Pinnacle Foods on Automation in Supply Chain Quality

The senior manager of Food Safety and Quality for Pinnacle Foods Group spoke with SmartBrief, sharing tales from the quality assurance industry and the critical role she plays in it.

Karen Klansek has an expression she likes to use when it comes to human resources vs. automation in her role at Pinnacle Foods, “For so long as we require humans to do the work, we will manage humanity.”

While technology – and automation in particular – help make everyday life easier, Klansek believes human nature still plays a critical role, specifically in her behind-the-scenes world. For example, solid relationships and partnerships with others inside and outside the company create constructive business solutions. And there are many instances when these relationships allow us to move quickly in exceptional circumstances.

Klansek is an expert in QA and food safety and has more than 35 years of experience in the food and beverage manufacturing industry, working with big players such as Nestle, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo.

SB: What are the biggest QA challenges you face at Pinnacle Foods?

Klansek: Our company is very proud of maintaining SG&A [selling, general and administrative expense] of under 8%, which is roughly half the indirect headcount of any other food manufacturer, and yet we’re a world-class company. We have no fewer documentation or follow-up supplier performance requirements than any other company with twice the people supporting the activities.

So, the main challenge is — and I hate the cliché — to work smarter and automate as much as we can in the routine activities for suppliers so we can adequately address development needs, and for approving alternate or replacement suppliers, to make sure we’ve always got not just a safety-oriented, but a quality-oriented, supply base.

We’re also a company that makes a lot of acquisitions, so we need to streamline documentation.

SB: What have these acquisitions taught you about QA?

Klansek: In the case of the Birds Eye acquisition, which preceded me, it was a massive shift, from shelf-stable product to shelf-stable and frozen. Pinnacle takes these iconic brands and makes them more productive. So, for example, we took Wish-Bone from a small-batch operation to a modern, barcode-assisted, allergens-separate-at-all-times type of operation. That’s how we breathe life back into the brand and make them profitable again.

SB: How have supply chains — and your role at Pinnacle Foods — changed?

Klansek: When I first started, I could drive to all the suppliers. You sourced locally, and you trucked locally, except for large ingredients that came by rail. Now it’s not only across the entire continent, but it’s international. It’s changed from a system where everyone knew everyone to a reasonably anonymous system, with brokers, traders, and importers managing individual manufacturers’ business.

Another difference today is the ever-changing landscape of regulations. It was a long time coming. It used to be, “Hey, that’s not my problem. That’s the way the material came into us.”

Now it’s not only about the suppliers — their quality and their food-safety effectiveness — but I also must vet my suppliers’ suppliers’ programs to ensure they’re doing the right things two steps back.

SB: Do personal relationships still matter, or is everything automated now?

Klansek: We’re pushing for more automation, but with the exceptions that come up and the urgent issues that arise, it remains – in many instances – the relationships that allow us to move quickly in exceptional circumstances.

SB: Do you employ any uncommon risk management principles?

Klansek: If your gut tells you something — know that you’d better be able to back it up with facts — but don’t ignore your gut. If your heart is telling you that something not right is going on, get the facts to support or refute it.

SB: How do you foster inter-departmental cooperation?

Klansek: You must remember that when you talk to somebody about something that they are, after all, human. If you want something, you’ve got to be able to offer somebody something. So if I need to engage someone across disciplines, there’d better be a benefit, either for all of us as company members or for them as an individual or a team, to get their interest.

SB: How do you garner and retain executive-level support?

Klansek: Dollars and cents. There’s no room for intangibles. You’re either demonstrating how you can save money, make money, or promote the company’s reputation. If all is going well in supplier quality, we’re completely invisible. We don’t hold up any processes and don’t negatively impact any plants productivity-wise.

SB: How is Pinnacle Foods using TraceGains?

Klansek: We use the Supplier Management and Supplier Compliance solutions. We’ve also kicked off the SCARs [supplier corrective action requests]. They have the program written to upload the PO [purchase order] information from the ERP [enterprise resource planning] system and add it to TraceGains, so we implemented it quickly.

SmartBrief first published a shorter version of this interview.

Pinnacle Foods employs nearly 5,000 people, and in 2018, Conagra acquired the company. The merger created the second-largest U.S. frozen food company. Our case study outlines how Pinnacle Foods is automating its document management and gaining supply chain insight. Read the case study here.

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