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Quality in Practice: Building Trust Through Quality at Gerber
The Gerber baby picture — which accompanies everything from strained carrots and
banana cookies to teething rings and diapers — has developed into one of the most
recognizable brand images in the world. According to Gerber, the company received the
highest customer loyalty rating out of 3,500 U.S. corporate and product brands, topping
companies such as Nike and Coca-Cola. To parents around the world, the Gerber baby
means quality, and the Gerber company has long been a leader in using quality tools to
uphold its reputation. While Gerber’s quality programs have gone through various stages
over the years, their goal has remained the same: to make sure consumers continue to see
the Gerber baby, which has gone through periodic updating of its own, as an emblem of
Gerber is the leader in the development, manufacturing and marketing of foods and
products for children from birth through age 3. The company dominates the U.S. retail
baby food market with a 70% share against competitors Heinz and Beechnut, and rings
up about $1 billion in annual sales. Gerber employs 6,200 people altogether at its
headquarters and main processing plant in Fremont, MI, and its plants in Fort Smith, AR;
Costa Rica; Mexico; Venezuela; and Poland. Together these facilities produce 190 food
products — which are labeled in 16 languages and distributed to more then 80 countries.
Gerber’s Baby Care product line (featuring items such as rattles, bottles and eating
utensils) was launched in 1960 and currently features some 300 products. This line is
largely manufactured in Reedsburg, WI, and China. In 1994, Sandoz Ltd., a
pharmaceutical manufacturer, purchased Gerber. The 1996 merger of Sandoz and Ciba
Geigy, also known for producing pharmaceuticals, established the Novartis company.
Located in Basle, Switzerland, Novartis positions Gerber as a primary member of its
consumer health division.
The company began in the Gerber family kitchen in 1927. After watching her
husband’s messy attempt at straining peas for their daughter, Dorothy Gerber suggested
that the task would be better accomplished at the family-owned canning plant. Daniel
Gerber agreed and was so taken by the idea that within a year he had manufactured
enough of five baby food flavors to begin national distribution. Understanding the
concern parents have for what their babies consume, Gerber paid close attention to what
went into the food and the processes involved in manufacturing it. This was one of the
company’s first steps toward committing to quality.
While Gerber’s quality systems have undergone several improvements over the years,
teamwork was “one of the biggest things to hit quality at Gerber,” says George Sheffier, a
retired, 35-year Gerber veteran. He believes that fostering a team atmosphere taught
Gerber how to help employees adjust to change, gave the company ‘a head start on the
diversity issues of the ’90s and was critical when Gerber began spreading quality
techniques throughout its plants.
Gerber experimented with teams in the ’70s but by the end of the decade felt the
company still lacked the benefits a solid team atmosphere provided. An attempt to
implement the concept to a more intense degree in 1983 was met by employee
skepticism. Realizing that management and supervisors were themselves having a
difficult time adjusting to the team methodology, Gerber hired consultants to teach
facilitation skills. Soon supervisors were holding meetings not only to familiarize
workers with the team concept but to discuss change — how employees felt about it and
what the company could do to help make it easier. As employees began feeling more
comfortable working in teams, they voiced concerns about trouble spots in systems and
processes. Gerber also learned that the team atmosphere was a necessity in linking quality
to every process in the company.
Once employees recognized the value of teamwork, the company began taking
quality functions out of the quality department and spreading them throughout the plant.
The goal of integrating quality into manufacturing was to build quality into the product
on a more consistent basis. By expanding quality responsibilities to frontline operations,
Gerber hoped to increase process control and reduce line inspections. To accomplish this
purpose, Gerber teamed QA staff with front-line operators in 1988 to establish
procedures for each process. While hesitant at first, front-line employees liked the fact
that they were involved in the process from the start and were able to determine their own
auditing criteria. Within 18 months, Gerber was able to cut its number of line inspectors
and increase its quality auditing functions.
As quality became more widespread through the organization, Gerber needed to teach
basic quality tools to its front-fine operators. As with the team concept, however,
employees accepted the new responsibilities once they realized the values of the tools.
Employees came to prefer the use of these techniques, which enabled them to became
more directly involved with the quality of the final product. The company also
established management incentives for integrating quality into its manufacturing process.
Many senior managers, for example, began to be compensated for maintaining a high
level of consumer trust through the quality of the final product. Today, the company
continues to improve the quality techniques it applies to each part of the manufacturing
process. Its most recent project has been to install new software from SAS Institute Inc.
