“The highest quality – the lowest prices”: in order to keep this promise, all ALDI North products undergo tough quality checks. For employees in Quality Assurance, it is a demanding job that requires a keen eye for detail above all else.
It is a Tuesday in February, and Claudia Kinitz and Dr Michael Kofink are at the office early, as always. The schedules of these two quality experts are packed again, as usual. She is the person for any and everything that pertains to food and feed quality. The trained food chemist initially worked in research before moving to the food industry. The 42-year-old joined ALDI Buying in 2012 and has headed Quality Assurance – Food since 2016. He, on the other hand, is the person for quality issues related to non- and near-food products (such as electronics, clothing, footwear, body care, detergents and cleaners, and paper and sanitary paper). Dr Kofink also studied food chemistry. The 41-year-old has been with ALDI Buying since 2014 and heads Quality Assurance – Non-Food. Together with their teams, both managers ensure that all products meet the highest quality standards. This also means teamwork across departmental boundaries. Quality Assurance works closely with Buying and other departments such as Corporate Responsibility (CR), Corporate Communications, IT, colleagues at the regional companies both in Germany and abroad, as well as the Quality departments of suppliers.
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After arriving at the office in Essen, it’s time to get started. A quick “good morning” to colleagues and then the first coffee. The day is tightly scheduled, so excellent time management is crucial. “I’m an avowed alpinist; mountains of files like to pile up on my desk,” Claudia Kinitz says with a wink. “But when push comes to shove, I keep a cool head. Being able to react flexibly to incidents is extremely important in my line of work.” When things sometimes become hectic, the experience from her volunteer work serves her in good stead. For a long time now, Claudia Kinitz has volunteered at Deutsche Lebens-Rettungs-Gesellschaft (DLRG) (the German Water Rescue Service) and provides protection for major events located next to and on the water.
While Kinitz’s working day begins in the office, the first thing on the agenda for her colleague Dr Michael Kofink and his team is to thoroughly test new products.
Before a product may be sold, it must first go through the strict testing process at ALDI North for non-food products, which is organised and coordinated with independent, external and accredited testing labs. The green light may only be given if everything not only meets the legal requirements, but also ALDI North’s high standards – and if the product performs well compared to appliances from other manufacturers. As a result, the products are tested by testing labs and also thoroughly examined by Dr Michael Kofink and his team. In the process, they have to look at a wide variety of details, depending on the product. On the agenda for today: a stand mixer and the new work clothing for store employees. Stability is key with regard to the mixer. Attention is also paid to handling, workmanship, weight, dimensions and material.
Other considerations form the focus for textiles. Are the seams in order? How good is the material? How quickly do fuzz and fluff form? Were the appliqués affixed cleanly? Were the buttons sewn on properly? The workwear from certified sustainable cotton (Global Organic Textile Standard – GOTS*) has now already gone through several internal and external tests. “Everything is now exactly as we imagine it,” Dr Kofink says happily. The next step for the non-food item is the field test. For this purpose, store employees will wear the clothing on a trial basis during their day-to-day work and afterwards fill out a questionnaire that Quality Assurance will then evaluate. The results of the test will provide important and helpful insights for determining any final improvements that may be necessary. After all, work clothing is subjected to other forms of wear and tear than everyday clothing.
While this is going on, Claudia Kinitz is sitting in her office, where many ends meet: customer requests have to be examined, new requirements for suppliers have to be reviewed and test reports have to be evaluated. The morning begins with coordinating the upcoming tasks on the team, preparing appointments, making telephone calls and answering emails. Today, the CR department has contacted Kinitz. The colleagues are asking for figures on product recalls and tests for the Sustainability Report 2017.
All senses need to be in peak form at 9 am, because that is when the daily fruit-and-vegetable tasting is scheduled. Together with the tasting team – consisting of Quality Assurance and Purchasing – Claudia Kinitz is assessing the quality of apples today, among other things. Sample products are selected at random from the German regional companies and delivered to the quality experts in Essen for the daily tastings. An in-house manual is available to the team for the tastings. The manual provides precise descriptions of what quality characteristics the respective type of fruit or vegetable must feature. It not only contains the standardised minimum requirements, but also specific ALDI North quality criteria that go above and beyond the minimum. Focus is placed on aspects such as shape, size, colouring and the right amount of crunchiness or crispness. The experts also evaluate possible abnormalities, such as skin defects and bruises.
