Getting Better: How Making Things Lean Changed Airline Food Service

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Getting Better: How Making Things Lean Changed Airline Food Service

As a process improvement expert, I have had the privilege of working with clients in many different industries. One of my most challenging assignments was implementing lean process improvement at an airline caterer in the Chicago market. An airline catering provider operates in a high-stakes environment where timing is critical, and the margin for error is minimal.

I was tasked with using lean methods to significantly enhance the speed of service while maintaining or improving quality and safety standards. Here’s how I helped an airline catering provider apply lean principles to improve its speed of service.

Mapping the Value Stream and Identifying Value from the Customer’s Perspective

Working with an internal team selected by management we mapped out the entire process of catering service, from receiving orders from airlines to delivery of meals to the aircraft. We used the map to identify steps that caused delays or did not add value to the end customer, such as redundant quality checks, waiting times between processes, or inefficient routing of deliveries.

Based on feedback from their customers, the team also identified the attributes airline clients value most in a catering service. The attributes most value by their clients were:

  • Meal quality
  • Accuracy of meals ordered
  • Timeliness of delivery to the aircraft

Streamlining Meal Production

The next step in improving the process involved analyzing the production process of the two pilot workstations, a cold food station (A) and a hot plater station (B) to eliminate waste, such as overproduction, unnecessary movements, or defects that require rework. Food production in a catering process is a 24/7 operation and is analogous to an assembly line in a manufacturing operation. We spent countless hours in a 35 to 40 degrees environment observing the flow of meal production to ferret out rework, overproduction, and unnecessary motion. We videotaped the current state of the two pilot food preparation workstations, and measured cycle time/tray.

Implementing the Future State

Some of the improvements we made to achieve the future state objective of reducing cycle time were:

  • Redesigned the two pilot workstations to reduce:
    • Motion waste
    • Inventory waste (excess equipment)
  • Videotaped redesigned station and measured cycle time/tray
  • Reduced the size of the container for cutlery coming from the warehouse to reduce clutter and improve flow
  • Requested that the warehouse deliver the food carts on an as needed basis rather than batching the carts at the station which created blockage and impeded worker movement
  • Created multi-lingual (3 languages) standardized work instructions utilizing flow charts, photos, and words.


Cycle time per tray in workstation A was reduced by 38% and in workstation B by 41%. Projected annual savings were 240-man hours for workstation A and 139-man hours for workstation B


By applying lean methods, the client significantly improved its speed of service while also enhancing meal quality, reducing waste, and increasing customer satisfaction. They now had a roadmap to convert the remaining 18 cold food stations and 20 economy hot food plater stations.

If you want to learn more about how lean process improvement can help your business please contact us.

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