What's it really like inside a company on the long road to quality

Mike Weaver thought a new machine would solve his quality problem overnight. Instead, he says, it set off a chain of events he couldn't plan, couldn't control, and couldn't have prepared for.

Here's a company that's not just talking about providing quality, but betting its future on figuring out how to do it. And it's difficult. Let's see how the process looks and feels from the inside. -- J.H.

* * *

Even on the big day -- down to the very last minute -- workers at Weaver Popcorn Co. rushed around pushing brooms, wiping down brand-new steel racks, adjusting and readjusting in-feed tubes. A group of men crouched in a corner, carefully measuring for the last time the size of the space they had cleared.

During those last jittery moments, the 58-year-old company might just as well have been a start-up restaurant awaiting review by the local health inspector. Even as employees heard vehicles roaring toward the building, "we really weren't any more than just ready," says processing superintendent Mel Ulrich.

The trucks were returning from Detroit, roughly 200 miles from Weaver's headquarters in tiny Van Buren, Ind. As planned, forklifts greeted the arrivals, scooping up four 500-pound crates and commandeering them toward the middle of the factory floor. With everyone gathered around, one worker pried a heavy cardboard panel off one of the crates. As he exposed part of the gleaming machine, "everybody just stood there and stared," recalls Ulrich.

With their 20/20 electronic eyes, the costly color-sorting machines were supposed to subject each of Weaver's popcorn kernels to merciless scrutiny. Foreign particles such as weed seeds, dirt clods, and soybeans (the darker ones, anyway) no longer stood much chance of parading by. From this moment on, all felt sure, Weaver Popcorn had taken its last bruising from a customer.

Just five months earlier, in November 1985, a Japanese customer had rejected 280,000 pounds of Weaver's finest, claiming it was rife with impurities. Outraged and ashamed, Mike Weaver, the company's president and chief executive officer, decided almost immediately to purchase the high-speed optical scanners, which would lead to barely measurable improvements. With a total price tag of more than $1 million, such glitzy machinery generally toiled among higher-margin crops like pistachios and peanuts. It would hardly touch such pedestrian fare as popcorn. But Weaver took the customer's complaint very seriously. "There was a quality problem," he says soberly. "We thought the machines would take care of it."

They didn't.

That bright spring day nearly four years ago -- when most of the folks at Weaver Popcorn earnestly believed that the new machines, with their fancy computerized controls, would rescue them from their quality qualms -- seems now like an almost laughably innocent age. "Buying the machine felt like a bold move then," says export manager James Labas. "But it is nothing compared with what has happened here since."

Time was when a company could choose the basis on which it wanted to compete. Some companies sought to be the cheapest, others the fastest. And a few staked out the challenge of becoming the best. But no matter what business you are in and whether you realize it yet, your options have narrowed. Unless you control a dominant share of the market and can't be budged -- and how many of us own utilities, anyway? -- you don't have much choice about quality anymore.

Not that you have to become the very best. But there's a minimum level of quality that has to be achieved, and it's higher than it used to be. "Quality has become the price of entry into most markets," says Martin Smith, president of Management Sciences International Inc., in Atlanta. "Marginal producers are finding it harder and harder to survive." As a result of the standards set by Japanese carmakers, consumers simply won't put up with a transmission that conks out after 1,000 miles -- or, for that matter, with a misplaced dashboard appliqué. Likewise, Korea has raised expectations in shipbuilding and Singapore in electronics.

To date, no foreign snack-food cartel is nibbling at Weaver Popcorn's market share. To Mike Weaver's way of thinking, that's all the more reason to take the high road now -- while he still has a choice. Back in the 1940s, the hottest popcorn company was an Iowa concern named Consolidated Popcorn. By mid-1988, the company was little more than a smorgasbord of rusting assets -- which Weaver snapped up. Before the arrival of microwave popcorn, less than a decade ago, nobody would have expected to find such integrated public powerhouses as Pillsbury, General Mills, or Nabisco in the puny popcorn business. Today these are just the type of well-heeled companies that Weaver supplies. "They could easily start up their own processing plants," says Ulrich. "We have to be better."

That's a more onerous task than it sounds. Turnaround tales of the formerly shoddy and inefficient -- companies like Motorola, Xerox, and Ford -- often seem to imply that glib gurus or snappy slogans can lighten the load. Maybe so, but boosting quality inevitably means taking a strenuous and grisly journey. "You have to find your own path," says Joseph Sargent, an executive at Milliken & Co., the $2-billion textile maker and winner of a prestigious 1989 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. "It's a slow process."

