My Answer to “Does This Milkshake Taste Funny?”

During my MBA in Artificial Intelligence, one of my non-graded assignments was to review the case study “Does This Milkshake Taste Funny”, which you can read in this PDF.

In summary, the case is about George, a young man currently studying who takes a summer job at an ice cream factory. We’re taken through descriptions of the manufacturing process and some of the things that George notices, which eventually leads up to a decision that George has to make.

Will George let the maggot-contaminated product go through the product line and end up in the final product?

If he does, the company does not have to throw away 500 gallons of expensive raw product, and his team can finish and go home on time.

If he doesn’t, the company will lose money and will not be able to fulfil all the orders for that day, and his entire team will have to work overtime to finish cleaning the equipment after the shift has ended.

This assessment requires answering two key questions:

  1. What do you believe is the problem at this company?
  2. How would you as a manager/leader resolve it?

So…let’s start!

1. What do you believe is the problem at this company?

I think that this question is perhaps not phrased as well as it could be. There are clearly many problems at this company, but we should differentiate between root causes and symptoms.

The very fact that George ends up in a position where he feels he has to make the unethical choice to contaminate the end product is but a symptom of a much deeper problem.

For instance: Why are maggots in the production line in the first place?

I would define the root cause of the problem at this company as follows:

The management is not leading. They are absent and are not setting standards, creating foolproof processes, and building a set of shared values for quality.

Let’s look at some of the symptoms of this root problem of lack of leadership.

  • The first, and most prominent symptom, is that the leaders of the plant have not created a management structure for the night shift. Paul is an informal manager because he tasks the production orders from the supervisor and likely has been there the longest out of the team.
  • George was required to start the same day. While this is not unusual for these types of relatively straightforward and entry-level jobs, it does hint that there was perhaps a lack of planning with regards to staffing and schedules. The question that is raised in my mind is whether, before George joined, the team was understaffed and what effect this may have on the production schedules.
  • There does not appear to be formal training in this company for this role, but again this may be linked to the fact that this is an entry-level job, and the expectation is that the training is done on the job. This meant that when George was presented with a situation that he did not know how to deal with, there were no written rules or SOP that he could fall back on to handle the situation. SOPs can showcase common issues and their fixes and help with newly discovered closely related issues.
  • The case study also mentions that the production team often messes around during work hours, including the “ballon” fights using the five-gallon plastic liners filled with the mix, resulting in the loss of ten to forty gallons of lost mix per day. This shows a lack of values of the team, as throwing stock away uselessly like this is equivalent to theft.
  • Management has only set two key expectations: complete production orders and have the pipes spotlessly cleaned. For a food production company, the lack of value towards health and safety is a significant problem. The fact that management is concerned with passing the inspection for the cleaning is good. Still, they seem to care about failing the inspection and the downstream consequences (perhaps a financial fine or temporary halt to production) vs seeing food safety as a priority.
  • Paul was not shocked about the maggots, which makes me think that this is a fairly common occurrence and that this has not been raised to management, or if it has, nobody has bothered to fix the root cause.
  • George noticed the absence of management, so this makes me wonder if there were regular one-to-ones and feedback and if he was even aware of who he was supposed to report to.

2. How would you as a manager/leader resolve it?

So let’s review the root problem again:

The management is not leading. They are absent and are not setting standards, creating foolproof processes, and building a set of shared values for quality.

So we need to resolve four key sub-issues:

  1. Management absence
  2. Setting Standards
  3. Creating foolproof processes
  4. Building a set of shared values for quality.

The very first thing I would do is to formalize the management structure of the night shift. Paul should be a designated manager with clear responsibilities that go beyond just ensuring the production order is complete and that the pipes are cleaned. He should also have an assigned deputy that can fill his place in case of an emergency or time off.

I would install CCTV cameras, have strict count in and out policies for stock, and have the supervisor provide the production team with a list of stock that can be used to fulfil the specific orders for that day. This will solve the issue of the loss of theft and some of the more “outrageous” joking around.

I would put into place straightforward SOPs for common issues and teach the production team the “Andon Cord” concept.

An Andon cord is a safety device used in factories to stop the production line when an issue arises. But, I wouldn’t necessarily go down the route of installing a physical (and potentially expensive) device, but rather teach them the philosophy of the Andon cord.

This is that any issue that arises on the production line should be stopped immediately to prevent any further damage. This allows for quick identification and resolution of the issue. The Andon cord is also used to communicate issues up the chain of command so they can be addressed as quickly as possible. Senior leaders will always pay attention if the production line is stopped — for any reason. This empowers junior production line workers to stop the line when they see an issue without having to wait for a supervisor’s permission.

Andon cords are an essential part of any lean manufacturing operation. They are one of the tools used to achieve “zero defects” and “perfect quality.” By stopping the production line immediately when an issue arises, Andon cords help to prevent defects from being produced in the short term. This, in turn, leads to higher quality products and happier customers in the long term.

The ideal scenario is to empower every team member with the ability to stop the process and know that they will not face negative consequences for doing so. This would have led Paul and George to halt the production process due to the contamination and prepare a report to the leadership team on why they did so.

Finally, how to stop the specific problem in this case study, the maggot infestation? The filters are just a contingency plan, but a proper mitigation plan needs to be put into place at the source of the problem: the warehouse.

We have to ask why there are maggots that are getting into the raw product and what key actions we can take to reduce the risk of this happening, such as regular pest control, raising the stock above floor level, and even having regular random checks of stock for signs of contamination.

Related Essays