Winning the Game
by James Dudlicek

New kids on the block are scoring victories at Safeway’s Phoenix ice cream plant.

Phoenix Ice Cream Plant
Location: Phoenix, Ariz.
Year Built: 1993; refurbished 2003.
Size: 112,000 square feet.
Employees: 83 on three shifts.
HTST Capacity: 3,000 gallons per hour.
Receiving: About 100,000 pounds of cream and condensed milk daily.
Freezer Storage Capacity: 4,400 pallet spaces.
Tank Capacity: About 80,000 gallons raw storage, 150,000 gallons pasteurized storage.
Products Made:
Half-gallon square and round packages, 5-quart pails, pints and sandwiches.
Brands Made: Lucerne, Safeway Select, Select Great Escapes, Dairy Glen, Westwood and Jerseymaid.
The project began much like a coach might take on a new batch of raw recruits — by tearing them down and building them back up again.

Only in this case, it was a building that was taken down and rebuilt anew, while the people selected to run it have been expertly coached to perform their assigned tasks with the utmost efficiency.

“We took 100 percent of the processing equipment out of the facility and tore the facility down basically to ceiling, walls and floor. We had a shell,” John Taylor, manager of the Phoenix ice cream plant, says of the facility purchased by Safeway in 2002. “We then proceeded to put in rebuilt or new equipment. Every pipe, every fitting, all wiring, everything in the facility, all the infrastructure was completely changed out. All this was done in a seven-month window.”

The plant, built in 1993 to manufacture frozen novelties, now makes ice cream in round and square half gallons, pints, 5-quart pails and sandwiches for Safeway-owned supermarkets across the United States and abroad. The facility makes products sold under the Lucerne, Safeway Select, Select Great Escapes, Dairy Glen, Westwood and Jerseymaid brands. While products made here are sent across the Safeway network, 60 percent of its output is sold in Phoenix and Southern California. The plant also produces ice cream products for distribution domestically and internationally.
From Cream to Carton
It may sound funny to learn that something as cold as ice cream can be created at the Phoenix plant, here under the warm desert sun. Milk and cream from the United Dairymen of Arizona cooperative are offloaded daily from tanker trucks beneath the canopy of an open-air receiving bay. “All of the cream and condensed milk we receive here comes from the state of Arizona,” says Taylor. “We’ve developed a pretty good partnership with UDA. We meet routinely, we share best practices, so it’s a really good partnership.”
The raw ingredients are tested and held in storage tanks before being moved through the HTST pasteurization system. The computer-controlled system is operated from a work­station that shows what valves are open, which lines and freezers are running — a virtual road map for production.
For example, a check of the raw tanks shows their capacity, temperature of the contents and which tanks are open, among other details. “We track every fluid ounce through this operation,” says Taylor. “I can turn on any agitator or pump with this system.”
Robert Dawson, assistant production HTST operator, explains more about the pasteurization and batching process. “Everything is programmed,” he says. “All you have to do is select the type of product you want to batch and it automatically breaks it down to the amount of gallons and pounds needed for that batch. It automatically opens the valves.”
A metering system on the raw tanks allows right amount of milk in, then air is blown through to capture all the liquid, to eliminate waste. The system also automatically transfers ingredients from the blending room.
A reclaim system captures milk and cream components in the lines for reuse. “The dollar savings can be huge,” notes Taylor. Raw tanks are segregated to specific production lines. “It helps us control our allergens in the flow of product,” says Taylor.
The flavoring station includes “swing tanks” that allow washdown to occur without having to shut down the production line; tanks must be washed every 24 hours, says Taylor. Meanwhile in the blending room, a lift table is used to raise sacks of cocoa and other ingredients to the proper level for pouring into the mix.
The completely integrated batching system is also set up to add a variegate, along with an ingredient feeder to add nuts, marshmallows and other inclusions. The system won’t allow the process to move to the next step without an acknowledgment that the correct combination of ingredients has been added. The line also will shut down if the freezer fails.
