The Golden Empire Gleaners warehouse was bustling with activity Tuesday, but by all accounts the place was far more orderly than this time last year.
"It's easier. It's quieter," said Pam Lindaman, operations director for Gleaners, a nonprofit agency that distributes food to the needy.
That's because over the past year, Gleaners has completely overhauled the operation of its warehouse to make the food collection and distribution system more efficient. The overhaul was the result of a collaboration between lean manufacturing experts at Aera Energy and staff and volunteers at Gleaners.
Aera President and CEO Gaurdie Banister Jr. offered his company's assistance, and Gleaners took him up on it a little more than a year ago.
"Times are tough. Dollars are tight," said Gleaners Executive Director Pam Fiorini. "We wanted to see what we could do to help more people with our existing resources."
On Tuesday, Gleaners held an open house at its warehouse to show off what it had done. With a new layout, new equipment and extensive retraining of personnel, the warehouse is processing an average of 70 to 80 food orders a day, up from 40 to 50 orders previously, Fiorini said.
And that's just based on current food donations. The warehouse has the capacity to take up to 100 orders a day if it gets more food, Fiorini said.
Prior to reworking its systems, the facility was a mishmash of shelving and aisles. People moving boxes with forklifts and pallet jacks wove in and out of streams of workers restocking shelves and filling food baskets for customers.
Aera initially collected everyone in charge of various aspects of the operation, gave them piles of Legos, and ordered them to build toy airplanes.
Lindaman admits she was skeptical, at first.
"I thought, 'My kids play with Legos and they're no better organized,'" she said.
But Aera's Eric Nielsen and Chris Hooper were trying to make a point.
They timed the exercise, counted how many planes teams of people were able to assemble, and then had them analyze what, along the way, had made the task difficult or slowed them down.
Soon the teams were reorganizing the building process and increasing the number of planes they put together in the alloted time. Then they'd take the constructions apart and do it over again, each time analyzing what went right and what went wrong and how they might do it faster.
By the end of the exercise, the teams had gone from building five or six planes to as many as 35 planes in the same amount of time.
"We tried to get them to look at the process through a new filter," said Nielsen, an information quality process analyst. "One that identifies waste and rearranges the sequences to eliminate it."
Once the group was thinking in those terms, it looked at the internal processes at Gleaners with fresh eyes.
"I've been at this for 12 years, and things were done a certain way for so long before me. After a while, you get tunnel vision," Lindaman said.
Aera and the Gleaners teams took an objective look at how they were doing things and it soon became apparent that there were many changes they could implement to make the warehouse run more smoothly.
All of the shelves where new shipments of food are placed were moved to the east end of the vast warehouse so that forklifts and other heavy loading equipment would no longer be in the paths of pedestrians.
Then they created stations for each step in the assembly process, and hung huge white signs over each station. The first of them says, "Start Here."
The signs have been especially helpful for new people, which is a constant issue for the warehouse because of the high turnover of volunteers, Fiorini said.
Aera also bought Gleaners 80 rolling carts worth $25,000 all together. Each cart is loaded and labeled with a number so that individual orders are easily identifiable. When customers come to pick up food, the appropriate cart is immediately rolled over to them.
Sometimes it's hard to get cooperation when you go into an organization and try to revamp it, but that wasn't he case at Gleaners, said Hooper, a technology innovations team member at Aera who previously did lean processes work.
"I know that if you don't have complete buy in, people are going to revert back," he said. "But once they began to understand lean principles, they started making changes right away. They truly understand what we've been trying to convey, and it's been a joy every single visit."
Hooper added that reworking the systems at Gleaners has been personally satisfying and "a tremendous journey. It's extremely thrilling to work with these people and see them transform."
Aera communications coordinator Kathy Miller said the company has been very pleased with the outcome of the whole project. Unlike a one-time donation, she said, this is a long-term investment that will pay off for years to come.
"We want our community to be as strong as it can," she said. "In this case, it's the strength to feed the hungry."