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Bruce Hamilton


Caramel Corn Kaizen

Visual flow on New Jersey’s boardwalk

Published: Monday, December 19, 2016 - 12:59

While holiday shopping at one of my favorite food places, Johnson’s Popcorn, I came upon a scene reminiscent of our lean training video, Toast Kaizen. After I placed my order for 18 one-gallon buckets of caramel corn for friends and family, the Johnson’s kitchen shifted gears from mail-order sales to my takeout order.

I couldn’t resist capturing the teamwork on camera. Here it is, or at least one minute of it, the process that produces the world’s best caramel corn.

No doubt, this process, like any other, can be improved, but I wasn’t watching it for that reason. What struck me was that seeing the “process as a whole” is quite different than seeing the “whole process.”

For example, if we walk a typical functionally organized floor, we see the process as a sequence of work, material, and information flow—the “value stream”—but we lose the spontaneity of relationships as we view each component separately at a different point in time. Division of labor along functional lines really does create a division in understanding between those functions. Functional organization may develop focused skills and capabilities, but it also blinds workers to system efficiency opportunities.

Thinking back to my own factory, welders welded, machinists machined, assemblers assembled, inspectors inspected, and packers packed.

In the words of a skilled welder who worked in my factory, “Hey, Bruce. You know I’ve been working here for almost 20 years, but I’ve never actually seen where my parts go once they’re completed.”

Although each function attempted internal improvements, none had a line of sight up- or downstream to inform it about the whole. Value stream mapping at least created a means to share process understanding, but only on a batch basis, delaying problem solving and improvement. Subtle moment-to-moment opportunities were invisible to workers isolated by function.

On the Johnson’s line, however, sharing is instantaneous because every employee could see the process as a whole. Perhaps we would refer to the caramel corn line as continuous flow, or a pull system, or some other lean tool referring to the flow of material, but more important was the breadth of information available instantly to everyone in the process.

Imagine how much more effective our problem solving could be if every function had continuous visibility to every other function in the process. I think we call this teamwork.

While the rest of the Ocean City, New Jersey, boardwalk hibernates for the winter, Johnson’s ramps up to ship its delicious products around the world. My stash of 18 buckets of caramel corn is boxed and awaiting holiday deliveries. Best wishes to you and your team for whichever holiday you celebrate.


About The Author

Bruce Hamilton’s picture

Bruce Hamilton

Bruce Hamilton, president of the Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership (GBMP), brings hands-on experience as a manager, teacher, and change agent. Prior to GBMP, Hamilton led efforts to transform United Electric Controls Co.’s production from a traditional batch factory to a single-piece-flow environment that has become an international showcase. Hamilton has spoken internationally on lean manufacturing, employee involvement, continuous improvement, and implementing change. Also, he has contributed to numerous texts ranging from visual control to variety reduction. Hamilton’s blog, Old Lean Dude, is an ongoing reflection on lean philosophy and practices, with an emphasis on keeping good jobs close to home.