My Career in Manufacturing

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When I was growing up in Milwaukee, I didn’t realize how much I loved to solve problems and create order. Throughout high school and for some time after, I worked in retail, where I had to build displays to a specific outline set out in a planogram — a visual representation of the store’s products. It wasn’t until I got to my current job that the training wheels came off and I conceived planograms in my brain, without pre-set boundaries and instructions.

In 2011, I was hired by Northern Brewer — a company that started in 1993 as a supplier of products to people who want to brew beer at home. When I joined, the company was in a period of transition, because of booming growth in home brewing. Its operations division was experiencing growing pains. There were inefficient processes that led to scrambling to get the orders out. 

The operations managers were early in their careers, with limited knowledge of lean manufacturing — a systematic method of minimizing waste without sacrificing productivity.

I wanted to become more efficient and knowledgeable in this type of work, and so in 2014, I enrolled in the University of Minnesota’s Manufacturing Operations Management (MM) undergraduate program. Currently, I am the only female in the 14-student program. 

The MM program has helped me see how my interest in organization is a strength that allows me to succeed in lean manufacturing. I am getting a solid foundation in successful manufacturing practices, and I’m learning essential tools for employing lean principles.

I started putting my education to use at work, helping Northern Brewer “kick it up a notch.” Doing things the right way, instead of the easy way, was an essential step. Leading by example, I tended to find an area that could be organized better and, in a down time, tackled those challenges.

For example, people working in production were running all over the warehouse to grab this thing or that item. The tools for the job were not near where the work was done. Simply put, I moved those items closer together, and organized them in a way that made sense. Now all the builders have every item for their product line located on racking no more than five feet from where they are creating. 

I’ve learned that one of the best ways to identify waste in a system is to ask “why” when observing a process. When you ask people why they are doing something a certain way, sometimes the response is “because that’s how we have always done it.” 

To me, that’s a red flag. It means the builder does not know why they are doing what they are doing. They are not invested. Perhaps the process has not been thought about critically. That means there might be room for improvement. 

I believe women should be much more involved in operations management. There is a significant lack of women in this industry. 

One reason for this lopsided representation might be the misconception of what manufacturing is, rather than realizing what manufacturing can be. 

The MM program curriculum offers insights into many manufacturing industries, including microprocessors and medical devices. 

There is a traditional view of manufacturing as harsh and labor-intensive, when really, it can be a progressive place where people innovate and push the bounds of operational excellence. 

Ashley Plouff has been with Northern Brewer for nearly seven years, where she is Senior Operations Manager. She is scheduled to graduate in December with a Bachelor of Science degree in Manufacturing Operations Management from the University of Minnesota.