Paying attention to the process helps Michigan pickle processor thrive

Achieving success as an agribusiness is a value-added proposition for Bob McClure’s family.

The relatively small, family owned company, McClure’s Pickles, has become a well-known producer of artisanal cucumbers. Its products are available at select stores throughout the United States, and can be found in specialty shops in Australia, the United Kingdom, Ireland and South Korea. McClure’s also has teamed up with Detroit snack food maker Better Made to produce a classic crinkle cut potato chip, available in Garlic Dill or Spicy Pickle.

McClure's PicklesEight years after its establishment, McClure’s is housed in a 20,000-square-foot factory, producing more than 1 million units of product annually and grossing more than $3 million in revenue just on the pickled foods it makes.

“We want to add value for the consumer,” McClure said during an appearance at the Michigan Food Processing & Agribusiness Summit in Hudsonville, Michigan, “starting with the actual finished product – what goes into it. We have to use the best possible quality ingredients that we can from our suppliers.”

To meet high customer expectations, the company has fine-tuned its production and quality control efforts. McClure said that in its early stages in 2006, the company was “producing our product to demand. Not much about it was operationally streamlined, efficient or effective.”

By 2011, McClure’s was producing on average 150 cases (180 units) per shift (12-hour days) with a lean crew of six full-time employees and a handful of part-time employees in 1,500 square feet of packaging and storage.

“We had very limited space, and we did what we could to maximize the potential to produce output. However, we were working very hard at what we were doing and not necessarily working smart at what we were trying to achieve.

“By 2013, we were producing on average 185 cases per shift (10-plus hour days) with now 15 crew members,” he said. “At this point, we have moved from a 3,000-square-foot space to a 20,000-square-foot space (more than five times greater), yet we were producing but 18 percent more product output in two to three hours less.”

In mid-2013, the company brought in business consultant Rob Stauffer from the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center to review its processes – specifically the value-added production stream – through the use of a Kaizen audit.

Kaizen is the Japanese word for good change or improvement. It is a process evaluation that allows for increased production output, less waste in the production stream and ongoing value-added work and continuous improvement.

“This was a four-day event to review the current process and establish improvement methods,” he said. “A little more than one day into the Kaizen and we had improved production by 20 percent.

“Finding value and eliminating waste in your process is ultimately up to you, your perceptions and your business culture. An outside eye can certainly help if you don’t know where to start.”

The “symptoms” of process inefficiencies “are the result of larger-root problems

that must be investigated to implement value-added processes to your business,” he said. “You will always need to revisit, re-evaluate your standards of work, your processes and your perceptions. Waste loves to hide. You may solve waste in one area, but it will silently creep into other areas of your business.

“Shine light on the waste,” McClure said. “Make value-added decisions, building a culture around team members in your company that has value to them as well as yourself, as well as to consumers who buy your product.”

In its first facility, the company stored cucumbers in buckets before they were hand-sliced and hand-packed and hand-capped into jars.

Bob said the process has been streamlined considerably. Large 60-gallon kettles holding the brine solution have been replaced with even larger kettles. The slicing is no longer done by hand. A slicing machine has been more efficient – and safer for employees. It also gives the workers more time to hand-pack jars, enhancing quality control.

“As I look back to where we were, you see there’s no way to scale (some of the initial production practices) and continuously add value without changing your operations and your understanding and perception of how your business needs to grow in terms of adding value and streamlining the production process,” Bob said.

“We were taking guesses at what was adding value to our process,” he said. “In some respects, it aids you to achieve significant growth and enables you to take small steps along the way.”

— Gary Pullano, contributing writer

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