Make Your Improvement Program Endure

Decline is inevitable unless you address plant culture issues.

By Bernie Price, Polaris Veritas

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It’s almost impossible to work in the chemical industry for any length of time without being involved in some improvement or cost-reduction initiative. These efforts range from the random local and piecemeal to comprehensive multiyear corporate-wide programs. Many succeed, initially. However, their impact usually deteriorates over time because of the lack of discipline and personnel changes that rob the site of key knowledge underpinning success. The task, therefore, isn’t just to come up with a better mouse trap but to come up with one that still will be working well in 20 years. So, you need to design not just effective but “durable” process improvement programs.

Consider a simple analogy: It might take five or more years of very hard work to cultivate a garden from raw land. However, that land, if then left unattended by trained gardeners, will return to virtual wilderness in three years or less. This illustrates that how we engineer durability into the new systems is every bit as important as the systems themselves.

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The knowledge gained during the transition from an inefficient reactive operating status to “world class” performance doesn’t just relate to technical improvements but also has a very large “cultural” component. A site must nail down both the technical and human interaction elements at the start.

Most manufacturing plants, particularly older ones, aren’t designed, constructed or operated with the expectation they would perform at what today is considered a world-class level of performance, i.e., an overall equipment effectiveness or OEE of ≥90%. While we to some extent can build in reliability by specifying high quality equipment such as API-610 process pumps instead of ASME standard chemical pumps, it’s much more difficult to anchor the systems and permanently change the cultural/operating mindset.

Transitional Cultural Change

The primary challenge, therefore, is getting employees to work in teams to resolve issues and solve problems around achieving “world class manufacturing efficiency.”

A company faced with poorly performing assets typically commissions a “benchmarking” exercise to find just how good or bad the situation is. Not enjoying the news it usually receives, the firm then searches for a solution that hopefully will simultaneously reduce costs and improve efficiency while being both quick and painless.

Typically, the company clings to the concepts of “lean” and “cost reduction” and hopes that by sending a few employees to short training courses and conferences, the knowledge will spread by osmosis throughout the organization. This simply doesn’t work. Instead, the firm should be looking for an integrated system of “enduring efficiency improvement” and “better documented methods” rather than simple cost reduction.

It’s not just misfocused corporate emphasis, though. Being engineers by training themselves, plant managers often undermine success by believing that simply getting more/better engineers will solve any problem. This is a common refrain I’ve heard from plant managers in the U.S., Japan and Europe. Sadly, having “x” more engineers isn’t the answer.

Typical Improvement Process Mechanics

In basic terms, you can divide activities within a plant into four principle areas that are focused around 1) safety, 2) reliability, 3) operating accuracy and 4) quality.

Excluding the safety element for simplicity in this article, as management consultants we typically set up cross-functional element teams under the headings:

1. Work planning and scheduling;
2. Operator asset care (total productive maintenance — TPM);
3. Reliability centered maintenance (RCM);
4. Equipment condition monitoring; and
5. Multilevel problem-solving, e.g., six sigma, root cause analysis (RCA), Kaizan, etc.

Operational accuracy (excellence) improvement, i.e., error proofing, success in all these can be defined as having a fully engaged group operating in a team environment implementing industry best practices and performing each sub-activity at “world class standard.”

Just as fundamental is having a team-based culture with a methodology centered on plant-wide forms of problem-solving. The particular problem-solving techniques used must function routinely at all levels.

These multi-level problem-solving and defect-elimination processes share a stepwise approach: identification of the initial problem/issue/defect; classification by size; prioritization; and, finally, allocation of resources to eliminate it as a loss.

Often constrained by budgets, a company will recognize the need for improvement in one particular area and mount an initiative aimed at just that narrow area. Initially, that achieves impressive results but the impact quickly dwindles because the rest of the organization (having no ownership) doesn’t support the efforts. A broader multiple-improvement initiation is harder to implement but is more durable if accompanied by a plant-wide culture change.

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