“I have complete control of the line at the touch of a button,” says filler operator Scott Davis, adding that the system has dramatically improved plant efficiency. “I don’t have to run to four different locations (to run the line). I can set my freezers in the morning, select my recipe, then I come back and hit ’ready,’ set my mix-ins … once I have a good mix to the liquifier, I’ve got production.”
While the mix is being prepared, cartons are being formed in the next room to capture it all. Flat cartons are fed into a can former, which wraps the paperboard stock around a metal cylinder and heat-seals a bottom on the carton. The formed cartons are fed into the filling room on one line, while the lids are sent down another.
The Phoenix plant makes 80 round carton flavors and 40 square carton flavors for Safeway’s various brands. Rotary fillers lift cartons two at a time into position, fill them and move them ahead for capping. Cartons are then tamper-banded, weighed and run through a metal detector. Six samples are taken from the line every 15 minutes to check for proper weights. After code dating, cartons are bundled with clear plastic into six-packs and sent into the hardener.
Random samples are taken from the line for product cuttings; cartons of product are sliced open for floor staff to check them for consistency and taste.
Pints, pails and sandwiches spend four to six hours in a spiral hardener, while half gallons spend six hours on the rotating shelves of the polytray hardener. All are hardened at –40 degrees F and are taken to a core temperature of 0 degrees before they leave the hardener.
Then they’re off to be palletized. Bundles make their way down a conveyor and are stacked on pallets by one of two automated robotic cranes, nicknamed “Chilly” and “Willy.” Pallets are full at eight cases high, totaling 80 to 120 cartons per pallet. “We have a 99 percent success picking with these robots,” says Taylor. “We drop less than 1 percent of the product.”
Completely automated, the system’s only human interaction is changing over at the end of a run.
When a pallet is full, it moves down the conveyor belt to a turntable that spins the pallet while the stack is wrapped in clear plastic. Wrapped pallets move ahead to a door leading to cold storage warehouse. The door automatically opens when the system detects a waiting pallet, which is picked up on other side by a manned forklift with climate-controlled cab. The forklift operator consults an onboard computer for where to deliver the pallet within the 4,400-pallet-space warehouse that’s kept at a constant –20 degrees F.
And even with such massive product and machinery, neatness counts. “Everything’s faced off with no plastic hanging,” notes Taylor. “These guys pay incredible attention to detail.”
The warehouse serves six shipping bays, which host five to 15 trucks daily that are loaded and sent out to the plant’s customers.
Rising From the Ashes
The Phoenix plant has come a long way in a relatively short time to its current high-tech status.
“No area of the building was left untouched,” says Taylor, explaining that the facility was actually divided into two plants, prompting Safeway to cut in ramps and doors to create a unified plant.
Safeway installed all new or refurbished processing equipment to replace what was in the plant before the acquisition. “This was taken down to floor and ceiling,” recalls Taylor. “There was no pipe left.”
But as important as having good machinery is having a great workforce to run it. Safeway went to great lengths to select a team of go-getters willing to learn about the latest in high-tech ice cream manufacturing.
“Except for two or three folks who have been with the company for a long time, 95 percent of the people have been with the company a year or less here in this facility. Less than 5 percent had ever made ice cream,” says Taylor, explaining how his team had to develop not only a hiring procedure but also a handbook under which the new crew would work.
“It’s a team-based hiring process in which the candidates spend three hours with us through a series of two-on-one interviews. Then a group exercise — we put eight strangers around a table with a problem to solve and we began to watch them interact, how well they worked with people, how well they could negotiate and communicate their points.”
More than 500 candidates went through the three-hour process, eventually resulting in the crew of 83 that runs the plant today.
New employees — or associates, as they’re called at the Phoenix plant — completed a four-week orientation process, which included a full day of safety and an ice cream short course put on by industry experts. “We then went through the philosophy of the company,” says Taylor. “Through that we implemented all of our operating procedures. All of that is about a year old.”
The plant made its first ice cream on March 31, 2003, and followed up by phasing in five production lines from March to November of that year.
