Energy questions lead to energy culture

Peter Garforth wonders whose business is the plant floor.

By Peter Garforth

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Some recent work in Asia caused me to reflect on the management processes at the factory level that need to be in place to capture potential energy productivity gains on an ongoing basis. In factories that spend millions of dollars annually on energy, even a few percentage points of energy productivity gain is financially and competitively significant. The knee-jerk reaction is to assign the energy role to an energy team, usually part-time, giving the team goals and letting them run with it. In my experience, this is an approach that has very mixed results.

By its nature, energy touches every single part of the factory. As a result, every decision made by every employee, whether big or small, has an impact on the overall energy required to produce a product. The decisions might be as small and unconscious as someone leaving a machine or a computer on overnight or as big as fundamental process technology choices for line expansion or renovation. World-class energy performance can only be achieved when the energy impacts of everybody’s decisions and actions are understood and managed.

All too often, the energy team is viewed by the rest of the plant as being solely responsible for energy productivity, leaving everyone else to get on with the “real work” of making the product. The results are predictable. The energy team focuses on small efficiency projects that do not directly affect the production processes and will have relatively minor impact on the overall plant. Just enough of these happen for management to feel that good progress is being made and the rest of the plant carries on oblivious to the energy impacts of their efforts. Even the most motivated energy team will find this frustrating and will lose enthusiasm. A part-time team will increasingly focus on the other parts of their roles relegating energy productivity to an incidental activity.

This dynamic not unnaturally leads to discussion of creating an “energy culture” that pervades the entire plant from top to bottom. The argument runs that if everyone is sensitized to the value of energy, they will make decisions that reduce wasteful use through behavior and more efficient equipment. A common approach is to launch “energy culture” programs with awareness sessions supported by outreach material of one kind or another. All too often, these outreach programs are under-attended, short-lived and lack the visible and sustained support of site leadership. In the worst cases, they may be imposed on the plant by corporate management with the lackluster support of the site itself.

So how do we square the circle to create world-class energy performance with effective energy leadership and a pervasive energy culture on an ongoing basis and avoid these traps? The answer may be as simple as the right people asking the right questions.

Peter Garforth heads a specialist consultancy based in Toledo, Ohio and Brussels, Belgium.Peter Garforth heads a specialist consultancy based in Toledo, Ohio and Brussels, Belgium. He advises major companies, cities, communities, property developers and policy makers on developing competitive approaches that reduce the economic and environmental impact of energy use. Peter has long been interested in energy productivity as a profitable business opportunity and has a considerable track record establishing successful businesses and programs in the US, Canada, Western and Eastern Europe, Indonesia, India, Brazil and China. Peter is a published author, has been a traveling professor at the University of Indiana at Purdue, and is well connected in the energy productivity business sector and regulatory community around the world. He can be reached at peter@garforthint.com.

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Asking a production manager questions such as “How much energy do we use to make a product?” or “Is it increasing or decreasing over time?” or “Does it vary from line to line or shift to shift?” and expecting real answers will launch a train of activity. This starts with seeking out available data, identifying missing data, installing tracking systems, and reporting results. The leader asking the questions must clearly signal that the resources needed to provide sensible answers will be forthcoming along with the expectation that the resulting answers must be regularly reported and actively managed.

Asking a production line worker if he has completed an equipment checklist to switch machinery off or into a deep-standby mode when unattended will make thousands of “small” efficiency contributions a matter of course.

The list continues with questions such as “Are there standard energy efficiency questions that have to be answered by the procurement team before new equipment purchases can be approved?” or “Has the energy buyer teamed with manufacturing leadership before finalizing utility contracts to minimize the impact of time of day and peak demand penalties?” At some point, the plant manager will be asked questions around whether the energy performance meets the targets of the long-term site energy plan. This immediately raises the need to develop such a plan if it does not already exist.

Creating and embedding these types of energy questions in all aspects of the site’s processes is arguably one of the most important roles the energy team can play. This is closely followed by being the resource to explain why these questions are important and, where necessary, to point to expert resources that can help answer them. The most important support the plant leadership can show is to clearly communicate that decisions will not be made until the energy questions have been answered.

These are not new reflections. In the 5th Century B.C., the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu reminded us that thoughts become words, words become actions, and our actions become character. The energy management challenge is to turn energy goals into the right questions, ensure that the answers become actions, and allow the sum total of the actions to become the energy culture. The prize is world-class energy competiveness.

Read Peter Garforth's monthly column, Energy Expert.

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