And never ending. The Reverend Ira E. Weaver, who founded Weaver Popcorn, was already preaching the gospel of quality back in 1927. "No sale is complete if the customer isn't satisfied," went a favorite hymn.

Quality has always been a top priority because the company sells a premium-priced product to a quality-conscious niche: theater owners and other concessionaires, from bars to ballparks. Those who hatch popcorn at home don't fret over the "old maids" that burn at the bottom. On the other hand, "when theater owners buy 100 pounds of popcorn, they know exactly how many bags' worth they should be getting," notes Welcome Weaver, Mike's father and company chairman.

Welcome Weaver -- yes, he's been asked a zillion times, and he thinks his mother dug the name out of some obscure book -- joined his father's company in 1945, armed with a Ph.D. in organic chemistry. Under his leadership, methods of harvesting and storing popcorn changed dramatically. In earlier times, farmers picked corn by hand and stored it on the ear. During the 1970s the more progressive farmers saddled up their combines, delivering to Weaver truckloads of kernels along with -- depending on their tilling skills and combine cleanliness -- barely detectable soybeans, pieces of field corn, dirt clods, and other masqueraders and mutations.

The company relied on gravity and sizing machines to keep quality up; these giant shaking machines panned for misfit kernels by weight and then size. Still not convinced that we've done our utmost to seize the contraband, Mr. Customer? The rigid Weaver customer-service policy, as Mike learned when he joined the then less than $6-million company full-time out of business school in 1972, was never to argue or even take a chisel to the price. Just bring the corn back, the credo went, no matter how much it would cost. Columbus, Ohio? Ship it home. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania? We'll be right there to get it. Tokyo, Japan? Uh . . .

Mike Weaver was about five years into his presidency -- and two hours into a good night's sleep -- when the phone rang around midnight one October eve in 1985. It took only a few syllables before he recognized the voice. Pat Vogel, then the company's export manager, had called earlier that day with a bulletin from Tokyo. The company had just sent off one of its biggest shipments ever to Japan; Weaver saw it as "potentially a very important market for us."

The customer, Vogel had told Weaver, complained there was too much foreign material among the kernels they examined. "Are you kidding?" Weaver replied. Now, Vogel had the full story. "They aren't happy," he said of the customer, Shintoa Koeki Kaisha Ltd. "They will work with us to get rid of the shipment, but they will not accept that popcorn."

What could they do? We could resell it in Japan as feed, Vogel offered. Or reclean it over there and sell it to another distributor, Weaver added.

He paused for a moment. In an instant that would have made his grandfather and father proud -- if horrified by the $70,000 burden -- he made up his mind. "We should take full responsibility for the popcorn," he intoned. "Let's bring it back."

There are certain crucial junctures -- in the histories of countries and companies -- when only a hero will suffice. This, however, was not one of them; despite his square-jawed Clark Kent looks, Mike Weaver felt decidedly unheroic in 1985.

A recently finalized divorce had left him feeling adrift. At 38, he seemed a little old to be asking himself, as he puts it, "What do I want to be?" But here he was, toiling every day in the same small town (population 935) where his grandfather and father had made their names. Driving toward the plant, he passed the 251 giant steel silos -- the bigger ones brimmed with 600,000 pounds of popcorn -- for which he had helped pour concrete as a kid. After an especially lonely or unsatisfying day, he had to wonder whether he had made a mistake, choosing to attend business school after being drafted by the Chicago Bulls. Back then, the six-foot, five-inch forward thought he knew what mattered to him most. "I was really anxious to get back here," says Weaver.

Now, some 13 years later, his impatience was reemerging. For a year he had been taking a critical look at his own stewardship and felt distinctly unsatisfied with the leader he had become. "Because my relationship with my ex-wife failed," he explains, "there was a strong desire to really not fail in the relationships I have with these people here."

Chiefly, he wanted to be more inspiring, the kind of leader who set his sights on a clear direction and showed others the way. Instead, Weaver had zigzagged, hugging one path, then abandoning it for another. For three months he talked only about reducing downtime; during a six-month period he forced a cumbersome time-management system on his managers. "We hadn't focused on our real purpose," he admits. The Japanese customer took care of that. He now had a mission compelling enough to consolidate his diffused energies: how can we improve the quality of our popcorn? "We had slipped," he says. Quality, suddenly, mattered.