Associates come from a diverse background of experience. For example, production operator Prentice Moore used to work for Motorola.
Moore says the training offered for new employees was very beneficial. “We learned about viscosity and freezing and everything about making ice cream. After training, I had a really good understanding of what I was getting into,” he says. “This is just as automated as the equipment I worked on at Motorola. It’s a very impressive facility.”
The tremendous training effort got the help of matching funds from the state. “We obtained a training grant from the state of Arizona,” says Taylor. “We added 80 jobs to the Arizona economic base.”
To enhance operational flexibility, employees are cross-trained. “We have maintenance people who do production tasks. We have production people who do maintenance,” explains Taylor.
This climate of teamwork is appreciated by the associates. “We’ve all had to really work together. It’s a real team effort,” says maintenance technician Joe Hedgecoth, noting the benefits of cross training. “I have to operate the machinery to understand how to repair it.”
Taylor launched the Phoenix plant with maintenance manager Bob Pfeifer, who previously worked at Safeway’s ice cream and cultured plant in Bellevue, Wash. “It has been quite a journey,” says Pfeifer, explaining how the plant’s automated maintenance system generates all work orders and keeps track of data. “We know the line efficiency of every piece of equipment.”
Furthermore, digital message boards displayed around the plant report efficiency statistics as the shifts progress. Pfeifer says the plant follows a “pyramid” for world-class maintenance with 21 levels of goals, and the team is now in the process of perfecting the fourth level.
“We started with only two experienced technicians. We’ve trained them and cross-trained them,” he says, noting how another goal is to eventually have all associates participate in offsite training. “It’s going to pay off. We’re going to build our own experts.”
These home-grown experts are already doing what Safeway intended — taking a personal stake in the business they do. “These guys have really been able to set an example,” says maintenance supervisor Rod Benson. “There’s nothing better than to be able to take ownership, in ice cream or in anything. They have something to look back on and see their results.”
The Phoenix plant team reviews its results and sets new goals every day at their visual production meetings. These meetings are the forums at which line personnel review their performance, seeing whether they met, exceeded or missed their previous day’s goal and how far they’re on their way to meeting that day’s target. Data is posted for all to see while associates discuss production issues. Red and green numbers indicate goal achievements and misses for the three shifts on each of five lines.
Teams that meet or exceed production goals qualify for monthly cash bonuses, part of the company’s “Share the Success” program. “When we succeed, it gives us an opportunity to share the profits with our associates,” explains Taylor. “There are five components: efficiency, waste, housekeeping, safety and quality. Those five categories are the core discussion points (at daily meetings). At the end of every day, all associates know exactly what their contribution will be if the period ending at that moment. The purpose of the daily meeting is generation of corrective actions from key performance measures that are not achieved for the previous day. We track a ’batting average,’ so to speak — a completion or promise log.”
Plant leaders use a kaizen approach (a Japanese concept meaning to break apart a situation, analyze it and put it back together to make it better) to solve problems on the floor. “We do those about once a quarter,” says Taylor. “We just tackled an event on control over inclusions and variegates being added in. Generally, we expect a 50 percent improvement in productivity and a 50 percent reduction in waste. It’s all driven by associates — associates meeting for a week, trying to improve the process that’s being targeted for that activity.”
Communication is a key factor to making the plant run smoothly, not only in the daily meetings, but out on the floor, according to maintenance technician Bill James, one of only two in the engineering department who came to the new plant with ice cream experience. “It’s very important for us to stay on the line to make sure the freezers are running right,” he says.
James explains how Safeway made the lines easy to run from one panel, from where operators can run lines precisely to chosen preset recipes. “It’s all about cutting down on waste,” says James, explaining how the automation frees up operators to clean their work area and inspect the machinery to ensure lines are running correctly.
Operators and batchers communicate by radio so fillers get enough cartons, batch mix and other materials sent to them for running the line, explains James. “These operators have come a long way,” he says. “It’s not just an assembly line. They have to constantly adjust to conditions.”
