As a self-described “manufacturing guy,” German Sahid Chavez believes Mission Foods needs to not only benchmark its performance against the top guns in the food industry but also emulate how it operates against other high-flying industries as well.

And for him, not surprisingly, one of the best of the best comes from the airline industry.

“Southwest has a clear definition of what they want to do,” noted Mr. Chavez, vice-president of manufacturing for the Irving, TX-based tortilla company. “They have a clear vision, and they don’t do things that don’t fit that vision. For manufacturing, they have only one type of plane. When you have only one type of production line, you only need to train your employees once, and they are then able to run any line anywhere.”

During the past few years, Mission Foods has adopted a version of the Southwest keep-it-simple model to streamline how it produces tortillas in its 21 plants across the nation. The model has allowed it to standardize training for the 6,000 employees that work in manufacturing, create room for promotion from within the organization and roll out its comprehensive lean manufacturing programs that drive organic growth as well as provide better service for its customers.

The bottom line? Simplicity translates into efficiency. “When [you] have a lot of efficiency, [you] can bring costs down, and that creates value for the customer,” Mr. Chavez said. “That’s what we have been doing for the last three or four years.”

That efficiency can be seen throughout the nearly 200,000-sq-ft plant in Panorama City, CA, which serves Southern California retail customers with tortillas and tortilla chips sold under the Mission and Guerrero brands. Mission Foods also supplies the region through its 311,000-sq-ft Rancho Cucamonga, CA, facility, which the company touts as the “world’s largest tortilla-making facility” with 25 lines that mainly supply the foodservice channel. Its slightly smaller Olympic Blvd. plant in Los Angeles also runs 25 lines to provide products for both the retail and foodservice markets.

Currently, the Panorama City facility houses six lines. Its three “press” lines crank out 720,000 lb of wheat flour tortillas weekly while two corn lines turn out the equivalent of 750,000 lb of finished products a week, according to Alvaro Pelayo, its 40-year-plus veteran plant manager. The plant also has one tortilla chip operation.

And there’s room to expand throughout the facility. The wheat tortilla department has space for three more press lines — two of which will be installed in 2016 to meet anticipated demand in a market where Mission Foods already commands a dominant share. The corn tortilla operation can easily fit four more lines while the frying area has room for one additional line.

Overall, the new systems will not likely feature huge advances in new technology. Over the years, Mr. Chavez observed, tortilla production lines have just gotten bigger, faster and more efficient. Where the quantum leaps have occurred involve information gathering tools that collect more real-time data on the operation to gauge daily, weekly, monthly and year-to-date performance that’s analyzed to enhance statistical process controls. “It’s made it a lot easier for us to make decisions to improve quality, processes and efficiencies,” Mr. Chavez said.

Soaring performance

As a company, Mission Foods has seen sales outperform the tortilla industry during the past three years, especially in the Midwest, East Coast and the Northeast where it doesn’t dominate the market as it does in California. Additionally, the company’s operating profit continues to grow at double-digit rates partly through eliminating non-performing SKUs, going back to basics and doing what it does best — and that’s making fresh, high-quality tortillas as naturally as possible.

In Panorama City, the wheat tortilla department manufactures only 14 SKUs — eight under the Mission umbrella and six carrying the Guerrero brand, which is the company’s top-selling line for the Hispanic market. Meanwhile, the corn operation only makes seven SKUs including two for Mission and four for Guerrero. Tortilla chips are sold under the Mission brand in the company’s signature brown paper bags.

To react more quickly to consumer trends, market demand and customer orders, Mission Foods relies on high-volume production lines to produce its top-selling products such as its 10 pack of 8-in. “super soft” wheat tortillas, according to Mr. Chavez.

“We also have smaller lines where we need to constantly changeover with different formulas, different flavors and different characteristics,” he added. “If you put all of those changeovers on a big line, you just create a lot of waste and a lot of downtime. Every minute that you’re down on the big line, you’re losing a lot of throughput.”

That can been seen in Panorama City’s wheat flour tortilla department where the so-called big line produces 3,000 lb an hour while two smaller lines each output 2,000 lb an hour. Mr. Chavez said the two new lines being installed next year will each turn out 2,000 lb an hour in an effort to provide a balance of increased capacity and speed to market.

Maps to excellence

Like Southwest’s “transfarency” philosophy, Mission Foods provides employees transparency on its operations so that the plant’s 196 employees know how well each department is performing. In fact, the walls of the hallway toward the entrance to the production area are lined with charts mining data and measuring performance for production, food safety, maintenance and sustainability, just to name a few. At Panorama City, Mission Foods benchmarks not only against other food companies and industries but also against itself.

In many ways, these reports are the flight plan for continuous improvement, according to Mr. Pelayo. And, he added, the standards are set pretty high. “We are very hard on ourselves,” he noted.

The walls also outline Mission Foods’ mission, its vision, guiding principles for employee behavior and even one that tracks how well the plant is succeeding in the 5S workplace organization method that includes the alliterative philosophy of sort, straighten, shine, standardize and sustain.

Throughout the operation, for example, the “sort” of the 5S program is visually apparent with each piece of equipment parked in a designed location painted on the floor or hung on racks. Mechanics have their own locked toolboxes where each tool is placed in a specific, organized foam location. Upon starting a shift, mechanics must fill out a checklist of the tools in the box and receive a supervisor’s approval before entering the production area.

