by Kyle Bowman
When organizations run into problems they don’t know how to solve - really tough problems - the first step is often to call in a subject matter expert. Subject matter experts, be it the OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) or a local resource, will lean on their experience to try and draw out a solution. If the problem falls outside of their abilities, they’ll often proclaim the problem impossible. They might suggest a work-around or blame the system and recommend purchasing a new one. Both options are expensive, don’t solve the problem, and cause the organization to either live with the issue or pay for unnecessary capital for a potential solution.
This situation occurred to an improvement team at one of the world’s largest frozen pizza plants, where the standing recommendation was to purchase a new multi-million dollar freezer to solve a problem causing pizza waste.
The problem was not a new one. The plant’s refrigeration department had worked with three different outside HVAC experts to try and solve it. Each time they had heard the freezer just wasn’t up to snuff. They were told they either needed to slow the process down or buy a new freezer – both unacceptable and extremely costly answers. Experts were blaming poor insulation, a potential hole in the freezer, and faulty programming. The problem stagnated, remaining an unsolved thorn in everyone’s side and costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The problem occurred at the exit of an industrial freezer which was intended to freeze the pizzas so they could be easily stacked and packed into boxes for shipping. The pizzas were sometimes coming out of the freezer soft, causing them to be unmanageable and smearing sauce on everything. At least once a week, hundreds of pounds of soft pizza had to be scooped up, bagged, and thrown away. Furthermore, all production had to be shut down for a “freezer defrosting” to remove the thick coat of ice that built up on the freezer’s freezing coils.
So what allowed the team to solve the problem?
They first solidified their definition of where the problem was first occurring by fully understanding the process for freezing the pizza. Pizzas entered the freezer travelling on a conveyor belt that spiraled up, then down, and eventually exited the freezer about ten minutes later.
Rather than focusing on a solution, such as fixing a potentially broken part of the freezer, they focused on defining the problem. They determined that the problem lay not in any broken freezer component, as was the widely held belief, but rather at the outlet of the freezer where the temperature of the pizza was too hot.
To understand this better, they dug into the fundamentals and asked: “What determines the temperature of the pizza at the exit of the freezer?”
Focusing on big picture variables, the pizza’s final temperature is only dependent on its temperature entering the freezer and how much it cools while traveling through the freezer. There were two different levers to pull, either decrease the initial temperature of the pizza or increase the temperature drop of the pizza in the freezer. All previous work had been on trying to cool the pizza further so they focused first on understanding how to decrease the initial temperature of the pizza.
After being topped with sauce, meat, and cheese the pizzas went through a series of melters that rapidly broiled the pizzas, melting the cheese to hold all of the toppings in place. If the cheese didn’t properly melt, the fans and conveyor belt transfers in the freezer would knock off the toppings and cause the pizzas to be rejected by quality control. It was these melters that control the initial temperature of the pizza entering the freezer. The question became, “Was the cheese being over-melted?”
Through some detailed trials, they discovered the pizza was exiting the melters at ~30°F hotter than was needed to still properly melt the cheese. They lowered the temperature setting on the melters. Almost immediately the temperature of the pizzas leaving the freezer dropped. Pizzas that had been coming out almost too soft to handle became as rigid as needed, without changing anything in the freezer itself.
After hearing of the result, the plant manager asked, “So why couldn’t the HVAC experts figure this out?” After giving it some thought, they answered:
- The team never gave in to the mindset that the problem was unexplainable. Instead of relying on the experts to give them the answer, they used the expert’s experience to more quickly understand the process and then did their own analysis.
- They knew which problem they were solving by digging into the fundamentals. This led them out of the freezer entirely and enabled the simple solution to the complex problem.
- They used a structured problem solving method, in this case Variable Analysis, which facilitated the elimination of non-impactful or distracting factors. By the end of the work, they were 100% certain the solution would help the problem.
Even though the team started with an impossible problem – a common starting place of investigations into tough problems – they managed to drive to a solution. Fortunately, though many tough problems seem impossible, any problem can be solved by working like the team at the pizza plant and implementing the right problem solving behaviors and structures.
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