This random tasting of different produce in Essen of course only complements the continuous quality assurance checks performed on goods in the receiving area, where employees use an in-house manual to thoroughly inspect the quality of the fruit and vegetables delivered to the distribution centres. The freshness of the produce already on the sales floor is checked regularly at the store as well. Any specimens that deviate from the defined standards are removed. What is more, testing for everything that cannot be tasted or seen with the naked eye is commissioned with testing labs on a spot-check basis. This includes pesticide or herbicide residues, which must be well below the maximum amount permitted by law.
After lunch, Claudia Kinitz and Dr Michael Kofink meet with other colleagues from Quality Assurance for a videoconference with quality experts from different ALDI North countries. Everyone reports back on local projects and shares insights and experiences. Today, colleagues from Belgium are presenting their new training programme, in which employees from the distribution centres train to become quality experts on fruit and vegetables as part of an intensive course lasting several days. This kind of international knowledge sharing is very important to Kinitz and Dr Kofink. They also use it as an opportunity to inform each other of national recalls and new legal requirements, for example.
Even if food and non-food products don’t seem to have much in common at first glance, Kinitz and Dr Kofink are nevertheless able to benefit from one another. After all, the organisational processes in both areas are the same, and issues repeatedly arise that have to be addressed jointly. For example, food packaging is technically a non-food item, but possible transfers from the packaging to the food itself have to be considered and avoided, wherever possible. The two engage in regular dialogue about such matters.
Bourbon vanilla ice cream is on the agenda for today’s afternoon tasting. To ensure complete impartiality when testing products, Kinitz and her colleagues turn to blind tastings. As a result, they don’t know what product is in which glass. This method enables them to compare own-brand products, brand-name products and competitors’ products with each other. Apart from appearance, the testers focus on the ice cream’s taste, meltdown and mouthfeel. The experts talk about flaws if they can discern ice crystals, or if the ice cream feels sandy on the tongue. In the end, each ice cream receives a score for taste and appearance, and the testers record their respective results on an evaluation form. If the results are not satisfactory, we review the recipes and adapt them with our suppliers, if necessary.
For one CR colleague, this Tuesday afternoon is an excellent opportunity to shadow Claudia Kinitz while she works. Like all new ALDI North employees, this colleague also receives intensive training – in her case, this extends to Quality Assurance as well, as there are many points of contact between the two areas. How is the department structured? What tasks does Quality Assurance handle, and which tasks are the regional companies and stores responsible for? What is protocol for a recall campaign, and how does one respond to requests from the consumer organisation Stiftung Warentest? By answering questions such as these, Claudia Kinitz is helping her colleague to become precisely acquainted with Quality Assurance and to grasp the various workflows.
In addition to external testing labs and us, national consumer and testing organisations also test and evaluate our products. In Germany, for example, Stiftung Warentest and ÖKO-Test regularly scrutinise our products. In Spain, this is done by the consumer organisation OCU, by Tænk in Denmark and by Consumentenbond in the Netherlands. Stiftung Warentest is a good example of how this works. If the organisation has purchased products at ALDI North for a test, it then informs us of this and usually sends us a product-specific questionnaire to complete. Together with colleagues from other relevant divisions as well as our suppliers, the Quality Assurance team answers the questions and compiles extensive information. After some time, the team receives the analysis report from Stiftung Warentest by way of advance notification for the vendor. The task now is to examine whether the results are typical or unexpected. The quality experts receive the definitive assessment with the published test report. Once they have the report, they discuss whether to change some aspect of our product, which is especially relevant if the score is only average or not satisfactory. In that case, Claudia Kinitz and Dr Michael Kofink perform a detailed root cause analysis and provide advice on possible improvements. The goal: to earn at least a rating of “good”. If that happens, then it is added to our product packaging. Today, Kinitz has received the latest test results for a product and is discussing them with Purchasing and the supplier.
At the end of the day, it is absolutely clear that Quality Assurance comes down to teamwork. In order to ensure the highest quality, everyone pulls together – whether they are responsible for formulating product requirements, handling requests, coordinating suppliers and testers or performing thorough product tests – day in and day out.
* Global Organic Textile Standard
The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) defines demanding, globally consistent criteria for the processing of textiles from certified, organically produced natural fibres throughout the entire textile supply chain. These criteria include the certified organic cultivation of fibres, environmentally friendly and socially responsible manufacturing practices and consistent product labelling. Only textile products made from at least 70 per cent certified organic natural fibres can receive GOTS certification from independent testing labs.
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