Gerber is the leader in the development, manufacturing, and marketing of foods and products for children from birth through age three. 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. The Gerber Company has long been a leader in using the total quality (TQ) approaches to uphold its reputation. While Gerber’s quality programs have gone through various stages over the years, its 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 excellence.
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 system 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 1990s and was critical when Gerber began spreading quality techniques throughout its plants.
Gerber experimented with teams in the 1970s, but by the end of the decade 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 to linking quality to every process in the company.
Once employees recognized the value of teamwork, the company began taking quality functions out of 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 responsibility to frontline operations, Gerber hoped to increase process control and reduce line inspections. To accomplish this purpose, Gerber teamed quality assurance staff with frontline operators in 1988 to establish procedures for each process. While hesitant at first frontline 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 widespread through the organization, Gerber needed to teach basic quality tools to its frontline 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 become more directly involved with the quality of the final product. The company also established management incentives for integrating quality into the 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 eyes of the consumers, 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 jars 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 FDA’s report became available 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 in1938, 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 2,000 calls, accommodating all languages, and employs a team of letter correspondents to answer the 45,000 letters it receives yearly.
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 the time the company began forming alliances with the growers, giving Gerber better control of product cultivation and allowing it to keep track of the pesticides growers used. By the 1950s, Gerber had implemented a proactive approach to controlling its manufacturing processes. 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 sugarless 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.
Giving reasons explain clearly how Gerber exhibit the fundamental principles of Total Quality Management