Chemical manufacturing needs to be safer, more sustainable, and more efficient than ever. But how?
An article from MIT Sloan showed that data-driven companies enjoy increased revenue, improved customer service, best-in-class operating efficiencies, and improved profitability.
Being data-driven means making strategic decisions based on data analysis and interpretation. Top and middle management usually gets access to data insights and are used to making decisions based on that. But have you considered that to drive business sustainability and profitability, the population of decision makers must increase?
According to a global Harvard Business Review Analytic Services survey, new digital tools will lead the way in frontline enablement. As many as 87% of the 464 business executives responding say their organisation will be more successful when frontline workers are empowered to make crucial decisions in the moment.
However, the study showed that companies that wanted to empower their frontline employees to work more autonomously didn’t have the data and tools to make that happen. Eighty-six percent of respondents say that frontline workers need better technology-enabled insights to make good decisions in the moment. But it is not all about data and tools.
People are the key. Putting people at the centre of this transformation makes a difference. In manufacturing, a Sustainable Continuous Improvement (SCI) approach is the way to balance all the components of the equation. It aligns attitudes, behaviours and processes through all levels of the organisation. It clarifies to people the priorities and how they can contribute.
“It is not enough to do your best; you must know what to do and then do your best.”W. Edwards Deming
By using the SCI approach coupled with the right digital tools, people are enabled and empowered to deliver their best at work. Every day. Every shift.
Developing Sustainable Continuous Improvement where frontline workers are empowered takes time and requires a program that combines change in behaviours, tools and processes. With a step by step approach and the right combination of top-down and bottom-up activities, change can start happening fast.
User-centred technology makes shop floor work better and easier from the bottom-up. This delivers changes in behaviours at the operational level by implementing simple and connected tools together with working methods such as visual management and Gemba walks. Staff realise that the new way makes life easier and engage quickly. This enables them to improve their own work, creates an openness to change and with time creates a new culture of improvement. This is the most efficient way for people to feel engaged and accountable for their work and see they can contribute to the overall company result. Because this culture grows from the ground-up, it sustains itself within the team and their practice.
Top-down activities facilitate success through an enterprise approach linked closely to the goals and business plan. In this way, higher management understand the Sustainable Continuous Improvement philosophy, support consistent best practice and processes aligned with strategy. They create the conditions to put it into practice: providing the needed resources and understanding that takes consistent and persistent practice to succeed.
Major digital transformations in manufacturing do not have a good track record. But with this combined approach and the agile elements below, results start to be delivered in weeks rather than years.
There are some critical elememts for success which start with laying the foundations for Sustainable Continuous Improvement and then building on them with both process and scale:
Most people want to do their best at work and have plenty of ideas. But agreeing actions by different teams and shifts is essential for running an efficient manufacturing plant. Aligning the organisation around a single source of truth (data) and standard work processes is a critical first element in enabling change.
Simple and connected tools, using visual management (an essential of continuous improvement philosophy), enable work to be done in a visible, organised, and timely way, making priorities and problems (opportunities!) evident in the workplace, making daily management efficient
Visual management tools like whiteboards (visibility walls, production display boards, workload boards) make work easier and bring quick alignment, which is crucial when working in shifts.
“Align” extends from shift tools (logbook, shift handover, task management, opportunity identification) all the way through to daily/ weekly/ monthly meetings for manufacturing teams. Using flexible and integrated digital tools to capture data means information can roll up in to various other boards enabling access to data for multiple use cases.
Going digital means a single source of the truth can be easily visualised using different sources of information, such as DCS and other data platforms such as planning and maintenance.
Technology gains far stronger user acceptance if it builds on existing practices and knowledge. Much more than having the appropriate tools and data, people must follow the work processes to discuss data, make decisions and act. Having the team members and management working together is crucial to strengthening the routines and building the needed behaviours for continuous improvement.
Once the organisation and the teams are aligned and have their routines set with well-defined priorities, it is time to Optimise. This element is about delivering improvements – in cost, time, materials, risk. The continuous improvement philosophy relies on making small incremental improvements (Kaizen) every day until we reach perfection. This is the real mindset of improvement, where the whole team search for ways to make things more efficient and remove waste relentlessly.
