INDIANAPOLIS — In the heartland of the United States, and the center of the self-professed “Kroger land,” Erin Sharp, group vice-president, manufacturing, The Kroger Co., and chair of the American Bakers Association, delivered a keynote presentation at the association’s annual Technical Conference, held Oct. 28-31 in Indianapolis.
“Many people don’t realize that Kroger the grocer is also one of the largest manufacturing companies in the country,” Ms. Sharp said, adding that the business is also the third-largest dairy processor in the United States.
With 19 dairies, two deli plants and seven grocery plants, Kroger is involved in a wide variety of food categories. Indianapolis is the home of Kroger’s most efficient bakery, with high-speed bread and bun lines that automate the process all the way through packaging and a commercial tortilla line that was upgraded earlier this year.
Ms. Sharp addressed conference attendees about the importance of leadership team development. “It’s about inverting the hierarchical triangle so leaders can realize that their roles are to support teams rather than direct them,” she said. “It’s a paradigm shift for many leaders.”
Ms. Sharp believes in empowering teams. “We aspire to have decision-making as close to the products or customer as practical,” she said, noting that teams must be ready before they receive decision-making autonomy. “That’s what we aspire to get to.”
To achieve that goal, Kroger leadership spends a great deal of time in the manufacturing plants to help them define the membership, strengths, responsibilities and boundaries of teams at the plant level. “All this is supported by our core values that are shared across our organization,” she said.
Oftentimes it’s hard for teams to take a vision to fruition, so Ms. Sharp works to bridge that gap by leveraging a system of seven principles that were adopted from the Proctor & Gamble approach to high-performing teams.
“When you look at this process, it isn’t new. Proctor & Gamble brought this to manufacturing in the U.S. in the late 1970s. But for our division, this is new. It’s real change for our people.”
1. Respect for the capability of all associates
In a traditional manufacturing process, it’s easy to assume that one individual can do one task all day long. “In many cases, we assume that’s all they want to do or can do,” Ms. Sharp said. “In this process, you tap into the multiple skills individuals have and the vast untapped capabilities they may have.”
“We’re really driving ownership within a team for the entire process and the plant goals themselves,” Ms. Sharp said.
“This is self-explanatory, but it’s at the core,” she noted.
In many ways, the team structure is designed around this concept. “As you think about a traditionally run plant, where you have big jobs and individuals assigned to certain areas or pieces of equipment, this breaks that down and defines the entire team and all the roles within that team,” Ms. Sharp said. “Over time, your associates become skilled in all areas within that team.”
This excludes jobs such as maintenance, which require a higher level of technical expertise. “It’s a combination of breadth and depth,” she said. “The depth is where you have the subject matter experts within certain processes or areas, but you’ll have a breadth of skills so the team can become agile and flexible for circumstances when people need time off.”
5. Decision making
Definitions are clear regarding what the team owns and their autonomy in making decisions.
6. Continuous Improvement
For Kroger, this is through Total Process Control (TPC). “This is associate-driven,” Ms. Sharp said, noting that TPC uses the principles of lean manufacturing.
“This a principle-based organization,” she said. “This process shies away from rules and regulations and makes you think more in terms of what objectives we’re trying to achieve so we can create a framework around that.”
Ms. Sharp noted that incorporating these principles into a team structure requires time and commitment, but in the end, pays off with increased performance. “Those of us who are living these principles every day can tell you this is the backbone of the high-performing team journey that we are on,” Ms. Sharp said.
The A.B.A. Technical Conference closed with a tour of Kroger’s bakery plant in Indianapolis.