Create a free account to continue

Cleaning Up The Sanitation Process In Food Manufacturing

Sanitation is a critical and a regular part of food and beverage manufacturing. It shouldn’t be viewed as a disruption, but as an important part of the operation.

In the modern era of mass distribution, 24-hour news cycles and complex supply chains, food & beverage (F&B) manufacturers are under a dizzying array of safety regulations and operational pressures. In response to a growing number of foodborne illness outbreaks, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) of 2011 was passed to shift efforts from post-contamination management to foodborne illness outbreak prevention.

The stakes related to contamination outbreaks are high. Contamination can cause long-term brand damage, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in recalls and invite lawsuits. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases in the United States each year. Clearly, there’s room for improvement and increased food safety.

While food and beverage manufacturers must comply with food safety regulations, they are still under incredible market pressure to operate efficiently and increase profits. Productivity improvements — such as extensive automation that leaves fewer workers on the production line — have driven down costs, but, in many instances, have sub-optimized the sanitation function. Fewer operators running more machines reduces labor available to efficiently sanitize equipment.

Striking a balance between effectiveness and efficiency is critical to success. To be effective, companies must fully and correctly complete the steps required for proper line sanitation to minimize the risk of contamination. Efficiency requires conducting these processes with minimal disruption to the operation, and without negatively impacting production performance. Effectiveness and efficiency need not be enemies. With the right strategy, Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), execution and operational improvements, food and beverage manufacturers can have their cake and eat it too.

The Sanitation Challenge

Line sanitation is a relatively infrequent, but very manual process. In terms of production, it’s a non-core activity, yet critically important. If it’s conducted incompletely or incorrectly, the consequences can be devastating for the business, the brand and customers. On the other hand, when sanitation is conducted properly, the result is a safe and quality product, increased production uptime and, potentially, more sales.

The tricky part is that the margin of error between a successful and unsuccessful sanitation cycle can be razor-thin. Ideally, sanitation should be conducted completely and correctly at the greatest possible speed.

The challenge lies in some manufacturers’ view of the sanitation process as a production-halting event that occurs on a relatively infrequent basis and is an outlier. Sanitation should be viewed as part of the regular operation — a fully planned, managed and measured activity that is pursued with the same structure and vigor as everyday production.

The Path to Better Sanitation: Management, Waste Reduction and Process Improvement

The goal is simple: achieve effective wash, avoid waste and continuously improve the process. By doing these three things, you can ensure food safety without compromising operational effectiveness. To accomplish this, the sanitation team starts by tracking the sanitation cycle step by step to establish a baseline. There are three levels of sanitation operations, each progressing in sophistication and complexity, and achieving a higher level of results. The levels proceed from less complex/more frequent to more complex/less frequent.

Level 1

First and foremost, sanitation leaders must establish a sanitation management system to plan, coordinate activities, control movement of operators and materials, and record and report performance to upper management. It’s critical for the operators/sanitors to understand the steps and expectations of the specific job. To assess if the sanitation process has been mastered at this level, manufacturers should be able to respond in the affirmative to these questions:

  • Does everyone on the plant floor understand their role in the sanitation process?
  • Has everyone on the plant floor been trained on how to perform their role in the sanitation process?
  • Is there a documented list of steps for sanitizing each machine?
  • Is there a documented cleaning checklist that is used to follow and verify complete sanitation?
  • Are the required cleaning utensils, tools and chemicals documented, staged and organized?

The basics — who, what and when — should be in play at this level.

Level 2

After establishing a baseline, the team should be ready for Level 2, which incorporates incremental improvement where operators have a “stop-the-wash” mentality when they encounter a defect. Operators are actively engaged in the process, recognize defects that may occur and work as a team to identify root cause, pinpoint solutions, adjust the process as needed, subsequently update the standard and retrain the team. Some food processors will recognize this as the tried-and-true PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act) cycle used during production hours. Combined with Level 3, this “high/low” technique incorporates the very best components of Lean Sigma.

Level 3

Level 3 incorporates the highest level of sophistication and reflects a step-change improvement in the approach to sanitation. At this level, the sanitation process is monitored, measured, reviewed and incorporated proactively as a part of the production operation as a whole.