Usually, the person doing the work is in the best position to identify improvement opportunities. By providing the needed tools, structured work processes and a combination of support and autonomy for the frontline workers, it is possible to create the empowerment needed to move decision-making closer to the source. This in turn increases the population of decision makers and ultimately drives business sustainability and profitability.
Here it is crucial that leaders work close to the frontline, being able to discuss, encourage and coach when necessary, helping them to build trust and engagement. And it is a must that leaders practice the “genchi genbutsu – go and see for yourself”, empiricism is crucial in building the mindset and the trust needed to make continuous improvement sustainable.
Using digital tools that provide live and contextualised data enables users, especially production operators, to quickly recognise deviations and act, encouraging decision-making. Embedding the Short Interval Control (SIC) methodology is an efficient way to structure decision-making for operators. Combined with essential tools including 5 Whys and Ishikawa, this promotes problem resolution and consequent operator empowerment.
By employing these techniques, production operators can primarily deliver Continuous Improvement at the shift level by acting on raw material consumption, asset efficiency (OEE), utility usage and emissions, directly impacting the manufacturing cost.
The change in behaviour where frontline workers own performance improvements can be challenging in the beginning but after building momentum, it is hard to stop. Together with them, frontline leaders learn and evolve as they go, becoming versed in how data drives decision-making and defining new ways of working, driving transformation in the workplace.
Production and process staff can also use data to assess process health using statistical process control (SPC) to identify sources of special and common cause variation providing a baseline for sustainable continuous process improvement.
Benchmarking of comparable facilities, assets and products enables identification of best practices with the opportunity to spread them throughout the organization. Tracking parameters such as quality, timing and process variables can also identify optimization opportunities both in and beyond the control room, which guides us to the third element – Scale.
The “Scale” element enables success enterprise-wide, linking the organisation’s goals, business plan and improvement initiatives.
Based on company strategy, continuous improvement efforts can be focused on different products, manufacturing sites or sustainability items. Once a structured continuous improvement funnel is in place, it is possible to quickly analyse initiatives, enabling fast decision-making on prioritisation.
To build a strong continuous improvement funnel, it is essential to guarantee that all ideas are captured and evaluated based on the prioritisation matrix. The Sustainable Continuous Improvement culture prioritises small incremental initiatives. Still, some are not “just do it” actions and may require more technical and multidisciplinary analyses and execution or more time or capital. These are initiatives that mostly feed the CI funnel.
Once initiatives are selected and executed based on company strategy, benefits are tracked and best practices are shared throughout the organisation, creating an environment of recognition and engagement. This is essential to keep ideas generation through the engagement and accountability of workers.
In conjunction to building the right mindset and work processes, the introduction of digital tools needs to be carefully planned. If done right both can be deployed in tandem and ultimately increasing the possibility of successful deployment.
The process should start with interviews with all stakeholders. It is necessary to uncover real pain points through engagement and observation. This initial element is critical from two perspectives:
Once a bucket list of prioritised pain points is uncovered, a user-centric iterative and incremental deployment should start. An iterative approach works best because it encourages engagement and feedback from users. Incorporating this feedback into the solution in a quick and seamless way has three main benefits:
There are always risks to a deployment of new technology but iterating towards a good solution, with users at the centre, helps significantly reduce the risk.
Digitising Sustainable Continuous Improvement is essential for organisations that want to empower to all workers in manufacturing organisation, enabling them to deliver the best at work every day. Having digital tools which deliver one source of the truth (aligning the organisation) and promote easy consumption of data (empowering workers to make data driven-decisions and optimise work) is a must to enable Sustainable Continuous Improvement.
But transformation requires more than adopting new digital tools. Those that recognise the extent of the necessary change can improve the most critical business metrics. As any other change, having strategic alignment, leadership buy-in, structured work processes and tools is not enough. Working with people and building a mindset where people are autonomous and engaged, empowered to deliver the best, is what will define the extent of success.