Continuous improvement works for all

Yesterday, I spent most of my time attending the American Association of Candy Technologists’ (AACT) National Technical Seminar in Lincolnshire, Ill., a northern suburb of Chicago and a short drive from our offices in Deerfield. This annual event always brings out the “tekkie” in me, since the two days of seminars focus on a host of operational topics, from formulation issues to production improvements, from regulatory advisories to safety and traceability concerns.
After taking care of morning business in the office, I drove over to the AACT meeting and caught Richard Gordon’s presentation on “Effective Product Specifications that Satisfy Customers.” Gordon, who heads up Chocolate Potpourri, a family-run gourmet chocolate company that’s been in business for several decades, knows and understands what it means to adjust to market conditions.
his earnest entrepreneur has seen lovely as well as lean times. As a result, I was curious to hear what he had to say about dealing with “a customer who made what seemed to be impossible changes to product specifications of an existing product line.”
So what do you do, he asked the audience, when that phone call comes form a customer ― an important customer ― who tells you that your product is out of spec. “You first take a deep breath,” he said, obviously speaking with experience.
Having gone through every phase of running a chocolate artisan business, from mastering the craft to managing the business, Gordon can share stories about survival in which anyone can relate. In his case history presentation, the master chocolatier went on to explain how a customer had told him that the chocolate shells in his company’s truffles were too thick. While some might enjoy the extra chocolate a thicker shell delivers, this high-end account wanted a specific experience.
So what to do next?
Gordon, who’s a fan of Six Sigma Methodology and a tekkie at heart, I believe, decided to implement DMAIC (define, measure, analyze, improve and control). Although he’s not a fan of the abbreviation, the process works he assured us.
In his presentation, Gordon explained how he found the root cause of the problem, first defining ― in the customer’s words ― what was the issue at hand and then translating that into what his operations team could understand. And while Gordon’s crew already had a variety of measurements they undertook during processing, it was clear that those statistics weren’t doing the job.
Although I don’t have the space to get into specifics, let’s just say he and his team scrutinized the key elements of the production process, looking at tempering, one-shot depositing and enrobing. As it turned out, there were inconsistencies regarding depositing of certain centers and tempering parameters.
In addition, feedback from the beginning of the production stream toward the end wasn’t verifiable. Apparently, a shout out from one employee to another at the beginning of the line doesn’t always ensure changes are made.
After determining that some controls needed to be implemented, from introducing a go/no gauge that ensured correct truffle shell size to devising an inexpensive data collection process capturing tempering data and weight data, the production team soon had a real time-monitoring process in place.
As you can imagine, the benefits proved immense for Gordon and his crew. Hey, first, the customer’s complaints were addressed. Second, the company used less chocolate. Third, a new in-process quality control had been introduced. And fourth, the introduction of new data was going to allow Gordon and his crew to assess and analyze the information to help improve training, pricing and product development.
Moral of the presentation: being an artisan doesn’t mean you can’t access and implement continuous improvement practices and existing technologies to foster growth, both internally and externally. In this instance, art and automation can work together.