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Operations Management

Productivity Issues
Productivity comes from operational excellence.  
Sep 20 2022
Glazing the Shrimp
Sean Irvine

A Productivity Story - Glazing the Shrimp


Hi folks, I’m Walter Wardrop, an Operations Management Coach at the Growth Roundtable.  

Bags of individually quick-frozen (IQF) shrimp often receive a water glaze on the shrimp to help preserve them on the display shelves.  The water glaze keeps the shrimp from getting what is commonly referred to as freezer burn.   To protect the consumer, the weight of the water glazing on the shrimp is not part of the weight of the package.   So, a 1 kg bag of shrimp might weigh 1.1 kg on the scales.  The first kilo of course being the shrimp, and the extra hundred grams being the water glaze added to the shrimp.

While visiting a shrimp plant, I noticed that the waterfall glazing applicator was not putting a continuous and even glaze across the full width of the conveyor.  I monitored this for a few minutes, and then went to check and see what the weight going into the packages was.  It turns out that the crew had not noticed that the waterfall was not doing a good glazing job.  On further study, it became apparent that this condition had existed for a few days.

I brought this to the attention of the quality department, and a new procedure was implemented to make sure that the glazing unit was checked continuously.  This was simple to do, as there were several operators in the area who were able to notice if there were any stoppages in the waterfall used for glazing.

As would be expected in a situation like this, the weight going into the bag had not been adjusted to reflect for glazing procedure.  The company was giving away a sizable volume of shrimp, thinking that they were only giving away the water glaze described in the quality weight procedures.

If you are going to give away water, make sure it is only water you are giving away.



Sep 7 2022
The Scallop Grading Machine
Sean Irvine

A Productivity Story - The Scallop Grading Machine


Hi folks, I’m Walter Wardrop, an Operations Management Coach at the Growth Roundtable.  

The seafood plant I was working at also received boatloads of scallops from the local waters. The scallops were contained in large cloth bags holding 15 to 20 pounds of scallops.   The bags sat in fish boxes with ice to keep them cool.  Forklifts brought them to a grading machine to be sorted for size. The grading machine was two large stainless rollers that were parallel, spinning along their length, with a slight widening of the gap between the rollers (rollers were not completely parallel).  The bearings were mounted so there was also a gentle downward slope of the rollers.   The operator loaded the scallops at the top end of the machine.  The rollers tumbled the scallops towards the lower end, where the gap was larger. This is a standard grading operation that allows small items to drop through at the beginning, while larger ones move down to the end, and then drop through. The largest drop off the very end.  Along the table, underneath the gap between the rollers, were positioned a series of trays that were labeled with the approximate size of scallops collecting there.

Most people familiar with seafood items, such as scallops and shrimp, will recognize the tray was labeled with approximate counts of how many items per pound, or per kilo, depending on which country was the customer. Working with the quality personnel, I recognized that there was a large variation in the scallop counts. The tray might say 15 to 30, but the actual size range falling into it was 7 to 12.   I asked the operator if we could adjust the gap at the end of the rollers, to fine-tune what was falling through into the trays. He pointed out that the adjustment points on the machine had rusted up and had not been adjusted for many years.  While the machine was not adjustable, the trays being used had fixed labels which could not be changed either.

The company may have been bagging scallops with the wrong count for many years. This was advantageous to our clients and customers, as we were selling them bigger scallops than labeled for a lesser price. Historically, small scallops cost less per pound than the large scallops. This is because the marketplace been conditioned to pay large prices for large scallops.  A seafood expert would point out that the small scallops were far tenderer than the large ones, but this did not seem to interest some of our surf and turf customers.  They felt that a large steak should cost more than a small steak, and a large scallop should cost more than a small scallop on a per pound basis.

With a little help from maintenance, we set the machine up, so it was once again adjustable and giving the correct count. A rough estimate, based upon the pounds we had the previous year, showed that the ability to adjust this machine was probably worth $60,000 year to the company, as well as improving the sizing accuracy.

