When Clif Bar & Co. made the leap into self-manufacturing in 2016, it was a whole new world. With no established baseline for operations, the bar manufacturer could only improve. Today, Clif Bar has four lines in two facilities located in Twin Falls, Idaho, and Indianapolis, but it’s not finished learning new best practices.

“Since starting our adventures in manufacturing, we’ve made real progress on our journey of going from ‘new’ to ‘good,’ as evidenced by an upward trend our O.E.E. (overall equipment effectiveness),” said Jeb Sloan, corporate engineering team lead for Emeryville, Calif.-based Clif Bar. “In a start-up situation in which we’re commissioning new equipment, training new people and implementing new processes, and developing a culture of continuous improvement, our teams work tirelessly to make our bakeries more predictable, effective and efficient operations.”

Whether it’s a brand new start-up or an established facility that runs multiple stock-keeping units (s.k.u.s) on several lines, continuous improvement is a vital part of efficient bakery production. Much like everyday life, continuous improvement is more about the journey than the destination, but when implemented properly, it can streamline the process, increase yield and improve the bottom line.

“An established continuous improvement program can significantly benefit an operation,” said Joe Owad, director of plant engineering, Pepperidge Farm, a subsidiary of Campbell Soup Co., Camden, N.J. “There are many sources to identify potential line opportunities, including production metrics, financial results or, simply, direct input from production floor associates. But a disciplined approach from an effective program will help call out where those key opportunities exist and then coordinate the necessary input and resources to manage the total process.”

Opportunities ahead

Even in the tightest operations, there’s always room for improvement. It’s often just a matter of uncovering the opportunities.

One place to look is in the O.E.E. It’s a high-level metric that isn’t necessarily actionable on its own but provides trending information that, when read and analyzed properly, acts as an indicator for potential losses in production.

“What you’re looking for with O.E.E. is a trend — either upward or downward — that creates a level of an indicator,” Mr. Sloan suggested.

In other words, it provides access to data that will uncover areas of production that require action.

Continuous Improvement, OEE

It’s important to note, however, that O.E.E. is meant to uncover trends in a specific environment and is not intended to compare one bakery to another or even plant-to-plant or line-to-line.

“When it comes to O.E.E., you can’t think too much about how others are doing it,” Mr. Sloan cautioned. “It’s something to use as an internal type of metric.”

Take Gold Standard Baking. Its flagship plant in Chicago houses four high-s.k.u. lines, while the bakery’s newest facility in Wisconsin runs one s.k.u. For Jeff Dearduff, ­president and chief executive officer, it’s all about identifying accurate baselines for the individual facilities and lines to uncover the continuous improvement opportunities.

“Every s.k.u., every item you’re running, has its own set of particulars that have to be considered, from the time the mix is set up to how the pieces are cut and then all the way through packaging,” Mr. Dearduff said. “When you’re identifying baseline efficiency, all those factors have to be considered. Every item has to have its own distinct theoretical and realistic efficiency set up, and that’s done through calculations.”

One general O.E.E. matrix identifies six major losses — equipment failure, process failure, idling and minor stops, reduced speed, defects in process, and reduced yield — that are grouped into three areas of opportunity: availability, performance and quality.

For example, the difference between planned production time and actual running time results in downtime losses that include equipment failure or process failure, which lead to an availability opportunity for improvement.

Mr. Owad suggested that the best first step is identifying clear, simple metrics.

“If historical data exists, it could provide a simple baseline,” he said. “If not, set up an easy method and established frequency to gather it. With an established baseline in place, you can develop incremental goals to plan improvement efforts and track progress as you go.”

He suggested the “SMART” creation method, which stands for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely.

Operate with the end in mind

Efficient bakery production has more to do with what’s going into the package and onto the trucks than how much is moving down the line. It’s all about the yield.

Let’s take a trip to middle-school math homework: If the front end of a line produces 120 units per minute, but the back end operates at 85 per minute, how fast is the line? By focusing on speed, the operation will create waste.