By the morning after the phone call, everyone learned what had happened. Switching off their machines and peeling off their hair nets, 130 or so employees crammed into the break room for a meeting. What they heard dismayed them. "When we sold that stuff to the Japanese, our attitude was, Heck, we can sell to anybody anywhere," recalls Terry Himelick, a bin conditioner and sanitation coordinator. However wounded they were, though, few understood Weaver's apparent overreaction. "If that popcorn meets specs, it is not our responsibility to take it back," complained Marty Hall, a processor.

Weaver remained steadfast. Scurrying back up to his office, he assembled his top advisers: the elder Weaver, Ulrich, and vice-president Dick Lintner. What could they do to boost quality? Sure, they could slow down the machines. Or even add extra inspectors. But the restless Weaver yearned to undertake something more grand. By recalling the popcorn, they had already made a dramatic statement to customers. And he could see that employees were riled. What would be a worthy follow-up? His father remembered shopping around for optical scanners more than a decade earlier. Maybe it was time to look again. They placed their order within a few months.

Over that time many employees began to feel less indignant and more embarrassed. Penny Korporal, a supervisor in the lab, was one of four employees assigned to sift through the returned shipment by hand, as the Japanese had done. Running it through her fingers, she had to confess that "we hadn't realized how many dirt clods were in there." And Hall realized that "while it may have been within specs, it was not within our expectations. It was scary."

Weaver found comfort by reading In Search of Excellence, which he bought in his search for clues to what had gone amiss. Within its pages, he found many companies that had turned customer complaints into transforming experiences. "It planted a seed in me," says Weaver, who comes by his agricultural metaphors naturally. "I had to be willing to say we would change."

He wasn't sure exactly how, though, so he embarked on a search -- driving off to see Tom Peters in Chicago three times, listening to cassettes, and watching tapes. After the four color-sorting machines arrived in June 1986, he even brought Peters to speak to his employees from the factory floor. Peters, in turn, mentioned the company in one of his books. That lured a news crew from the CBS morning show out to Van Buren. All of a sudden Weaver Popcorn was on TV, just like that other famous Indiana agronomist, Orville what's-his-name. It felt good. "People started to come alive," says Weaver.

Customers, Lintner found, loved to hear about the machines. Weaver even invited groups out to Van Buren for a tour of the facilities. What did they remember most? "I was quite taken by those machines that look at the kernels," recalls Jack Cory, owner of Fun City Popcorn Inc. "They looked expensive to me." Weaver savored the attention. "You get good recognition, and you want it to continue," he says. "It changed perceptions."

Reality, too, was changing, though Weaver wouldn't see it for quite some time. The machines weren't malfunctioning, but they were setting off sparks. Rather than compensating for the company's quality lapses, the color sorters gradually exposed more of them. Prickly questions began to emerge about the quality of everything surrounding the new machines: the operators, the tooling, the raw material. As the popcorn processors gained a better understanding of the quality of the popcorn, for instance, they began to question the bin conditioners about the raw material they were accepting. "All of a sudden, everybody was yelling at me for good corn," recalls Himelick. Further investigation turned up deeper problems. For example, Himelick didn't have the tools to probe incoming shipments deep enough to find the contamination. Another disagreement, between the processors and packagers, revealed that they had never set a uniform sample size. Tempers flared. "People were ready to fight," says John Schamber, a packaging machine operator. "They say shit rolls downhill. Man, it was rolling."

Not far enough to reach Weaver, though, until early fall 1988. Still deep into his reading, Weaver and some of his senior managers had visited companies he wanted to emulate. After visiting textile maker Milliken & Co., Weaver told his employees all about it: how committed everyone seemed, how alive the company felt. But he worried that they just nodded appreciatively because he was the boss. So he invited Joseph Sargent, then corporate director of quality, to come and tell the company's story himself.

Sargent was talking about quality standards when suddenly Marty Hall, who worked in processing, shot to his feet. This is total bull, he charged, as long as we're accepting popcorn that is way out of spec. Even though specifications called for a 17% moisture level, he pointed out, the company was still accepting corn with a moisture level as high as 23%. It was taking forever to dry. "It makes my job three times harder, blending it, conditioning it," he went on. "This guy is saying specs have to be followed; so why aren't we doing it?" The crowd's shameful reply: utter silence.

