Building a solid knowledge base leads to rapid improvements and acquisition integration.

Many lean companies describe their continuous improvement efforts as long, purposeful journeys down a never-ending road. This hasn’t been the case at food-packaging giant Pactiv.

Since its first kaizen event in the food service segment, Pactiv has pursued a CI strategy more like a cross-country relay race with no finish line: Train, stick to the path, execute the crucial handoffs, and if the weather changes suddenly — don’t get distracted — keep moving and push harder than you think you can.

“I ask for 130 percent of goal,” says Greg Noelitch, formerly Pactiv’s VP of Operations.

The rules and the course are mapped out in omnipresent workbooks that are the outcome of annual strategy deployment planning and are used by four levels of the company—each with its own workbook designed for that level—to guide and document daily CI work. Company leaders provide the workbooks and ample war room space as tools for supervisors, managers and teams to use to choose, plan and implement CI projects that enable the teams at 55 sites to meet financial goals set during strategy deployment.

“We talked about vibrancy, we talked about 5S, and we talked about some of the fundamentals of lean,” says Mike Hatto, a TBM consultant who worked with the Canandaigua teams. “Within a week’s time we put in place a plan to do one kaizen event a month.”

Challenge: Building and leveraging a lean continuous improvement management system in a complex process environment to support an aggressive growth-by-acquisition strategy.

The kaizens at Canandaigua and other plants had demonstrated significant opportunity for improved productivity and decreased costs. For example, in the thermoforming area at Canandaigua, cases produced per man-hour increased 67% post-kaizen; and throughput per machine-hour improved 25%. At Frankfurt, kaizen teams demonstrated an 83% improvement in machine setup time.

While the results of these and the other front-line improvements were impressive, Pactiv leaders knew that they couldn’t stop there. Enterprise-wide problems that could block growth potential persisted:

  • Plants were working independently, without networked strategic alignment.
  • Success storeys were insular, and progress spotty.
  • Sustaining gains was tenuous.
  • CI work was not clearly tied to the corporate bottom line.

Part of the reorganisation was building the early companywide CI infrastructure, which included corporate-level regional CI leaders and widening deployment of the Pactiv Production System, the company’s unique interpretation of lean systems management.

CI leaders gave each plant time-specific performance goals scaled up to the kaizen demonstrated capabilities. About a month later, CI leaders would audit the project to make sure the team was using PPS standard work and tracking to meet expectations.

Solution: Traditional lean assessment, training and rapid improvement events introduced at the plant level; and then over the next five years continuing to build knowledge and alignment across, up and through the organisation by applying more mature lean tools.

As this was happening, the Pactiv CI effort was being elevated to the systems and philosophy level, and knowledge was rapidly building throughout the organisation.

“This process jelled the value stream(s) and created a lot of networking across the technical people. They were constantly talking to each other, and they hadn’t done that before. It was a pretty powerful approach that I still think works well.

—Mike Hatto, TBM consultant

Reorganising into value streams took out more cost by reducing redundancies, but company leaders identified a weak area in sustainment of gains. Hatto remembers that the teams were able to sustain only about half the actual metrics-improvement gains. But, what was also happening that wasn’t being measured was the solidification of a cost-control-focused CI culture — an advantage that continues to propel the company’s growth strategy.

As Pactiv grew through acquisition, the need to replicate its processes and practises became a critical need, as did the needs to do a better job of sustaining gains and tracking progress toward high-level strategic goals. The time had come to introduce strategy deployment, and this is when Pactiv leaders created a four-level approach to achieve alignment.

Result: Pactiv used Operational Excellence to increased revenue by 17% and EBITDA by 33% in one year through improved raw material pass-through, cost-savings initiatives, and organic growth and acquisitions. They also took out $250 million in costs in the same period.

Today, lean CI is embedded in the company’s go-forward strategy, although with an increased emphasis on wringing out costs and freeing up cash. Kaizen events continue, but plant teams schedule these as they see necessary to meet their financial goals, Noelitch says. The executive team and other leaders conduct regular plant audits to cheque on alignment and progress.

Undoubtedly, Pactiv’s successes would not have come without the persistent push to mature as its relay race continues.

The company went from being capital oriented to being working-capital oriented—it’s from worrying about productivity to worrying about cash. That’s a whole different attitude as far as running the company. Throughout all the different endeavours, the bottom line kept improving because the fundamentals were there. As far as sustainment goes, once you educate people, they look at things differently.

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