Sep 19 2021
Cart with Bicycle Flag
Sean Irvine

A Productivity Story - Cart with Bicycle Flag


Hi folks, I’m Walter Wardrop, an Operations Management Coach at the Growth Roundtable.  

Years ago, while visiting an aerospace company, they told me an interesting story of how they dealt with the problem of expediting product. Frequently in their manufacturing process, they were behind, or slow on the delivery of parts to the shipping. Customers would then call looking for a part that they needed right away.  This would trigger an expediter going out with a work order and virtually walking the needed part from process to process through the plant. The company was large and had five people doing the expediting job and special projects.

An expediter was usually a senior operator familiar with all the different shops of the plant and could go from place to place with the part and beg or borrow the time to get the item expedited.  Additionally, there were problems with the manufacturing cells having to stop what they were doing, disassemble and remove the jigs on the machine, and perform a set up for the part that was being expedited. After the company did some 5S and value stream mapping exercises, they realized there was a very simple alternative to what the expediters were doing.

The company implemented a set of simple 4-wheeled carts, with a children's bicycle flag sticking up from the carts 6 feet into the air. When a part needed to be expedited, a work order was generated and placed onto the cart and it was wheeled to the first post.   The cart was left there, and the operator of the cell acknowledged it had arrived. However, the operator kept on working on the part on their machine until it was finished. This is possible because frequently the manufacturing machinery is so fast it finishes a part in minutes. When the operator finished the active part, they went to the cart with the work order or metal for the expedited part and started work on it. The designated portion of the work was completed in their cell, and they wheeled the cart and the part to the next cell that would work on the part. The next employee would keep doing the work they were doing, until they finished their part, and then would go to the cart and perform the function necessary on the expedited part. In this manner the part moved quickly through the plant, and when the last job had been done, the part was taken directly to shipping and couriered to the customer. These 4 or 5 carts replaced five individuals, and likely did a faster, simpler, and more cost-effective job for the company. This is not to say that the expediters were doing a bad job, but just that the carts could do a better job.



Aug 22 2021
Spreading the Shrimp
Sean Irvine

A Productivity Story – Spreading the Shrimp


Hi folks, I’m Walter Wardrop, an Operations Management Coach at the Growth Roundtable.  

To individually quick freeze (IQF) shrimp, it is necessary to spread the shrimp onto the infeed portion of the moving belt in a tunnel conveyor.  The shrimp need to be sufficiently spread so they do not freeze together in clumps.  These clumps are called twins in the food trade.  When I first visited the shrimp line, I found one operator scooping the wet shrimp onto the conveyor, and then six more operators spreading the shrimp across the width of the slow-moving conveyor.

The company controlled the volume of shrimp being fed onto the conveyor by using a simple timer and knowing the size of the scoop used by the operator.  The operator would scoop up about a quart of shrimp and wait for the timer to signal that it was time to place the shrimp onto the conveyor.  The speed of the conveyor had been set in relationship to how long it took to freeze the shrimp into the IQF format.

Once the scoop of shrimp was on the conveyor, the operators would spread them across the width of the conveyor, with three operators on either side of the conveyor.  The first two would break the pile of shrimp down, and the next two operators would spread them out across the conveyor, and the final two would make sure the were no twins.  By the time they had spread one scoop of shrimp, the timer had dinged, and another mound of shrimp was advancing towards them.

After watching this process for a while, I approached the scoop operator.  I asked the operator if he would mind unloading the scoop in a simple S pattern across the width of the conveyor.  The scoop operator had plenty of time in his cycle, between his scooping the shrimp and the timer signaling.  His cycle allowed him time to spread the shrimp across the conveyor, as he poured them from the scoop.

This simple change in procedure resulted in the manpower on this line being adjusted from one feeder and six spreaders, to one feeder and two spreaders.  The two spreader operators were necessary for the occasional twins that still existed in this process.  The two spreaders were not working nearly as hard, nor having to reach nearly as far, to spread the last of the shrimp.  This is a classic example of what happens when you analyze just what you trying to do, and then approach it in a slightly different manner.