From across the room, an "angry and upset" Mike Weaver stared in amazement. His stomach sank. If workers didn't care enough to follow specs, who knew what else was going on? The demoralized attitude Hall was describing made Weaver feel vulnerable; it could destroy the company as swiftly as any drought. So what if we don't follow specs? he imagined them thinking. So what if my truck isn't swept out? So what if I put the packages in bottom side up? So what if I'm grouchy to a customer? And on and on.

He could see that employees had started asking questions and making connections. The processors wanted to know what those people in bin conditioning did. "With the machines there, everybody began to see that it takes so much more than machines," says Weaver. "We were all becoming aware that nothing has a greater impact on the quality of the corn than these people."

Suddenly, he felt very dumb. Only people, not machines, could truly fix his quality problems. But people like Hall could only solve those problems if given the right tool: authority. "They know more about quality than anyone," says Weaver. "The responsibility should rest on their shoulders. Responsibility makes you care."

And he needed them to care more. Much, much more.

Nobody, perhaps even Mike Weaver himself, could have foreseen the vast and sweeping changes that would start rocking the company in May 1989. "We turned this place upside down," he says.

He began tipping it early in the year, experimenting with getting employees involved in as many areas as possible. "You just keep asking yourself, How do you energize people to go beyond what they thought possible?" he asks.

At Weaver's invitation, Mark Felver, a bagger and machine operator, helped purchase $134,000 worth of conveyor equipment. "I got gray hair," says Felver, "and I'm only 27." Wes Bratcher, a dispatcher and traffic coordinator in the trucking subsidiary, was invited to speak before a large customer group. Cathy Korporal, who heads consumer services, went abroad for the first time ever, traveling to Sweden to help a customer.

As Weaver scattered bits and pieces of responsibility, he used every opportunity to convey to employees an urgent sense of the company's fragility. "If we don't strive to be the best there is, we risk failure," he said at one companywide meeting. "The only real job security for any of us is being the very best at what we do."

He wanted to rally his employees around the flag of quality, but he could hardly ask them to form a united front against any imminent fiscal enemy. The $1-billion wholesale popcorn industry has been posting gains of 4% to 6% volume sales every year for the past two decades or so (except 1975, when weather conditions intervened). Weaver, who is more comfortable crunching popcorn than numbers, asserts that the company has grown each year, slightly ahead of the industry.

Still, Weaver cited the decline of General Motors' market share and the near death of Harley-Davidson so often that employees act as if they lived through those traumas themselves. "We all know what happened to Harley," says Bobby J. Brummett, a manager in the maintenance department. As he speaks, two of his co-workers nod in agreement. "This company didn't want to end up where those other companies had gone," he continues. "So the management was coming to us -- the people." In May 1989 Weaver launched a series of experiments that have, as he puts it, "pushed the responsibility for quality where it ought to be." It has all happened very fast -- maybe too fast. "It was a little chaotic," he admits. "But you've got to do some things that people really see." Certainly, nobody overlooked any of these:

Team management. When his plant manager resigned in May, Weaver marched into the plant and chose seven workers from different areas as his team leaders. In retrospect, he admits that he should have let the plant choose its own representatives. Still, most greeted the move enthusiastically. "We were used to getting lied to and pushed around," says Mark Felver, who represented the baggers. "I figure that if he gives us a chance to sit in that office, things won't get so twisted."

Every Tuesday, Weaver met with the group, trying hard not to dominate. How can we work together better? he asked them. They raised some safety concerns, troubles with equipment, questions as to why the company wasn't keeping some of the best temporary help they had hired for the harvest. Weaver tried his best to solve problems by giving employees the latitude to solve them; next time you can choose which temps we keep, he told them. They also worked on devising a wish list of characteristics they wanted the new plant manager to have: honest, innovative, and -- above all -- willing to confront Mike Weaver. "I loved that they had the backbone to say it," Weaver says. "I've got to be able to take criticism."

Much to his pride, the processing team leaders confirmed his best hopes about improving quality. To toughen specs, for instance, they formed a committee that came up with the Preferred Supplier Program. Under that plan, farmers can earn generous bonuses for adhering to strict guidelines. Weaver was pleased. "Who knows more about the quality of the popcorn than these people?" he asks.

With the experiment yielding results -- namely, higher quality -- Weaver decided last Labor Day to replace the manager of his trucking subsidiary with a Gang of Four. "If somebody's got enough confidence in you to let you take over, you grab it and go," says Wes Bratcher, who came off the road after almost 17 years to help manage the nonunionized division, which employs 17.

