Optimizing Staffing Levels in Food Courts: A Case Study at Mountain Creek

Operational Excellence

By Shannon Mcsweeney

Few people likely know exactly how long it takes to lay out 16 hamburger buns and put cheese on 12 of them, but Mountain Creek's Black Belt Joe Hession does. That's because Hession is leading the resort toward Operational Excellence (OE) through a program called Lean Six Sigma, and he's just one of 24 Black Belts who have been trained in this methodology and implemented pilot programs across Intrawest's North American resorts. These projects have a common goal: to define, measure and implement new processes and achieve dramatic improvements in critical performance measures such as cost, quality and service. At Mountain Creek, the pilot project was to "Optimize Staffing Levels in Food Courts."

Mountain Creek is a four-season Intrawest resort less than 50 miles from New York City in the Sussex Skylands region of northwestern New Jersey. Mountain Creek features 170 skiable acres with 46 trails featuring state-of-the-art snowmaking, 100 percent night lighting, a nationally-recognized parks and pipes program, and high-profile events. Warm weather brings more outdoor fun with hiking and biking trails, mountaintop lakes, Mountain Creek Waterpark, and Diablo Freeride Park. Resort accommodations include Black Creek Sanctuary and the new slopeside Appalachian hotel, featuring mountain views, heated pools and hot tubs, fireplaces, Internet access, and fully equipped kitchens, plus Appalachian guests enjoy a fitness center, underground parking, and meeting and conference space. As the master-planned village grows, look for additional lodging, retail, meeting and conference facilities.

What is Operational Excellence?

In 2004, OE was introduced as the new way of conducting business within Intrawest's Leisure and Travel Group (LTG). Several leading Fortune 500 companies such as GE, Xerox, Starwood Hospitality and 3M use Lean Six Sigma and credit it for enhancing their overall success. Intrawest is breaking new ground as the first corporation to replicate projects across various business units. Of course, each new solution will be tailored to the local business environment, but the ultimate goal is to learn from pilot projects and implement proven solutions across Intrawest's resorts.

OE initiatives are designed to help organizations improve customer service and value, increase quality, grow revenue, and reduce costs. By achieving OE, LTG will be more successful in providing and delivering services to guests. The scope of the first initiatives focused on three divisions: Food & Beverage, Retail and Rental, each selected for significant contributions to overall guest experience and being major revenue centers.

As part of OE, Intrawest also introduced a comprehensive improvement methodology called Lean Six Sigma, which serves as a "toolbox" to ensure the OE teams are successful at implementing significant changes that positively impact the business by delivering products and services more efficiently, increasing customer satisfaction, and lowering operating costs. It should be noted that Lean Six Sigma is only one component, in order to achieve true OE several areas of improvement must be in place, including Governance, Performance Metrics, People, Project Management and a Process Improvement Methodology. Here, however we will focus on Lean Six Sigma and Mountain Creek's successful pilot project.

What is Lean Six Sigma?

Lean Six Sigma is a proven strategy for improving customer satisfaction, increasing quality of service, shortening cycle times and creating shareholder value in an organization. It combines the strength of two great improvement methodologies designed to put customers and their needs at the forefront of OE initiatives—making work faster ("Lean") and better ("Six Sigma")—into one integrated program.

Lean principles accelerate the speed of a process by eliminating non-value-added steps, thereby reducing costs by removing waste and accelerating the speed of delivery to the customer; Six Sigma eliminates defects and reduces variation in the remaining value-added steps. This combination will result in improved quality and a more efficient and reliable process.

There are several benefits to Lean Six Sigma, including:

  • Build customer loyalty: Define customer needs and then drive efforts in the areas that matter most to customers.
  • Create value: Drive real, tangible value creation including shareholder value.
  • Achieve sustainable management capability: Over time, these principles are woven into the fabric of a business with expertise and capability created from the executive suite to the front line.

Each Lean Six Sigma project follows a defined and rigorous set of steps to reach conclusions and make improvements.

