With Ninkasi’s growth, the brewery sought assistance from Oregon Manufacturing Extension Partnership, an organization that helps increase efficiency and improve safety by bringing changes to a manufacturer's technology, management and labor relations. Pictured here are Ninkasi’s founders. Photo courtesy of Ninkasi Brewing Company
By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
When a brewery is scaling production and operations, there’s often a focus on just getting through the day and dealing with problems as they happen. But as a company grows, they realize greater success can only come through better systems. By bringing on changes to manufacturing processes, management, technology and labor relations, breweries not only can improve safety records and increase efficiency; they can decrease costs and increase profits.
In 2013, Eugene-based Ninkasi Brewing Company had come to such a crossroads. They turned to Oregon Manufacturing Extension Partnership (OMEP), a not-for-profit organization that helps Oregon manufacturers grow through innovation and respond to the challenges of a global economy. (OMEP has previously provided consulting services for Fort George Brewery, Three Creeks Brewing Company and Deschutes Brewery.)
“Ninkasi didn’t want to be in firefighting or crisis mode all day long,” explains Chris Scherer, president of OMEP. “In a high-growth situation that can be normal, but companies that move forward realize they don’t want to stay that way.”
OMEP put together an operational excellence program, including recommendations on processes, safety, technology and even management and labor structure. By adopting the program, Ninkasi realized more than $300,000 in efficiencies, $200,000 in cost savings and 35 percent improved inventory accuracy.
At the 2016 Oregon Manufacturers’ Summit, held during March in Salem, OMEP presented Ninkasi with the Patrick R. Murphy Leadership Award, which recognizes outstanding leadership among Oregon’s top manufacturing companies.
“The award goes typically to a company that really understands and absorbs the lessons that we try to put across in our work. There’s a way to conform to our advice on the surface — fix a machine, rearrange an order in which you do things — that’s the technical side,” says Scherer. “There’s a level of appreciation on the cultural side that our award winners get in a deep way. Ninkasi almost started from that point of view. Ninkasi had considered thinking into the way they wanted to be, and they were upfront with us about wanting to make sure that what we did would fit with their cultural values.”
Scherer points out that OMEP is a good fit for breweries and manufacturers seeking long-term transitions and improvements. “Quick fixes aren’t in anyone’s interest,” he adds. “A lot of the companies we work with have had bad experiences with management’s fad of the month.”
OMEP looks to update companies with modern management systems and thinking, seeking to create partnerships between management and workers, as opposed to an adversarial us-vs.-them mentality. OMEP looks at the end customer and then works backward, examining, for example, quality control.
“You need a quality system that ensures that for one of those enormous tanks of beer, it comes out the same way each time,” explains Scherer. “What are the variables, and how do you account for changes in those variables? We had to think about every input, including the human input. It’s a long, complicated process of modernizing.”
It’s not just a matter of OMEP coming in and waving a presentation pointer, however. The company has be willing to put those recommendations to work. “Sometimes these ideas don’t take the first time through. You have to work on changing people’s thinking and behavior,” says Scherer. “The leadership at Ninkasi was very tenacious, committed and sticking to it and trying different ways until they found some solutions.” Even when recommendations go against current practices, Scherer encourages people to be open to new ideas.
Cheryl Collins, chief people officer at Ninkasi, agrees. “Since the beginning of our partnership, OMEP worked with us on a variety of projects — from strategic planning to preventative maintenance programs. OMEP has provided us with the coaching, feedback, tools and support necessary to help our team continue to improve.”
For breweries wanting help from an organization such as OMEP, they’ll need to be ready to talk frankly about their current operations, including selling, production, quality and other factors. OMEP then works with everyone from top management to other workers to amass ideas, understand pain points and figure out the best way forward.
“We think about it as satisfaction with status quo,” says Scherer. “If we’re talking to a company we just met, and they’re happy with where things are going, that’s not a good time to talk with us. If you don’t want us to rock your status quo, then you don’t want to work with us and should enjoy your stability. But when that changes … ”
Oregon Manufacturing Extension Partnership
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Other offices in Bend, Salem, Roseburg and Medford
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.