The news is like a broken record lately, reminding all of us what we already know to be true. Grain prices, energy costs, the cost of labor, all are at or near record levels. We need to do more with less. These business factors provide constant pressure for debone managers to improve debone yield.

If we take a step back we will realize good yields start with our people. They come to work each day wanting to do a good job. However, most companies do not provide their workers the necessary feedback to let them know if they had a good day or a bad day. The convergence of this knowledge and today's business climate provides the incentive to build a comprehensive structured program centered on the individuals most responsible for increasing debone yield.

Approaches to managing debone yield vary more than the size of the birds to be deboned. In some operations, a cursory review of debone yield at the end of the shift, the day or the week often suffices as a "continuous improvement program." Some facilities attain a theoretical debone yield to measure themselves against. Still others attain their yield by weighing fronts (or birds in the case of whole bird deboning) and then using the weight of finished products to calculate a debone yield. The problem is the data is all received too late to make changes affecting the outcome of a given shift, much less to improve the contribution of a specific person on the line.

Feedback is the key

The best debone yield processes provide feedback to the people working on the line, in small enough time increments to affect yield by shift. In the case of automated deboners, it is the operators of the equipment who would require the yield data. When feedback is provided there are a few key factors to keep in mind.

Accuracy and frequency of the data, as well as the method in which the data is presented to the employees, influence how effectively the data will drive the process. Given the parameters listed above, let's look at how to create a formal process and methodology to improve your debone yield.

A review of your current process of collecting data is in order. When only cumulative department data, whether by shift or day, is available, it is time to create a procedure to give more detail. We recommend establishing a frame scrape test procedure. Frame scrapes are an objective method of measuring where and how much meat is being left on the frame. Improving scrape test scores will drive debone yield results.

The first step in the scrape test process is collecting six consecutive frames from a debone line. Consecutive frames will allow for an average of the wing scorers and cutters. Next, get a beginning weight of those six frames and record this information. Then scrape excess meat from each of the different areas of the frame and record the individual weight for each of those areas. These areas are the pulley bone, the eye meat, the scapula, the rib and the keel.

An initial period of testing will be required to establish a baseline, and then a goal (usually slightly better than the current scrape test results) is generated. You can use this data to track whether you are trending better or worse over a given length of time.

Timeliness and frequency

Next, a method and frequency of providing this data to the employees on the debone line needs to be established. The best method we have found provides visual feedback for each line as often as possible, but no less than three times per shift. It will be necessary to train employees to understand which result they are responsible for when working in a given position on the line. You will also have to decide in what form these results will be displayed in (i.e., average grams, as a percentage of the frame, etc.).

While every effort should be made to convey what the numbers should be (i.e., the goals), the same results can often be achieved by color coding the numbers posted. For example, use a green marker when posting results at or better than the goal and a red marker for results less than the goal. The "green is good" method will negate any lack of understanding of the specific numbers as long as everyone knows smaller numbers are better.

You should expect several consequences once this method of feedback is implemented. When trained effectively, deboners begin to expect to receive the results in a timely manner. In other words, they begin to start asking, "How am I doing?" A healthy competitive spirit starts to emerge. No one wants to be the worker "in the red." This peer pressure is affective with more than the employees on the debone line. Competition among supervisors also develops. In one facility, where we implemented this visual control, the change was so fully embraced, the supervisor responsible for the debone line with the worst scores got the distinct honor of wearing a dog bone necklace.

It takes a commitment

Implementing the methodology described above requires working out a lot of details. For example, who should be responsible for conducting the tests?

Conducting the tests often falls into the realm of quality assurance. Having the quality department function as the conduit for this information removes the production department from influencing results. It also ensures the scrape tester isn't placed on the debone line when short handed. However, facilities with four to six debone lines need to realize that conducting these scrape tests is a full-time job. They also need to recognize that since the data provided is only used by the production department to manage their debone lines, it can often be handled by the production department itself. This is a management decision.

In what form the data should be recorded and stored also needs to be decided. Larger companies often use specific SPC software and dedicated SPC stations to accomplish recording these results. This allows them to slice and dice the data into all kinds of forms, as well as, from multiple locations when additional analysis is required. However, if you don't have a large IT support function in your company, recording the data on a simple form can work. Most importantly, the results should be posted on the visual control in a timely manner so that supervisors can focus their attention on providing training/coaching as required.

Payback adds up

Once a comprehensive debone scrape test procedure is developed you will quickly see other opportunities to conduct similar tests to improve the debone department's yield. Randomly checking skin for excess meat, checking tender clipping to ensure not too much is being clipped and checking wings for excess breast meat can easily be added into the program.

Of course, all change means having to overcome resistance. The largest resistance generally takes the form of, "Do I have to have an extra person in the department every shift just to conduct scrape tests?" To answer that question all we have to do is a little math: 1 gram of breast meat left on every frame on a debone line running an average of 35 heads per minute, two shifts per day, 260 days per year results in 19,260 pounds per year (per line) of breast meat, not available for sale in highest price form. Even at a breast meat price of $1.30 a pound that 1 lost gram equals $25,000 per debone line annually. You can see that effective monitoring combined with proper feedback procedures and training can easily pay for itself. How many grams of breast meat do you think you leave on your frames?

Remember, employees who feel good about what they are accomplishing produce more for the bottom line. I challenge you to foster that competitive spirit, and see what happens.