The overall set of OE steps includes R(DMAIC)R (Recognize, Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control, Replicate). The two Rs on either end are not part of the original Lean Six Sigma process, but they are part of OE at LTG:

  • Recognize an opportunity to improve a process.
  • Define the current state/the problem/identify the voice of the customer.
  • Measure the hypothesis created based on the voice of the customer.
  • Analyze the data to see if it tells us we are going in the right direction.
  • Improve the processes based on our analysis of the data.
  • Control by putting measurements in place to ensure that improvements continue to work.
  • Replicate the process by implementing it in other areas of LTG and monitoring the results.

Each project must pass through a "tollgate" at each step to consider the phase complete. There are also financial goals associated with certain steps in every project.

The team structure

An important part of OE is the selection and training of Black Belts, like Hession, who become experts in Lean Six Sigma and lead the team-based process improvement projects. Working with Black Belts, Green Belts are responsible for implementing or "replicating" the OE pilot projects in their zones. A Project Sponsor acts as the owner of the project, selects the project team, serves as a mentor for the Black Belt, and resolves any conflicts or roadblocks to success.

OE will be one of the largest training and education efforts in the history of LTG and will provide the skills and experience required to successfully complete the Lean Six Sigma projects. LTG's most senior leaders and the Black Belt candidates have received more than 2,000 person days of training on OE and the Lean Six Sigma methodology, including four to six months of classroom training plus continued coaching from Master Black Belts. A second wave of Black Belt candidates currently are being trained across LTG for the next set of initiatives.

Mountain Creek's project

At Mountain Creek, the pilot project was "Optimizing Staffing Levels in Food Courts," led by Black Belt Hession and Project Sponsor Frank DeBerry, director of Resort Operations. Simply stated, the goal was to support growth in EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization) by decreasing labor 1 percent in food courts through the more efficient utilization of staff.

The team focused on cooks, which accounted for the highest labor costs, and then calculated the maximum and staggered output demand, as well as the maximum production capacity of the existing process. Over several months, they charted each step in the process and the time required to complete each individual task, then organized the tasks into a repetitive process that can be recreated easily by food-court cooks, finding opportunities to cross currently defined roles and combine tasks performed to decrease head count and maximize efficiency.

For example, the Food & Beverage staff charted each individual step and the time required for a cook to prepare and serve burgers, chicken fingers, pizza and fries. After doing a statistical analysis of key measurements and variables, Hession found that 60 percent of a cook's time was "downtime," that is, waiting for hamburgers to cook. The team then set out to increase efficiency by finding and testing solutions to the root causes and identifying the two to three variables that would have the biggest impact. After determining specific actions that could be handled more efficiently, solutions were implemented through a new streamlined process that maximized efficiency and reduced downtime. For example, while burgers are in the broiler, the cook fills and drops fries and chicken fingers into the fryer, then unloads the burgers, places them on buns already waiting, then wraps the finished burgers.

The new process was rolled out during a few weeks of training, with special focus on getting the staff's acceptance. According to Hession, this "change management" was one of the keys to the success of the project, ensuring the front-line stakeholders understood the benefits.

"At first they thought it was just more work, but by the end, they really liked that we had an organized process and strong plan to handle business volumes," he says.

By building a more efficient process for each task and better organizing the work space, one cook could now perform multiple duties in less time, allowing fewer cooks to prepare a greater amount of food in the same amount of time, thereby reducing head count (from six cooks to one cook) and vastly increasing efficiency.

As the last step, the team then documented its results and built a replication package that details the standard operating procedures, which are being replicated across all Intrawest resorts. This will result in a 1 percent decrease in food-court labor across all Intrawest resorts. "OE has given Mountain Creek and Intrawest the chance to look at processes and make decisions based on facts instead of gut feelings," Hession says. "Our food court will better handle peak demand with less people, working with less effort."


Shannon McSweeney is communications manager for Mountain Creek in Vernon, N.J. For more information, visit www.mountaincreek.com.

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