All associates are aware of the whole production process, says Taylor. “You have to think about who your customers and suppliers are,” he says, referring to associates ahead on the production line sending ingredients or product forward as well as those farther down the line. “There are a lot of customer-supplier relationships throughout this facility.”
In keeping with this attention to efficiency and detail, tools, spare parts and cleaning equipment are neatly stored on portable carts or wall racks that are clearly marked for easy use. “We know where everything is,” says Taylor. “We don’t waste time during production runs trying to find something.”
Plant Technology
Given the newness of the Phoenix plant, Safeway has gone to great lengths to make it as high-tech as possible.
“The PLC control processing systems allow us to put quality into every batch we make,” Taylor says, further noting how the plant’s computer-based ingredient and finished-good tracking system permits tracking of the location and code date on all products and ingredients.
Among the plant’s other innovations are the heated forklifts in the freezer, robotic palletization and fully integrated freezer centers. “We can track every ounce of fluid from receipt to shipment as it goes through the facility,” says Taylor. “Other innovations are the continuous production capability, where we can run our freezer centers and our fillers on all our lines while cleaning critical pieces of the operation.”
Taylor says future capital projects would include enhancement of the robotic palletizing system and other ways to fine-tune the initial investment in the facility. “We’re just impressed every day with how the plant is running, but one efficiency improvement opens up opportunities in other areas,” he says.
Craig Fullmer, director of dairy supply operations, says spending will be aimed at Safeway’s mission of quality, service and value. “If there’s a new product we can get into by spending some capital, we’re not averse to doing that,” he says.
Safety First
The “safe” in Safeway came a long way at the Phoenix plant just with the installation of walkways after the company took over the facility. “They’ve made such big progress to make everything so accessible,” says production assistant Ron Cooper. “We can go up and over for a bird’s eye view of everything. It’s amazing how far we’ve come.”
Of course, many other things have been introduced since then to enhance ergonomics and workplace comfort for Safeway associates.
“The robotic palletization versus the hand palletization — that is an area where we’ve really invested some dollars up front to eliminate back injuries,” says Taylor. “The stationary fillers — all the equipment operators need is right in place. From an ergonomic standpoint, to drag a filler in and out, and change a line over, it’s quite tedious and isn’t a lot of fun. The heated forklifts make a great improvement in the warehouse. We also use a series of lift tables anywhere that we can. We do mini-kaizen events on workplace decluttering or improvement.”
Furthermore, the can-forming area has undergone a gradual evolution. “We had an initial design, and we had to redesign the area after three months because we realized it wasn’t effective,” says Taylor. “So we’ll generally hit an area five times before we get it to where it needs to be.”
Other areas continue to evolve. “From an ergonomic standpoint, our filler operators cover a 50-foot diameter. We know, after operating a year, that we can squeeze that down to make them effective and more efficient,” says Taylor.
Currently being revamped, the plant’s safety committee — consisting of hourly and salaried personnel — meets routinely. “We have a safety suggestion program where we physically go out and evaluate every suggestion that comes in,” says Taylor. “We have complete accident investigation with root-cause analysis. Everybody went through eight hours of safety training before they started their job. Then we do biweekly safety audits where we’ll pair up with hourly associates and audit areas for safety and housekeeping, looking for trip hazards, checking eyewash stations, fire extinguishers, walkways and those types of things.”
Product Perfection
The same level of attention also is paid to product quality. Quality manager Kim Hansen explains the two-tiered supplier certification at the corporate level, with one branch focusing on plants and the other on suppliers and co-packing operations.
“All our vendors that we use go through a supplier certification program. We really can’t purchase anything (from them) unless they have been certified,” says Hansen. “They’re audited on an annual basis.”
In-house inspections further verify supplier product. “We’ll do random checks,” says Hansen. “Since they are certified suppliers, the reason they got to that status is because we do believe the information they’re sending us is correct. But we’ll randomly check to verify what the supplier says they’re sending us is what we got. We’ll do microchecks. We’ll do tests on variegates to make sure the viscosity is right, it’s the right thickness, that it meets kosher standards for our products that are kosher.”
