs including single- and multi-serve frozen meals, pot pies, sauce pouches
Brands: Healthy Choice, Marie Callender’s, Banquet, Kid Cuisine
Production lines: 9 (8 retail / 1 foodservice)
Facility: 588,000 sq. ft.
Processing: 355,000 sq. ft.
Annual volume: Approximately 37 million cases