Meeting every other Monday morning, they have even tackled such disciplinary problems as suspending a driver for one week because of sloppiness. "It's a tough thing to do," says Bratcher. "But you let people know that you are not doing it just to get on their case. You try to make it constructive."

Group interviews. To make lasting strides in quality, Weaver contends that employers have to convince employees that management "believes that you know more about your work than anybody else."

In the past year Weaver has called on all employees to become part of the company's interviewing process. For each interview, he assembles a broad cross section of employees, who work out a list of some of the traits they ought to watch for. After the interview, the group ranks the candidate in terms of those qualities and discusses their reasons. But do employees really feel comfortable making judgments about people outside their area of expertise? "I interviewed a marketing man, and I had no idea what a marketing man was," confesses Marty Hall. "But I felt fine about it. I know how to use words like arrogant."

Peer evaluations. Weaver calls the new peer-evaluation system "the single proudest thing we did in 1989." Adapted from Johnsonville Foods, a progressive company Weaver read about, the idea is for employees to judge one another's performance and determine one another's bonuses.

Under Weaver's profit-sharing plan, bonuses are based on work performance (50%), teamwork (30%), and personal development (20%). The size of the bonus pool depends on the financial performance of the company, as measured by return on assets. As Weaver Popcorn's ROA exceeds its five-year average, a percentage is put aside. How that pool is divvied up exactly, Weaver told employees last spring, will be determined by you. "It reinforces our overall message that they are responsible, they are better at judging quality, including the quality of their colleagues, than anyone else," says Weaver.

Weaver conducted a dry run of the evaluation system in March of last year. At the time it worked like this: meeting in small groups, employees anonymously filled out evaluations of one another, with numerical rankings. To reach a final score, they took the average. Human nature being what it is, though, "they felt there was too much potential for back stabbing," says Weaver. When they embarked on the real thing in September, Weaver had revised the system, taking employee suggestions into account. This time, each ranking was open, and groups talked -- while the candidate paced outside -- until they reached a consensus ranking in each area. The new system didn't please everyone: after hearing their scores, two workers quit, though one of them was eventually coaxed back.

There are still plenty of kinks. Employees grouse, for instance, that they don't fully understand how they can influence the size of the profit-sharing pool. Many say they would like to see the company's financials, which Weaver has avoided sharing. What are the prospects? Just the mention of it makes him uncomfortable. One minute: "Our ultimate goal is that we want everybody at Weaver to understand the profit-loss statement and the balance sheet." The next: "I don't know if it's well founded, but there's a concern that our competitors would have information that they don't presently know." And finally: "I realize we have lagged behind in the sharing of financial information."

Is all of this worth doing? Mike Weaver ponders the question as he drives. Usually, he hits the road before dawn, making the 75-mile trek from his Indianapolis home to Van Buren in time for a 7:30 meeting. Often he is accompanied by one management guru or another, offering soothing prescriptions from Weaver's cassette deck.

On this frigid January morning, though, prerecorded advisers are nowhere to be heard. As the sun inches upward, Weaver navigates his navy blue Chevrolet Celebrity at warp speed past (and nearly through) the flat fields and jerry-built farmhouses. The streets are so empty that Weaver can take his hands off the wheel long enough to tie his necktie. Weaver says the drive gives him time to think; when he arrives, his assistant will have prepared a schedule crammed full of phone calls, visits from customers, and marathon meetings. Yesterday's untouched lunch still bounces along in the backseat.

"Is all of this worth doing?" he repeats. "Maybe I don't know yet. But a lot of it is fun. Would it be worth doing if we were losing money? Probably not. Fortunately, we haven't been faced with that. But we are not here to maximize earnings. We do have profit targets, but we want to build a strong company." (Just how strong is the company, in strict financial terms? According to knowledgeable sources, revenues are expected to hit about $70 million next year, with projected pretax profits of roughly 6%.)

"Some people might look at our numbers and say, 'You could have done better than this.' And maybe we could have. The year we brought the shipment back and invested in those machines, there was no case for a payback on it. Can we say now it has paid for itself? No. But we know it has affected our people's commitment to quality and solidified our customers' confidence in us. Maybe this sounds un-American, but how much is that worth in the long term?"