“If you get down to packaging, where the best you can do is 85, then you’re throwing away that difference,” Mr. Dearduff cautioned.

Focusing on efficiency means producing to the slowest point in the line. It might not feel intuitive, but it closes that gap on product loss, which means more baked goods get onto the truck, and fewer dollars get thrown out the window.

Continuous Improvement, OEE

In the O.E.E. equation, it’s a matter of decreasing the difference between actual output and good output. That gap creates defects in process and reduced yield; closing the gap creates opportunities for increased quality.

“Every piece of equipment has a theoretical maximum speed it is capable of running. As we integrate individual pieces of equipment, we have to stay mindful of the bottleneck in the line and plan for a safety factor that allows for a certain level of redundancy in the system to absorb the minor stoppages,” Mr. Sloan said. “It’s really about making sure the system, end-to-end, is balanced and we’re running at speeds that are optimal not only for a piece of equipment but also how that particular equipment has been integrated with all the others. That gives the total system balance and stability.”

Efficiency means keeping the end in mind, but that doesn’t always mean the end of the production line. Continuous improvement is just that — ongoing — so timelines can be fluid based on overall goals.

“Continuous improvement timelines will vary based on the number of hurdles in the way or actions required to achieve target goals,” Mr. Owad suggested. “Some initiatives produce quick results within days when there is low-hanging fruit to be had, but other improvements may take several months if there are more significant modifications or replacements required.”

Slow equals fast

The tortoise and the hare: It’s an analogy often used to describe the role speed plays in efficient bakery production.

“I have a saying in the bakery and even in life,” Mr. Dearduff said. “‘Go slow to go fast.’”

This means that to achieve success, precision trumps speed.

“If you’re mindful to all the setups, preparation and precision, then speed will equal the trucks being full of product, rather than if you’re running at high speeds with no concern for the particulars that get you there,” he added.

In O.E.E., speed is considered under the performance opportunity, but it must be factored into the capability of the whole line.

“It’s possible to increase performance by turning up the speed, but at some point, you’re going to encounter a bottleneck or introduce downtime, and that will show up as declines in availability or quality,” Mr. Sloan said. “This will cause the O.E.E. to flatten or trend downward, and at that point, you should be able to identify the root cause as running faster than the line is capable.”

As Clif Bar uses continuous improvement philosophies to streamline its manufacturing, the company is cognizant that slowing down to speed up can seem counter intuitive.

Continuous Improvement, OEE

“You just have to get over the urge to turn up the dial thinking that you’ll get more out of it,” Mr. Sloan said. “There will be a point that you go past your peak and will start introducing issues that inhibit the output. Finding that peak is sometimes about learning the hard way.”

The people factor

There are several data-driven continuous improvement tools intended to provide quantitative information that sets the basis for effective, repeatable results without risk of human error. But that doesn’t mean the human resource can be eliminated.

Continuous improvement is a journey with no finish line, and it needs people to navigate. Bakers play a critical role in maintaining efficiency and perpetuating a culture of continuous improvement.

“There’s a significant benefit to provide the required knowledge and training for operators and maintenance personnel to truly understand the line flexibility in an effective manner,” Mr. Owad said. “This knowledge is powerful, and the associates closest to the line are the key to optimizing for ongoing line performance results.”

Mr. Dearduff cautioned that without a properly trained workforce, continuous improvement programs aren’t sustainable.

“Having people selected for specific positions, trained well and engaged in what they’re doing is one of the fastest routes to good efficiency,” he said.

Onboarding, training and proper resources are vital to the longevity of a continuous improvement program.

“Our team members must first have their hearts and minds connected to what they do,” Mr. Sloan said. “They need access to real-time data to manage daily goals and the tools to take action and deliver results. Training, trusted data, display boards, S.P.C. (statistical process control) and the ability to collaborate on the shop floor are all fundamental to maintaining that controlled, stable, calm production line.”

This article is an excerpt from the August 2019 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on continuous improvement, click here.