INNOVATE

Portrait of an Agile Manufacturer

Know who understands how a factory works? Factory workers.
KITCHEN SCALE Lori Daniel and Eliot Swartz with a liquifier that holds, heats, and mixes 1,500 pounds of anythingfrom chocolate to tomato sauce. And now you get some idea how Two Chefs on a Roll makes a half-million chocolate souffle cake
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Two Chefs on a Roll's 100,000-square-foot facility has become an unexpectedly powerful sales tool: Co-founders Eliot Swartz and Lori Daniel routinely conduct tours for customers who previously insisted that reps come to them.

The plant is also a model of agile manufacturing, capable of producing a million pounds of food each month. Operations are governed by a 183-step commercialization process that lays out everything from feasibility testing through postlaunch assessment. A half-million-dollar enterprise resource planning system tracks every step in production--more than 2,000 discrete transactions a day--from the arrival of raw ingredients through shipment of final product. The technology also generates new formulas (that is, recipe cards) every time a batch size changes, which helps workers adjust quickly if a customer suddenly doubles its demand for ginger-carrot soup.

Much of the Two Chefs factory was designed by the factory workers themselves. More than two dozen employees met in small groups and then with Swartz to discuss what worked and what didn't in the old plant and describe how, ideally, they would like to do their jobs. Swartz passed their ideas to an architect, and posted the first version of the blueprint for comment. Based on that feedback, additional changes were made.

So, for example, employees complained about their difficulty pouring ingredients into and out of enormous vats. Working with the architect they created a "kettle deck" from which the vats now hang, lowering the rims by several feet (for easy loading) and allowing them to swing downward (for easy unloading). An enormous liquefier is nested in a steam jacket so workers can make hot tomato sauce or cool hummus using the same piece of equipment.

Finished products travel into the packaging room, where employees sort them into boxes, bags, cups, or pouches of various sizes. Workers in lab coats collect samples from some of the unsealed containers and analyze them at diminutive lab tables stocked with microwaves, scales, and test tubes. Using computer readouts they check pH and salt levels--but also more aesthetic qualities. Are the tomatoes crushed enough for this particular customer? Is the fondue too clingy or just clingy enough?

The factory itself changes. The walls, which are constructed of insulated metal panels covered in steel can be taken down and moved around as different parts of the plant expand or contract to reflect changes in business. In the bakery area, flexibility is particularly important, because orders change more frequently here than on the savory side--sometimes daily. So most of the bakery equipment is on wheels. Cords for air and electricity dangle from the ceiling so equipment doesn't have to be positioned near the walls. At the end of a shift, everything is wheeled into the center of the room and hosed down together.

Like a parent buying children shoes, Two Chefs also wanted room to grow. CEO Jeffrey Goh invested in a space one-third larger than was necessary when the plant opened in 2003. The business has already eaten up some of that excess with new cold storage and a USDA processing room for meat and poultry. "Usually people buy what they can afford and worry about expansion when they come to it," says Gary Bosz, the architect who designed the plant. "These guys looked into the future and said, 'If we continue the way we're going, we'll need more than this."

IMAGE: Nick Reuchel
Last updated: Aug 1, 2006

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor-at-large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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