Internal audits are one of the main functions of the plant’s lab technicians. “We audit the incoming ingredients, then out on the line we do quality checks every half-hour, looking at the amount of inclusions,” says Hansen. “We do safety checks, making sure the metal detector is operating correctly, the code dates are right, the packaging is what we want. They’ll verify the ingredients, check the code dates, make sure we have all the information written down in case a supplier comes back to us with any type of issue. It’s up to the lab technicians to walk around and make sure the conditions of the plant meet GMP (good manufacturing practice) standards.”
Taylor says one of the plant’s initiatives this year is to enhance the auditing processes and concentrate on auditing standard operating procedures.
The Phoenix plant has implemented HAACP after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) used Safeway’s Bellevue plant for a pilot program. “We’re rolling that out to all the other plants now,” says Hansen. “There’s a lot of paperwork. Every half hour we do quality checks on the line, then randomly through the day, depending on how long the run is, microtesting some of the product. We use petri film, check for butterfat content, make sure the product is up to specifications.”
The process is checked at every stage of production, from raw ingredients to finished product. “We test a batch three times, we test a truckload three times, beginning-middle-end,” says Taylor.
Using two systems to test butterfat levels helps “keep ourselves in check,” he says. One method takes 40 minutes, the other takes five. All finished product is held from shipping for 24 hours until all microtesting is completed.
To emphasize Safeway’s focus on quality, Fullmer notes that the Phoenix plant has not had to pull product due to quality contamination since running its first batch. “I think that screams to our focus on quality,” he says. “We just try to do it right the first time.”
Facing Challenges
Employee turnover has been a challenge in operating the Phoenix plant, Taylor says. “We actually have lower turnover than most start-ups. You’d generally expect 50 to 60 percent,” he says. “Our turnover tends to impact our skilled positions.”
But whatever the challenge, plant leaders strive to keep the whole team in the loop. “We’ve got a lot of things in place — communication efforts, monthly meetings, periodic updates to tell folks how we did, how the business is going. We do a lot of interactive things on the floor to try to engage the associates and really try to make them feel they do have a say, because they truly do,” says Taylor. “I think that’s one of the most significant challenges in allowing us to continue to move forward, reducing our cost per unit, increasing our productivity and efficiency.”
Taylor likens the operation of this new plant to the first couple thousand miles on a new car. “We’re still test-driving the facility,” he says. “As our performance continues to increase, it exposes weaknesses in areas that we have to respond to. And that’s a challenge — a continual debugging. What we’re doing there is extensive maintenance training. We’re partnering up with our suppliers, asking them to educate us on the equipment, what we should do to improve performance. Then we’re having them train our maintenance technicians and work side by side with them to help bring them up to speed, as well as the operators. We’ve partnered with our packaging suppliers, our filler equipment suppliers, our freezer suppliers, and they’ve really been interactive with doing hands-on training with both operators and maintenance. When something pops up, we respond much quicker because we know.”
Taylor stresses the importance of the team effort in making Safeway’s Phoenix ice cream plant a success. “The plant was built on a one person-one vote foundation, whether you’re plant manager or the newest person in the operation,” he says. “Obviously we have decisions to make, and we make those at our level. But when we come down to driving the business and pushing performance, we bring everybody into the fold. We celebrate our victories and we challenge ourselves to improve our opportunities.”
Taylor points to the material posted in the hallway off the plant’s main entrance — profit and loss figures, costs, efficiency reports, safety records, photos of associates at plant functions — as a demonstration of the company’s commitment to the team philosophy.
“We communicate everything to our associates,” he says. “Some of the things that may be taboo (to share) in other environments, we share with our associates. They need to know those things as a member of the team. Look at our organizational chart — I’m at the bottom, the hourly associates are at the top. Everything we do emphasizes that. Our people win the game. We’re just coaches. We’ll do anything we need to do to support them. Physically, they’re winning the game, day in and day out.”
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