The software gives employees instant access to data regarding the impact on the final
product of each station in each process.
Although Gerber has always tried to create systems that meet the expectations of
parents, the company didn’t always utilize feedback from its customers. It wasn’t until the
company faced its largest crisis to date that Gerber realized the need to link the
customer’s voice with the quality system. This period, in the 1980s, was a defining point
for Gerber, according to Gerber senior QA manager, Jim Fisher. The company lost some
trust in the eye of the consumer, stemming from an instance of consumer tampering that
brought Gerber unwanted national attention. Before the company had the opportunity to
prove itself, the case snowballed into a media frenzy, leaving consumers questioning
Gerber’s quality. Gerber’s history of continuous improvement and its well documented
manufacturing processes paid off, however. The investigation put the company under a
microscope, with Fisher flying across the country to inspect bottles of food and the Food
and Drug Administration (FDA) spending three weeks reviewing Gerber’s systems and
records. In the end, the FDA gave the company a clean bill of health, and any claims
against Gerber dissipated once the FDRs report became avail able to the public.
What Gerber found was that it needed a system allowing consumers to contact it
directly with suggestions, complaints and questions pertaining to Gerber products or
infant care in general. Gerber’s consumer relations department, established and operated
by Dorothy Gerber in 1938, continued to receive a steady flow of letters, but the system
wasn’t timely and the feedback wasn’t closely tied to either the quality or the safety
department. Consequently, Gerber opened its telephone information service
(800-4-GERBER) in 1986. The system provided a notable change for the company’s
quality discipline as it allowed telephone operators to log customer information into a
database. In turn, trend analysis could be conducted and consumer demands could be
integrated into the product development process. Because parents are up with their
infants throughout the night, the company extended the department’s operating hours in
1991, capturing information 24 hours a day. Gerber takes a daily average of 2,400 calls,
accommodating all languages, and employs a team of letter correspondents to answer the
45,000 letters it receives yearly.
The company has often demonstrated innovative and creative thinking, notably in its
plan to eliminate pesticides from its foods. By thinking outside the box, Gerber was able
to outshine its competition, exceed customer expectations and prepare itself for future
government requirements. In 1996, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
reconsidered the methods traditionally used to ensure food safety — spot checks of
manufacturing conditions and random sampling of final products — and released its
Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) program. The program enforces
principles such as analyzing all potential hazards associated with foods, identifying
critical control points where hazards can be eliminated, and establishing procedures to
monitor control points and verify properly working systems. The FDA and the USDA
believed such guidelines would be proactive in stopping contaminated products from
getting into the market.
Gerber came to the same conclusion–49 years earlier. In 1947 Gerber management
came to believe that the best way to ensure the safety of its product was to control as
much of the food-making process as possible. At that time the company began forming
alliances with its growers, giving Gerber better control of produce cultivation and
allowing it to keep track of the pesticides growers used. By the 1950s, Gerber had
implemented a HACCP-like approach to its manufacturing process identifying critical
control points and thus making its processes preventive rather than reactive. The Gerber
product analysis laboratories were formed in 1963 to provide data on the composition of
ingredients, monitor the quality of internal and external water sources and provide the
analytical information needed to establish food formulations. The company also created
procedures to monitor potential hazards and ensured correctly functioning processes by
employing a thermal processing staff. The staff was to determine the amount of time a
product needs to be cooked to become commercially sterile, conduct audits of production
facilities to ensure that processing equipment was operating correctly, and review and
improve thermal processing systems. The thermal processing staff grew so large that it
became its own department in 1994, and it continues to work closely with Gerber’s
quality and safety departments today.
Gerber’s dedication to performance excellence continues to serve the company well.
Thinking beyond quality trends in pesticide control continues to put the company ahead
of others as Gerber investigates what it calls environmental quality — examining
environmental factors not traditionally considered, such as pollutants carried into the
plant by a supplier. This enabled Gerber to introduce sugar less and starch free
formulations less than a year after a 1995 report criticized the baby food industry for its
use of fillers. By linking quality practices throughout its processes and making statistical
information available to all employees, Gerber continues to enhance its quality.
5.3 Test your Knowledge (Question):
1. How do the various definitions of quality discussed in Chapter 1 relate to the quality
practices at Gerber?
2. How does Gerber exhibit the fundamental principles of total quality – customer and
stakeholder focus, participation and teamwork, and a process focus and continuous
3. How did quality help Gerber overcome the crisis it faced in the consumer-tampering
situation? What lessons does this have for other companies?