Additionally, the company engages in Six Sigma, a disciplined, data-driven approach for eliminating products and services that deviate from customers’ specifications or expectations. This year, it also started a program that systemizes safety. Like Six Sigma, Lean Safety relies on identifying the root cause of a problem, according to Paul De La O, director of manufacturing for the southwest region who oversees the three plants in Southern California as well as one in Phoenix.

The fundamental approach to Lean Safety involves the “five whys.” “For maintenance, for example, it’s based on asking why — five times — to get to the root cause on most downtime or safety issues,” Mr. De La O said. “Why did it happen? Maybe there was water on the floor. Why was water there in the first place? In some situations, we may go up to 10 ‘whys,’ but in most cases, you should have an answer after five questions.” He added that maintenance personnel are authorized to shut down the line if they see a potential situation that would compromise quality or safety.

Engagement provides a key component to creating a lean culture driven toward results. The company encourages employees to “connect” to one another, to “involve” everyone and create a cohesive workforce. That connection creates transparency and goes all the way from the top down. During Baking & Snack’s visit, Mr. Pelayo proudly pointed to a poster with his photo on it with his phone number that urged his team to contact him with comments or potential problems.

Heart of production

The goal of these programs is to develop a culture in which employees are passionate about what they do, what they produce and how they serve consumers in their communities with fresh, quality products, according to Mr. Chavez.

In the Panorama City facility certified by the Safe Quality Food (SQF) Institute, production runs three shifts, five days a week. For food safety, Mission Foods conducts microbial swabbing all of its equipment to check for cleanliness at a level that can’t be seen with the naked eye. Weekly reports are sent all the way up the ladder to Mr. Chavez. “Now we have the documentation,” he said. “We know the micro levels on pieces of equipment. I know we are producing very clean, safe products.”

The plant has about 69,000 sq ft dedicated to processing and packaging, more than 74,000 sq ft for warehousing and around 55,000 sq ft for offices and supporting departments.

Currently, six Zeppelin Systems 155,000-lb silos supply bulk ingredients — four for corn flour and two for the wheat production lines — with Great Western Manufacturing sifters. There are outdoor silo pads for six more units, basically doubling capacity. In a separate room, minor and micro ingredients are prescaled and placed in baskets, one per batch. A color-coded sticker signals the product variety for each batch. Overall, the warehouse carries only a 24-hour inventory of minor ingredients.

In a separate room, two Peerless 1,000-lb horizontal mixers feed the 2,000-lb wheat flour lines. All equipment on these lines from dividing to packaging is produced in-house by Tecnomaiz, the equipment division of Mexico-based Gruma Corp., which also owns Mission Foods.

The 3,000-lb line, installed in 2013 after Mission Foods closed its Ft. Worth, TX, facility, uses a Peerless 1,600-lb mixer. After chunking, the dough is conveyed to one of two Gemini/Werner & Pfleiderer 8-pocket divider/rounders. The doughballs travel down chutes to an intermediate proofer and enter a proprietary Tecnomaiz hot press. The tortillas bake for 32 seconds at 480°F in a Tecnomaiz three-pass oven before entering a cascading cooler in an enclosed temperature-controlled room because of the big line’s high volume. On the smaller lines, tortillas receive ambient cooling in the packaging department.

The packaging room is designed for flexibility. After passing through an EyePro Q-Bake vision system, the tortillas enter automatic counter/stackers before they’re manually bagged. Depending on the SKU and the production line, the packages may be heat-sealed in a Bosch Doboy or UBE system, placed in resealable flat bags or closed via Burford Twist/Tyers. Following metal detection, the packages pass over Heat and Control Ishida checkweighers and then are manually casepacked and palletized.

In a separate room for making corn tortillas, the plant uses Tecnomaiz continuous mixers, sheeting and die cutting systems. The tortillas bake in a three-pass oven and receive ambient cooling and packaging similar to the flour lines.

Mission Foods is exploring ways to automate packaging in its 21 US facilities using horizontal flowwrappers. In fact, it does use robotic stackers and flowwrappers for some foodservice products. However, in the retail arena, Mr. Chavez noted that consumers currently prefer to have their tortillas packed in polybags, and the company continues to conduct research on how to educate shoppers about accepting a different packaging format.

Better serving the market

To streamline distribution, Mr. De La O maps incoming orders and then determines the most efficient way to get products from the four plants in the Southwest region to Mission Foods’ retail and foodservice customers. In some instances, the Panorama City facility exchanges products with the Rancho Cucamonga and Olympic operations to reduce transportation costs in the highly congested Southern California market.

Using SKU harmonization, Mission Foods also enhanced its warehouse performance over the past few years. For example, the company has stopped distributing products such as potato chips that were produced by other companies in an effort to be a one-stop shop and be everything to everyone. Now, this high-performance company is realizing greater efficiencies by narrowing its focus to shipping only items manufactured by its own facilities.

Like Southwest, it’s just keeping it simple.

“It’s not that we’re reinventing ourselves,” Mr. Chavez said. “We went back to what we do best.”