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'Fast food': Lean+ pays off for non-profit food program

“Busy” is the best way to describe the workers, drivers, and volunteers who carry out the mission of Northwest Harvest, a non-profit organization that organizes and transports food to programs across Washington State. They sort and deliver millions of pounds of food each year to those in need.

“We provide more than 350 hunger programs with nutritious food,” said Shelley Rotondo, Northwest Harvest executive director. “Each month we are able to give 1.7 million meals to food banks, high-need schools, and other organizations.”

Still, leaders felt they could serve even more people by operating more efficiently. That’s where Boeing came in with a team of experts in what’s called Lean+, Boeing’s approach to continuous improvement. The Boeing members volunteered their time to help Northwest Harvest.

“Continuous improvement never ends,” said Jim Channell, Boeing Commercial Airplanes Lean+ project manager. “We came here to find out how they do things, where there might be trouble spots, and hopefully provide simple solutions.”

Using Lean+ methods, the group mapped out ideas for how to improve efficiency on sticky notes and wallpapered a room with them. Transportation became a focus for Boeing team member Daniel Morris. “How can we utilize the space of their trucks to make sure we’re saving on the fuel costs and just really maximizing the potential?”

They set a goal: Each truck that leaves with food should come back with food. To accomplish that, Northwest Harvest made an online transportation calendar available for all of its warehouses across the state. That way everyone could see truck times and routes and better organize deliveries and pickups. As a result they increased the number of shipments to key partners by 1.7 million pounds over the previous year.

“It was really an ‘a-ha’ moment that such a small improvement in communication could make such a difference,” said Barbara Cerna, Northwest Harvest transportation manager.

The group also upgraded equipment with a grant from Boeing’s Global Corporate Citizenship organization by installing a new conveyor belt and side flaps to its sorting machine. The new parts keep food from sticking to the machine and falling to the floor, thus lowering waste and cutting clean-up time in half. That gives volunteers more time to sort food.

“Lean is now a way of life here,” said Northwest Harvest’s Rotondo, “Everyone on our team looks at ways to be more efficient.”

Added Channell: “They’ve really embraced this approach as a team. Now the world is theirs.”

For more information on Northwest Harvest, visit: