One of the reasons Ashley Plouff excels in manufacturing operations is because she has a mind that craves order. She’s a natural-born problem solver who won’t stop smoothing over a snag until she’s thought of a solution.
But Plouff didn’t always know her calling was in manufacturing operations. She, like most people, had a narrow understanding of what manufacturing translated to in real life. That was until she started packing boxes at Northern Brewer, a home brew kit supplier, and eventually worked her way up to an operations role, working behind the scenes in an enormous distribution warehouse. At that point she realized she not only had a knack for operations management, but she also really enjoyed the work.
Searching for the Right Job
The job at Northern Brewer was meant to be a tide-me-over gig. Plouff had just moved to the Twin Cities from Milwaukee, where she had completed one year of college before dropping out to work full-time and figure out what kind of degree was right for her. While she ultimately wanted to one day complete her bachelor’s degree, Plouff knew that she didn’t want to spend hard-earned money until she knew what she wanted to study.
“I got an interview at Northern Brewer to work as a box packer. I liked that it was a small company at the time, which meant there might be opportunity for growth if I was good at packing boxes,” Plouff says with a laugh.
And good at packing boxes she was. Plouff was quickly promoted to a role of picking orders for the home brew kits, followed by a promotion to fulfillment supervisor, coordinating work flow and ensuring all the orders that came in went out in the same day. From there, she advanced to a production supervisor. She spent her days patrolling a warehouse making sure that home brew kits were assembled, packaged, and shipped out with efficiency. From Plouff’s perspective, though, that efficiency piece left something to be desired.
"I started restructuring the space, looking for those inefficiencies and making cellular designs where workers could remain stationary and work faster.”
“I used to refer to it as a kid warehouse because that’s what it felt like—a bunch of 18-year-olds running around, scrambling to get stuff out the door,” Plouff says. “Everybody that was working there at the time was very inexperienced in what they were doing, but that’s also what made it fun, that lack of corporate structure.”
Meanwhile, despite the kid warehouse, the company was growing, with orders for home brew kits pouring in. With employees scrambling around the warehouse in search of this package of hops or that bag of barley, Plouff began conceiving ways to remedy the disorder. Without really realizing that she was stepping into manufacturing operations territory, and simply because she needed organization, she slowly added structure and standards to the warehouse.
“It was very loose at the time. A couple of items over here, some over there, and they all need to be packaged together,” Plouff says. “Packers were forced to pick this weird path through the warehouse to get the materials they needed. That’s where I started restructuring the space, looking for those inefficiencies and making cellular designs where workers could remain stationary and work faster.”
In the process of doing this restructuring, Plouff realized she’d found the work she loved. “Something finally clicked,” she says.
Something had clicked for Northern Brewer, too. The company had tapped into a demand the beer-loving public had: to brew ales, porters, and lagers in their basements. Northern Brewer expanded its production by acquiring another local home brew kit supplier, moved into a much larger warehouse, and hired a consultant to help oversee and advise during the merger process.
Plouff learned from the consultant, who offered tools and resources to incorporate something called “lean manufacturing” principles in the operation. Plouff was fascinated. She asked questions, which led to her realizing that she wanted to know more about manufacturing principles and operations practices.
“That’s when I started looking at degree programs, too. I found a lean-sustainability class through CCAPS. It was part of the Manufacturing Operations Management (MM) program, and as I reviewed the MM curriculum, I found other courses that piqued my interest.”
Plouff had found the subject matter she wanted to invest in, and so she filled out an application right then and there. “I cannonballed into it,” as she puts it. She was accepted and began earning her bachelor’s through evening and online courses, continuing to work during the day. Classes with subjects like lean manufacturing, project management, and outsourcing taught her skills that she could apply directly to her job at Northern Brewer.
Northern Brewer’s Big Break
Northern Brewer was running such a successful operation, thanks to skilled supervisors like Plouff, that it caught the attention of beverage behemoth company Anheuser-Busch (AB InBev). In August 2016, AB InBev bought out Northern Brewer, adding it to a portfolio of all things beer. After the acquisition shook out and a more corporate atmosphere set in, business resumed and Plouff was promoted to the position of Operations Manager.
“I’d seen a lot of iterations of that warehouse, so being able to get production to a level where we were efficient enough for a company like AB InBev to take interest in us—it was the ultimate reward for me,” Plouff says.
Getting Results that Resonate
Plouff’s promotion was due to a lot of hard work in organizing the Northern Brewer operations to run like a well-oiled machine and not a rusty, ramshackle one. In addition to establishing cellular designs, or stations, where workers could get the most done, Plouff came up with a brilliant idea to cut out the need for a quality control position while decreasing the margin for error in home brew kit packing.
She did this through designing what she calls scrolls. Each home brew kit has a multiple-feet-long laminated scroll of paper printed with images of the items the kit requires as well as the quantity. Box packers working on a particular kit would find its appropriate scroll, unroll it on a long table, and gather product (all located directly behind the workers) to build each kit accurately, one by one.
“I’d seen a lot of iterations of that warehouse, so being able to get production to a level where we were efficient enough for a company like AB InBev to take interest in us—it was the ultimate reward for me.”
“There’s more pressure for the builder to get the right things on the table, which means they take more pride in their work and there’s less possibility for error,” Plouff says. “That was a huge cost savings for Northern Brewer. We saw claims for mispackaged kits go down by 90 percent. It’s all about eliminating the waste and standardizing the process in each department.”
Plouff has nearly seven years of hard work and soul searching at Northern Brewer under her belt, and she’s anticipating graduating from the MM program in December 2018. The experience of balancing work and school suited her since the two were complementary.
“There have been so many things in the program that I’ve applied directly to my job,” she says.
And as she looks to the future, she feels confident that her hard-won skillset in operations management will serve her well. In her words, “I like having a goal and achieving it, finding the straightest path there.”