Jul 17 2021
Just How Big is a Plastic Bag
Sean Irvine

A Productivity Story - Just How Big is a Plastic Bag

Hi folks, I’m Walter Wardrop, an Operations Management Coach at the Growth Roundtable.  

Back in the 1980s, while working with a seafood company, I came across an interesting situation where I thought I could make an improvement to the packaging material.   At the time we were boxing up 5- and 10-pound boxes of fish-in-batter portions for the restaurant trade.  We would take a die cut corrugated box, fold it into the box shape, and lay a plastic sheet across the inside of the box to separate the seafood from the cardboard.

On the packaging line, the operators would quickly scoop approximately 10 pounds of frozen battered seafood portions into the center of the box.  The boxes were then placed on a conveyor and rolled along a slight incline to another operator with a digital weigh scale.  This operator would add or remove additional portions until the box was just over the stated (5 or 10) pounds in weight.  The operator would then fold in the corners of the plastic sheet to protect the contents and fold the three sides of the lid into the box.   Quick addition of a couple of inches of packing tape sealed the box, and the operator would place it on a pallet for later movement into the freezer.

Watching the operator fold up the edges of the plastic sheet, I quickly came to realize that there was a good chance that the contents would have some small amount of freezer burn over the course of the product spending weeks to months in storage.  I felt a reasonable suggestion would be having the operators use plastic bags instead of sheets.  They would be able to fold the edge of the bag when full, thereby better protecting the seafood contents.

My first action was to visit the sales office, where I inquired as to whether they cared about the plastic sheet, or the proposed plastic bag.  The salesperson pointed out, smiling but with a voice dripping with sarcasm, that there more square inches of plastic in a bag than in the sheet.   The voice was one of “Wardrop, you dummy” I left the office mildly embarrassed by my stupidity in overlooking such an obvious fact.

However, I was still bothered by the opportunity that seemed to be escaping here.  I walked down to the warehouse and asked the supervisor how my plastic sheets we had bought in the past year.  I felt a quick check of their numbers would give me some indication of whether this was worth pursuing.  The supervisor came back with a rather interesting question.  “Which size of plastic sheet are you talking about?”   That statement caught my attention, and I replied with, “How many sizes do you have?”

The supervisor responded by telling me there were five or six different sizes over on the racks.  I wandered over to the appropriate rack and found out that there were eight different sizes.  A quick check of the product codes, and matching them up with finished goods codes, showed that we had five sizes of plastic sheets for 10-pound boxes, and three sizes for 5-pound boxes.  I took these numbers back to the supervisor, and he supplied me with numbers on how many sheets had been purchased in the past year.  A quick check of the dimensions of the sheets showed that, for the respective box sizes, the sheets were all within an inch in one dimension or another.  I realized I could make an immediate saving by just going to two sizes of sheets, one for 10-pound boxes, and one for 5-pound boxes.

However, I wanted more.   I wanted the bags!  Armed with the numbers, I called the plastics converter, and asked him what kind of price point he could give me for the combined totals.   I specified two bag sizes, one for 10 and one for 5-pound, and gave him the annual volumes for each.  The supplier said he would call back in an hour with a quote.  When he called back, he offered me a price point about 2 cents less per unit for the bags versus the sheets.  Armed with my painfully gained knowledge, I responded with a comment asking how he could do that, as there were more square inches of plastic in a bag that in a sheet.

