A Continuous Journey: A Manager’s Growth at Zingerman’s ft. betty gratopp
July 11, 2023
by Cj Pettus
Zingerman’s, a world-renowned community of businesses located in Ann Arbor, offers Nexus participants a glimpse into some of their quality improvement processes. At Zingerman’s Mail Order, workers fulfill and ship orders of Zingerman’s specially selected gourmet foods around the world. Learners in the Lean Manufacturing Week 2 Blue and Kata Mindset courses tour the warehouse, interact with employees, and observe how process improvement strategies look in action.
Production Manager Betty Gratopp has been at Zingerman’s Mail Order for over 25 years. She was part of the small crew preparing 40 order boxes in a day in the late 1990’s and has grown with the company to its current peak where the crew fulfills approximately 8,000 boxes per day during the busy holiday season. Throughout the years, Betty has been an active part of the company’s growth and focus on process improvement.
FOODIES PUTTING GREAT FOOD IN BOXES
When Betty first joined the Zingerman’s team, there were only a few people working on order fulfillment. As she puts it, “when I first started here, we were a bunch of foodies putting great food in boxes. And that’s how we got together, because we loved food and we loved the company.” With a slow pace and manageable demand, the team packed and shipped orders as made sense to them—with no true processes in place. This worked well for a time, but the business became more successful and demand increased.
Betty explained, “And then mail order started getting busier and growing in demand. And customers were expecting more of us.” As the scale of work increased, the team’s lack of processes became a stumbling block. For example, there was no quality control in place. The business was first alerted to a mistake when a customer received an incorrect order and called to tell the company. This wasn’t the ideal way to discover an issue and could become an even bigger problem as the number of orders increased. In order to successfully scale up operations, something needed to change.
AN INITIAL RESISTANCE TO CHANGE
Around this time, Dr. Eduardo Lander, a student of renowned Lean Specialist Dr. Liker, connected with Zingerman’s Mail Order. In the process of completing a thesis, Dr. Lander chose the warehouse as a case study in his exploration of process improvement. He recommended that the Mail Order team implement a single change as a starting point. At the time, the team members created gift boxes and stored them so they were already prepared at the time they were needed to fulfill orders. Dr. Lander suggested a pivot: create the gift boxes just in time and eliminate the already prepared stock of boxes.
Betty listened to this plan and wasn’t impressed. She couldn’t imagine how such a change would work and predicted it would only end in failure.
And she wouldn’t budge—at least, initially. Betty was certain that this change would result in increased errors and other issues in the warehouse. She fought against the idea for a couple of months. But, one day, Dr. Lander presented the idea in a different manner. Betty didn’t have to agree to fully commit to this new process—but could she give it a trial? She was immediately more open, saying, “‘Well, yeah, of course I’ll try it. You never told me we could just try it right?’ And then I became a skeptical but willing-to-try sort of person.” And that willingness to try was exactly what was needed.
A FULL TEAM TRANSFORMATION
The team tried the just-in-time method, and it worked. Not perfectly. Not immediately. Organizational learning and individual growth and understanding of the processes still needed to happen, but those involved in this new process saw that the way they had always done things could be improved upon.
Most important for the team’s acceptance of process improvement was the focus on the people doing the work. As Betty explained, she was told, “We’re not going to dictate how that work is done, but we are going to dictate that we stay on the path no matter what we are doing.” And this led to a new passion and interest for Betty. She, and her fellow teammates, weren’t being forced into specific tools or methodology—they had autonomy over how they did their work—but they were tasked with focusing on process improvement and Lean thinking. Together, they would work toward better methods and outcomes based on proven techniques they could learn and implement in their environment.
PERSONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL GROWTH
Over time, Betty and her colleagues implemented various tools and methodology. Leadership did not force any specific changes onto the team. Team members and management worked together to discuss best practices and how to accomplish their goals. Betty said, “As long as you’re bringing in the people closest to the work alongside of the people making the decision, you’re all making the decision together. And it made it a better experience for all of us in the end.”
In 2012, Zingerman’s added a new way of thinking to its Lean tool belt: Kata. The methodology, which focused on scientific thinking for process improvement, fit perfectly into the existing philosophy. Betty shared, “Kata is all about the people. It’s about engaging the people. That’s what we do at Zingerman’s”.
This new way of thinking, which engaged all of the team members, led to pretty impressive results. For example, one specific internal-facing error rate was around 36% at the time that they implemented Kata. That frequency of error slowed the workflow and diminished the workers’ efficiency. After nearly three years of including Kata in their workflow, that internal error rate was reduced to 1.8%.
Overall, focusing on process improvement paid off—and not just for the business. Betty said, “It’s been a fantastic journey. I have been able to grow and stay engaged with an absolutely wonderful company and a wonderful team who is as interested in keeping me and my brain engaged as I am. My job became more about learning how to engage the brains of others than packing boxes.”
REALITIES OF CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT
An organization that focuses on process improvement is continuously working to do better, and Zingerman’s Mail Order is no exception. There will always be ebbs and flows in success and outcomes. Like many businesses, Zingerman’s had to adjust to a new reality during the COVID-19 pandemic, and their number of errors increased during that time period. As they focused on sanitation and distancing, new hires didn’t receive the same training as those who had already been established, and processes didn’t run as smoothly as a result.
This sort of disruption or increase in mistakes can happen anywhere, but at Zingerman’s, they have the tools to improve and get back to a better point. The company’s focus on continuous improvement means that there are always opportunities to develop team members and revamp systems. After 25 years, Betty isn’t worried about the occasional setback. She shares:
“What I always tell people—if they’re just starting out—is expect that you’re going to stop. It’s not going to be this wonderfully neat, smooth process that you go through. And if you expect that up front, I think it’s a little easier. You’re going to stop. You’re going to go. But I think the most important thing is to learn to restart again and not give yourself so much grief. ‘I’ve tried it 15 times. How many times do you want me to try it?’ As many times as it takes. It’s not about trying it. It’s just about keeping going and using what you learn from each perceived failure or misstep to inform your next step. Keep swimming, Nemo!”