In order to fund my higher education in the mid 70’s, like many young idealists, I made my way north to Alaska. After walking the docks, I was thrilled to get a job in the local cold storage processing whatever fish was in season. Through a weird set of circumstances, I was promoted to foreman at a very young age. (Yes, naive and clueless.) The resilient people of the small town with the cold storage forever molded my world view. The lessons in the plant were often more illustrative than the cases in our business textbooks. This story illuminates the impact of ingenuity and innovation to evolve People, Process, and Technology.
Product-IQF (individual quick freeze) troll-caught Alaskan King Salmon
Meticulously caught and cared for troll-caught salmon delivered to the docks of our cold storage by Alaskan fishermen were carefully graded, processed, and frozen to lock in the freshness. This unique high-quality product was shipped and delivered to a discriminating European market.
Technology-Plate Freezer in Alaska in the Mid 70’s
Advances in freezing technology enabled this global product. Our processing plant’s approach: A repurposed shipping container outfitted with hollow metal shelves. Freon was circulated in the hollow shelves to create temperatures well below freezing. 4 ft by 4 ft steel plates lined with tin were loaded with the fresh salmon. The plates now weighing well over 100 lbs. (often twice as much) were placed on shelves in the Plate Freezer. The shelves started 6 in. above the floor to the highest shelf being 6 and ½ ft. above the base. Each shelf could take 8 plates. Fully loaded, the Plate Freezer would flash freeze approximately 4 tons of product in a 6-hour shift. (Cutting edge at the time.)
A) The cold storage staff unload and sort the fresh product. Via forklift the fish are transferred to a sliming table where a crew skillfully finished cleaning the fish. Now the fresh product, prepped for freezing, stood staged at the Plate Freezer.
B) Two team members dressed in full raingear would hand load the salmon onto the plates on a staging table. It was important that the fish did not touch before freezing. The two team members worked together to lift the heavy plates from the staging table onto the shelves of the freezer. Caution: if the plate was not lifted in a horizontally balanced fashion, the fish would slide toward the lower end of the plate. Example: You are lifting a plate to a shelf over your head. You do not lift as fast as your partner. The wet, slimy fish slide to the lower end of the plate. Yes, lucky winner, you are rewarded with 100’s of lbs. of cold slime and salmon in your face. You get the picture.
C) Two hardworking team members filled and emptied the freezer 3 times per day. The fishing season is regulated and short. No cushion for down time. Four hours after loading, fish now flash frozen, the plates are removed. The frozen fish are dipped in brine to create a frozen coat of protection, loaded in wax boxes lined with plastic, put in holding freezers, ready to be shipped!
People-a scarce resource
It took a strong, skilled workforce of 120 to meet the demands of this processing plant during the height of a fishing season. Most plants operated 18+ hours a day. Every plant in Alaska had them, our MVPs, driven athletes perfectly designed to meet the raw strength requirements of the job. MVPs were rare. We were fortunate to have two MVPs, evenly matched in size, skill and tenacity. MVPs were tireless, quiet, and never complained. We often worried that Fishing boats or Tenders who delivered fish to the cold storage plant would recognize the raw potential of our MVPs and, just like that, hire an MVP. Staffing in this small labor market for a physically demanding job was difficult. The impact of losing one MVP could dramatically damage production demands. The MVPs were highly proficient in all of our most skilled jobs: operating loading boons, forklifts and fish grading. The MVPs were scheduled for days on end loading and unloading the Plate Freezer. Given the strenuous demands of a job, we were very careful who we scheduled to load/unload the Plate Freezer.
Nightmare on Katlian Street
Inevitably, it happened, a scheduling crisis. Fishermen delivered a record haul; we operated at peak capacity for weeks. Early one morning, MVP1 was on the boon, MVP2 was on the forklift. We plum ran out of labor to load the Plate Freezer. We allocated all the processing help that arrived that day to critical jobs. Still, we had not assigned anyone to load the Plate Freezer. And, only two employees remained, Prescott and Princeton. These two teammates, local high schoolers in need of extra cash were, at this point, our only candidates for the open “Load the Plate Freezer” slot. Prescott was about 5 ft. 2 in., a bit chubby. Princeton was 6 ft. 2 in., best described as gangly. Two radically different body types ill-suited at loading a plate and keeping it balanced. As I watched, both fell victim to attempted but failed lifts. I left them mid struggle, alone, slimy, cold. I didn’t check back for two days.
Prescott and Princeton
I felt incredibly guilty when I worked up the nerve to check back with Prescott and Princeton. I feared them broken, defeated or worse, stuck frozen on tin plates in the Plate Freezer. (How do you tell a mom you froze their kid?)
Yet, miraculously we had not missed production goals. Something magical had happened. I peeked into the Plate Freezer room. Here where technology, process and people meet, Prescott and Princeton had not only survived, they had thrived. They had evolved the process. The seamless clean and jerk of the MVPs had been replaced with a quick count and quick stop to steady the weight between the clean and jerk. It was a bit slower procedure but every bit as effective. These two geniuses struggled but developed a process which allowed almost anyone in the plant to be an MVP loading the Plate Freezer! Plant scheduling had more options. The quality of the product remained stellar. We shook the hands of the two proud teammates. After three months of loading the Plate Freezer, you wouldn’t call Prescott pudgy nor Princeton gangly.
Lesson learned: Good people provide ingenuity and innovation. Often per chance, but empowering people at convergence of People, Process and Technology produces stellar results. JP