Again, I could hear the condescension in the voice implying “Wardrop, you dummy”.  The actual words were “Walter, you have been to my plant, and seen how we blow the plastic film?”  I responded that I had indeed toured his facility.  The supplier then pointed out the plastic film was blown to the ceiling, curved over rollers, and came down the tower, cooling along the way.   At the bottom it went through a machine and was wound up onto a roll.  This roll was then transported by forklift across the plant to another post, where the plastic was slit into the multiple sheet sizes we had ordered.  The sheets were then stacked and folded into cartons for shipment to our seafood plant.  I responded that I had seen this process and was quite impressed with it.  The supplier then pointed out that the machine at the bottom of the cooling stack was his plastic bag maker.  He had to turn the bag maker off and bring in extra operators on the days they were slitting the sheets for us.  My sales team’s nominal savings in square inches of plastic had been more than offset in the cost of labour at the converter.

I happily hung up the phone and called sales with the wonderful news.  There were quite delighted with the thought of saving the money and seemed very tolerant of the fact that the bags would also improve the quality of the product.  Just as a cross-check, I called the marketing department in Toronto and requested their approval before implementing the change.  My contact came back with a delighted statement that finally someone was listening to them.  I was surprised by this and inquired as to what she had meant by that.  She said that marketing had been requesting sales change from sheets to bags for years but had been turned down because of the price difference.  

I asked why marketing was interested in the bags.  She pointed out that the small restaurants often only had sliding door freezer cabinets.   As the staff emptied a large 10-pound box, they could not afford to leave an empty box with only two or three portions inside the freezer. They would take the box and pull out the plastic sheet, fold it like a piece of origami, toss the empty box, and put a new box underneath the sheet filled with the last few portions.  This would often result in those last few portions ending up with some freezer-burn or turning into frozen hockey pucks stuck to the back walls of the cabinet after slipping down behind the boxes.  This basically created a mess that nobody wanted.  Marketing was far happier with the thought of a bag that you have neatly folded and laid gently on top of the new full box taking up the rack space.

As it would later turn out, this change to a bag format was quite fortuitous, as the company soon after purchased a multi-head vertical axis bagging machine that automatically filled bags to a premeasured amount.  The customers never really noticed the change, except the bag went from being reasonably large with an open end, to being smaller with a sealed end.   I never did do an actual cost savings calculation but given the number of tons we processed per week, it must have been fairly good.  And the operators were a lot more comfortable working with a sealed bag containing frozen fish portions, than the open bags that seemed to pour portions out of the box at every opportunity.



Jun 19 2021
Frozen Fillets
Sean Irvine

A Productivity Story - Frozen Fillets


Hi folks, I’m Walter Wardrop, an Operations Management Coach at the Growth Roundtable.  

When I started with a major seafood company, the gold standard for seafood was the 10- and 20-pound pans of fresh cod fillets.  This was a product that was recognized and shipped throughout North America.  The fresh fillets we were processing today were on a truck this afternoon, and in the Boston seafood market for auction by the next morning.  We filled a pan with fresh cod, snapped on a plastic lid, and then stacked them 4 or more high in large wax cardboard cases.  The pans were then surrounded with crushed ice, closed, taped, and shipped in a refrigerated truck to the seafood markets of North America.  As I mentioned, everything was measured against this gold standard.  

Some products were individually quick frozen (IQF) in a pair of tunnel freezers within the seafood plant.   Somewhere in the organization, somebody realized that they should look at doing some sizing and grading of these products to see if they could improve their value.  So back in the late 1980s we created a system to cut the fillets to standard sizes, freeze them, then grade fillets by weight into 10-pound cartons.

We started at the trimming table, where we added a couple lines there were 4 inches and 6 inches apart. We cut the loins and tails to six-inch lengths, and the center cuts to four-inch lengths. The fresh fish was then sent to be IQF frozen, and immediately after it was put through a grading machine. The grading machine would separate the frozen tails by 1-ounce increments.  The machine would drop the tails into the respective boxes and signal the operator when there was 10 pounds of frozen five-ounce tails in a box.   The operator would then check the weight on a scale, tape up the box, and place it on a pallet in the freezer.