As for any short-term gains, Weaver claims that plant costs have probably declined by at least 10% over the past six months or so, since the team leaders have taken over and instilled an awareness of wasted bags, downtime, and overtime. He also notes that three of the five plant supervisors have left -- all have had trouble adjusting to their new roles -- and Weaver hasn't needed to replace them.

At the trucking subsidiary, drivers have spent money hiring additional employees and buying three new tractors, among other changes. "As near as we can tell, it hasn't adversely affected things, which is what we were worried about," says Keith Wolfgang, a team leader there. Nevertheless, the trucking leaders believe that, as Bratcher puts it, "It's going to cost us a bunch to get us up to where we need to be."

Weaver agrees. He sees the current need for investment as penance for earlier times, when his feeling of restlessness, he now believes, stemmed from the fact that "we weren't improving as we should have. We didn't have the right goals. Did we really think about delighting customers?" Weaver is seeing gratifying signs that employees have adopted that mission. By reorganizing her consumer complaints department, for instance, Cathy Korporal can send letters and product out to irate consumers in one day instead of four. "I kept asking people here, 'What should I do?' and they'd say, 'What do you think?' " she says. "Finally, I just went ahead and did what I thought was right."

Which is exactly what Mike Weaver wants to see happen. "I'm not saying we should just do what makes us feel good," he explains. "But quality isn't going to be accomplished because the leadership says do it. You have to establish activists who understand the vision and can make it happen in the marketplace."

And even if he can't quite trace it, something is happening out there. Weaver points to the fact that, aside from capturing about 60% of the Japanese market, domestic market share has grown by about 7% in the past four years. Phil Tomber, president of C. R. Frank Popcorn & Supply Co., one of Weaver's customers, says he's noticed a change. "It's hard to distinguish yourself in this business," he notes. "But they are a lot more responsive than they used to be. If you have a problem, Mike even encourages you to call him at home. That's pretty unusual in this business." His brother David Tomber, who serves as operations manager, can't believe that Weaver's drivers ask for critiques after each delivery. "Any other company, I would just rip them apart," he says. "Of course, they don't ask me. Weaver asks, but I don't have anything to complain about."

Someday soon, Weaver expects, such loyalties will begin showing up in the numbers. "The customer is not dumb," he says. "Not all, but most of them, respond to quality." But for now, Weaver derives confidence not only from the kind of initiative he sees around him, but also from the way he feels inside. "It used to be very lonely," he says. "I'd make decisions, then worry about them. By involving others, I worry less -- and the decisions end up being better ones."

In opening up himself and his company to that kind of input, Weaver declined the role that his father and grandfather had carved for him. Before employees talk about his father, Welcome, they twist their heads to see if he's anywhere in sight -- although they waved good-bye as he left for the airport just the day before.

Nobody is much afraid of Mike Weaver, though. But then Weaver isn't trying to scare anyone. "I wasn't satisfied before," he says. "I needed help. I needed to open up other people's minds. I needed to create the right environment, so all of us could do better.

"If you really want to create a premier company, you have to go further. Further than machines, further with people than we've gone so far," he continues. "In the future, the companies that get far ahead will be the companies that go to any lengths to provide quality. We don't have a chance otherwise. Quality only happens when people start caring. And they don't start caring all at once."

Indeed, employees are coming around at different times. "I kept thinking this wouldn't last," says Penny Korporal, who works in the lab. "We can't keep doing this, I thought, it's just a phase. But the more you see, the more you believe. Quality is in our hands." Those hands are growing steadier each day, it seems. "I've worked places where you are just a peon, and you read about things in the newspaper before you hear about them," says Angi Ralston, an administrator in trucking. "Here, I feel like I have some say-so in how my job is structured, and what's going to happen to me day to day. I like it more."

That kind of commitment counts for a lot. Not long ago, for instance, a Japanese customer was touring the plant and happened to mention something to Weaver. We reprocess all your corn, he said casually; it's just too dirty for us. After all he's been through, Weaver was taken aback. Was there any pleasing these purists?

Well yes, said the processors. We could slow down the sizing machines, wipe down the color sorter's product chutes, and readjust some of the lighting. "There were things that we had maybe gotten sloppy about," confesses Ulrich. Nobody blew up. Nobody blamed the customer. Nobody reacted defensively.

"The Japanese are tough," says processor Marty Hall. "But the better we get, the better off we are. So it doesn't make me mad anymore. It just makes me better."