Some of the tools employed to review and improve the process at this level include theory of constraints, DMIAC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control), critical path analysis, multi-variate testing and fishbone diagramming. By working on the more sophisticated aspects of the sanitation process, you can stay ahead of process shifts and maintain the gain.

Getting to Level One: Management Operating Systems

For manufacturers that address sanitation as a separate event that halts operations, have little to no engagement by the team of operators and rely on one or two “sanitation specialists” to complete the process, the first order of business is to begin putting management operating systems in place. This includes training, identification and assignment of roles, visual controls, development of a sanitation process/checklist for each machine and putting in place protocols for verifying completion of the process. These structures make it possible to approach sanitation with organization and consistency.

Getting to Level 2: The Seven Deadly Sins

The ability to control and incrementally improve the sanitation cycle starts with a good plan and solid standards for cleaning each machine. However, success depends on sanitation leadership managing resources and controlling activities in real-time.

The sanitation leader should complete an end-to-end observation of the sanitation cycle to understand the steps and requirements for the number of operators and time. Once all of the steps are understood, a standard can be set for disassembly, critical electronic protection, washing, drying, final inspection and assembly. It’s very possible that quick improvements can be made on-the-spot after observing a process that is either out of sequence, or waiting on a tool or expert to complete the wash. After standards have been set, sanitation leadership can develop a coherent end-to-end plan for how the wash should be executed using a Gantt chart. From there, it’s up to the sanitation leadership to constantly monitor the progress of the wash, identify areas for improvement and adjust resources to ensure a successful sanitation.

It’s valuable to look at each step through the lens of the Seven Deadly Wastes (TIMWOOD) with the goal of reducing wasted movement or transportation, inventory, movement, waiting and over-production.

Getting to Level 3: Step Change

Understanding the biggest opportunities for improvement in the sanitation cycle requires a long, hard look at the actual steps of sanitation, the number of people involved and the amount of time (value added and non-value added) required to complete the tasks. Some of this can be done by observation, but, very often, no one person can sit on a line that is being cleaned and catch 100 percent of the activities.

The best way to document these times is to use both check sheets where operators complete the start and finish time for each step and multiple portable cameras (operations should check with the human resources department before filming operators). Typically, tasks are broken down by machine and sanitation step. Once the analysis is complete and the top constrain is known, the sanitation team can quickly switch into DMAIC/root cause analysis mode:

  • Define the problem, where and how often it happens
  • Measure the exact steps or defects
  • Analyze the data
  • Improve through a fishbone diagram exercise with the operators cleaning that piece of equipment, and convert their ideas into ranked improvement actions with due dates and owners
  • Control the improvements by updating all appropriate standards and retraining the team 

The most successful deployment of this higher-level step-change improvement is typically conducted over the four weeks of a month.

Week 1: Review data, select top source of loss or constraint, define problem, develop measurement plan.

Week 2: RCA based on new data, develop improvement plan.

Week 3: Execute/install improvements.

Week 4: Control improvement.

Then right back to Week 1: Pick a new constraint or continue to work on the past constraint if it has not fallen back to #2.

Starting this virtuous cycle of reviewing the top constraints gives the team the ability to step back and attack shifting constraints on a higher level. Next, the team must develop the on-the-spot good lean manufacturing habits that ensure incremental waste reduction during every sanitation cycle. Repeated in perpetuity, you can realize increasingly efficient sanitation that is also effective.

The benefits extend beyond simply achieving an effective sanitation cycle, which obviously prevents foodborne illness, life-threatening allergen contamination and the resulting harm to consumers. By folding in sanitation as a part of a fully managed and monitored operation, it’s possible to systematize the process, making it a planned, managed event, which allows for shorter runs, reduced finished goods inventory and freed cash flows.


As a manufacturer, your goal is to make the most of every minute, reduce downtime and maximize productivity. Sanitation is a critical and a regular part of F&B manufacturing. It shouldn’t be viewed as a disruption, but as an important part of the operation.

By making a concerted effort to achieve a balance between efficiency and effectiveness of the sanitation process, you can ensure safe product, reduce risk and pose minimal disruption to operations. If you’re still looking at sanitation as a disruptive event, it may be time to rethink your strategy. Cleaning up your sanitation act can have a significant positive impact on your operation.