This product quickly took off and the volumes rose far above what we were expecting. We had trouble scheduling tunnel freezer time, as there was so much demand for this product.  We asked the marketing department in Toronto what was happening to create this demand. The marketing department told us how the industry was changing. Up to that point in time, every restaurant needed a chef who was continuously balancing how many pounds of fresh fillets to buy, for the meals he would serve not just today, but through the rest of the week. He would start out with white tablecloth dinners using the loins of the fillets on a Monday and would then move into fish and chips or other portions later in the week from the rest of the fillet. The bits and pieces that were left at the end of the week were turned into a seafood chowder or some other related meal. This took a lot of planning and frequently resulted in a lot of waste. Worse, the chef was never able to determine what the cost of the primary part of the meal was to the menu.

So along comes our box with 10 pounds of 4-ounce loins. A quick calculation will show that with four loins to the pound, the box contained approximately 40 portions, give, or take a portion. This made costing extremely easy.  Next was the fact that the loins are frozen.  This makes storage easier, and greatly improves the potential shelf life.  Since the box only contains loins, there are no other products that need to be used up.

The final trick was that the restaurant no longer required a chef to sort through all the alternate uses for the rest of the portions on the fresh fillet.  A Grade 10 student could read the recipe, broil the loin, and add the sauce, vegetables, and starch to complete the white tablecloth meal.  The frozen portions had been so well processed that they were frequently in better condition than the fresh fillets.  The result was that since we were better serving our customers, we could charge more for the frozen portions than for the fresh fillets.  This was quite a change in the modern marketplace, and well ahead of its time.   It was many years before the salmon industry caught up to this East coast practice of portion sizing, grading and IQF freezing.

May 29 2021
Interview with the Hospital
Sean Irvine

A Productivity Story - Interview with the Hospital


Hi folks, I’m Walter Wardrop, an Operations Management Coach at the Growth Roundtable.  

Years ago, I went for an interview with a local hospital. At the time I was a member of the Society for Health Systems (SHS), a subgroup of the Institute for Industrial Engineering. This was an excellent group that has a large focus on hospitals and the medical fraternity and the implementation of industrial engineering into this area. Before going to the interview, I took the time to check and see if there was anybody else in Nova Scotia that was on the membership list for the Society for Health Systems. I think I was one of three or four names on the list, and the hospital I was going to visit did not have any employees on that list.

I got to the interview and had a pleasant conversation with the Industrial Engineering manager. I asked him if he was reading Industrial Engineering Magazine. He made the comment that they used to read it, but as there were few articles related to the medical fraternity, they had dropped their subscription. I pointed out that there was a new section, the SHS, and told him he might want to renew his membership to look at this information. I also inquired as to whether he took the time to tour some of the other institutions in town.  He happily responded that he and his team had been to visit all the hospitals in the local area, of which there were several. I politely asked if they had visited any of the other related facilities in the area.   The engineering manager asked what I meant by related types of facilities. I responded that I felt that the local major hotels might have been a good opportunity to gain new information from a tour. As I quickly realized, he was totally affronted by this suggestion that his hospital was in any way related to a local hotel.

The interview quickly ended around this point. I never did hear from them again, but I do remember an event three months later.  My local quality society meeting had as a guest speaker the President of the Victoria General Hospital facility in Halifax (where I had interviewed). He started off the presentation with words I still remember today.  “Good evening ladies and gentlemen, I run the largest hotel in Halifax”. He had recognized that he had a building full of rooms that needed a lot of housekeeping, and a lot of room service. Yes, he did have some surgical bays, and they were very important revenue producers, but his real expenses revolved around the rooms. In the case of a hotel, they have things like ballrooms which are as specialized as a surgery.  I would argue that the logistics of putting down 1000 plates of hot food in front of a group of people in a few minutes is every bit as challenging as a surgical operation on a single patient. This is not meant as an insult to the skill of the doctor doing the surgery but is more a reflection of logistics and the timing involved in executing events on a large scale in a ballroom. As a joke I often say to my clients, if you were to put on a wedding in that same ballroom, the risk factor goes up even higher than it might for an ordinary surgery such as a hernia. The surgeon only must deal with an uncomfortable patient. The hotel manager must deal with a pair of potentially explosive mothers of the bride and groom if there is a problem.

