My favorite lean interview question

“What made you happy on your last job?”

My answer:

“Four lab technicians and I enjoyed each other’s company during a shift change. I suggested we start getting paid for talking. We were very close when we formed our team, The Remarkable Lab Rats. We hit the ground running.

One variety of canned dog food irritated all of us. The cooking temperature had to be adjusted continually during the production run. If the cooking temperature was too low, the ground turkey would not form a loaf; the contents looked like thick soup. If the cooking temperature was too high, the loaf would look small in the can. The cooking/sterilizing process took two hours. Many times, before changes in the cooking temperature took affect, the continuous flow of product would turn good. The changes then caused another downturn. We hated this product.

Quality assurance records included the number of sample cans (out of 20) with unacceptable image for each hour of production. To our surprise, 72% of the complaints for soupiness came from hour codes that only exhibited small loaf defects, 28% came from hour codes that had no image defects, and no complaints were made from hour codes with only soupy image defects. The customers’ terminology was different from ours. Our customers called a small loaf with a lot of broth, “soupy.” This is the opposite of what we labeled this image. If the plant had initiated corrective action without fully examining consumer complaints, we would have intensified the problem.

Analytical testing on this product was done at the end of the shift. Eight cans, one from each hour of the shift, were blended together for testing. This blending could mask a problem with part of the shift’s product. We decided to individually test each hour code a complaint came from. The plant kept samples of each hour code for months.

Normally, the shift’s protein level for this product was over 11%. Every hour code that resulted in customer complaints for the past year had protein levels below 11%. Our problem was low protein. Since this product was all turkey, it was easy to find the source. One supplier’s turkey shipments dropped from an average of 14% protein to an average of 12% protein during the past nine months. Twelve per cent protein turkey was still acceptable. The other suppliers kept sending 14% protein turkey, thus causing the inconsistent production runs.

A research scientist told us an ingredient in protein, collagen, causes the turkey to set up and form a loaf. As long as the protein level is high enough, all soft loafs will solidify. We already knew this minimum protein level was 11%. This had great implications for our plant. As long as we kept the protein level up, we could run on the soft side and eliminate the small-loafed, overcooked product our customers were dissatisfied with.

Our greatest achievement wasn’t turning our worst product into our best product. Our greatest achievement was teaching our company how to focus on the customer.”

This interview question is a practical application of Hertzberg’s Motivator Hygiene Theory and McClelland’s Theory of Needs.

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