May 8 2021
How We Match Production with Consumption
Sean Irvine

A Productivity Story: How We Match Production with Consumption

Hi folks, I’m Walter Wardrop, an Operations Management Coach at the Growth Roundtable.  

In the late 80s, I was working for a major seafood company that had nearly 400 products in their catalog.   These were the days when mainframe computers were just giving way to the new minicomputers, but there were very few desktop machines around or available.

The production scheduling department would look at what fish they had coming in, then would look at what inventory they had in the warehouse.  From this comparison they would schedule the appropriate amount of production for the coming weeks within the seafood plants.  The problem here was that production did not really tie back to the actual sales.  I went down to see a friend in accounting and asked him to give me a simple spreadsheet on what was in the warehouse.  I then wandered over to the sales department and asked for a copy of what they had sold the previous week.

I matched these two spreadsheets up on a very old piece of software called VisiCalc and divided the amount in the warehouse by the amount that had been sold.  This gave me a very rough idea of how many weeks of inventory we had in the warehouse.  I took the new spreadsheet to the production scheduling department and was almost beheaded.   They were incensed that I had this information and demanded to know what I was doing with it.

I pointed out it was my job as an industrial engineer to try and match supply and demand and improve productivity.  I stressed that they were the only ones that I was doing the spreadsheet for and had only shown it to them.  The reason for their worry was that the spreadsheet showed that some stock was quite reasonable at three or four weeks.  However, they also had items with 20 and even 30 weeks of stock in the warehouse.   As those of you in the seafood industry know, most frozen seafood products have a best before date of 26 weeks.   Some of our frozen finished goods would have been potentially bad before they even left our warehouse.

The production scheduling department was able to account for several of the large numbers on the sheet, due to the limited catch of that species, but then we got down to some cod products.  At the time, we had one or two boats landing cod fish every day across our multiple plants.   We could order frozen cod, in just about any size and packaging, daily, and get it supplied.

I am happy to say that within a week or two this spreadsheet became a standard for the production scheduling department, and a useful interface between them, marketing in Toronto, and sales in the local office.  It became the go-to document for their weekly meetings, and they quickly got the numbers under control as they recognized what had been selling, and what was just sitting there.

This is a classic example of the silos that often exist within a company.  Accounting has their focus on their numbers, production scheduling on what they thought was necessary, sales on what they knew they sold or were about to sell, and marketing on what they thought the customer might want in the future.  Everyone was working to optimize their process, without recognizing that they were part of a bigger picture and should have been working more closely together.   

As mentioned at the beginning, computers were still mostly large mainframes, where requests for information might take a week or longer.  Things have changed in the modern days, but do you know how much you sold yesterday?  Do you have any idea what the customer is buying next week?

Apr 20 2021
Vacuum or Soak the Shrimp
Sean Irvine

A Productivity Story - Vacuum or Soak the Shrimp


Hi folks, I’m Walter Wardrop, an Operations Management Coach at the Growth Roundtable.  

While working in the Tampa shrimp plant, I came across a large tub type machine used in the process.   Tub type units did not surprise me, but of interest was the large door with the multiple locks on it that fit over the opening.  I inquired as to what they were doing with that machine.  I was told that they used it to put flavor in certain seafood products.   The machine was a vacuum mixing unit, and it would take the flavor profile and pressure it into the seafood product that was contained in the tub.  This was found to be about five times faster than just the normal soaking of the product in the liquid flavor.

What are you trying to do, and what is the best method?  Do not necessarily consider what the easiest and cheapest method for equipment is.  Or what is the least expensive for productivity.   One must remember that food products are basically rotting from the day they are harvested.  All you can do is slow it down, and put the product in the best shape, with the best speed, into the customer's hands.  Keeping a seafood product wandering around inside a seafood plant is not a recipe for good performance, but one for spoilage.

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