Successful companies strive for innovation and continuous improvement (CI). While breakthrough innovation is rare, the opportunities for new discoveries, both large and small, are more likely to occur when CI is embedded in the corporate culture. This means an integrated commitment where teams focus on the development of products, processes, and services to make improvements in areas that impact quality, safety, and support competitive advantage.
Today, there is a growing call for environmentally friendly production sites. Climate-neutral production and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) is gaining traction from stakeholders and shareholders who are driving the concept of sustainability as an important strategic objective to increase growth and global competitiveness. Because of this focus, CI has become increasingly important for chemical plants not only to capture more value but also to meet sustainability standards.
The challenge is not just to implement environmentally friendly technology, but also to make sure that technology is deployed in an economically favorable operation mode to support profitable production output and competitive advantage.
There are many good reasons for a CI commitment. Continuing volatile market demand and shortage of raw material as a result of the ongoing pandemic has brought new challenges to manufacturing. It is probably safe to say that market demand and material supply chains may never return to the same predictability and reliability as experienced in the pre-pandemic era.
However, people have quickly adapted to these new circumstances. Creativity, critical thinking, and cognitive capabilities, have all demonstrated the value of human contributions in a technical world. Co-existence between human and machine and AI creates more resilience, which is just one reason that continuous improvement should be embedded into your shift teams’ day-to-day operations.
The Importance of teamwork to improve operations
Supporting CI organizational systems, such as Kaizen, improve the overall work environment, including having systems and strategies in place without necessarily focusing on percentile success rates. For example, when CI initiatives are shared across all shifts, consistent feedback is gained. When running a production trial for an improvement initiative, corporate management and plant management need to ensure that all operations teams are synchronized and initiatives are implemented continually 24/7 as one team.
Teamwork tops the list of the Kaizen 5 founding elements as it contributes significantly to the achievement of the other four key principles: personal discipline, improved morale, quality circles, and suggestions for improvement.
Strong teams are formed when communication is foundational. Although the strongest and richest form of human communication is face to face, the pandemic with its requisite social distancing forced teams to collaborate via digital methods, particularly during shift handovers. What many manufacturing organizations learned from these new methods is that a digitized, standardized communication process is essential for this new normal. Digital solutions are also essential for upcoming AI initiatives for the reconciliation of human context with machine data. When human intelligence is embedded as part of the solution, AI will thrive, especially in situations where hazardous and complex processes are operated by highly skilled and experienced workers.
Continuous improvement initiatives should be shared across all shifts to consistently generate informative feedback. According to senior analyst Ian Hughes of 451 Research, “Capturing people’s knowledge at intervals such as shift handover or inspection routines, is incredibly important for the whole process.” This context helps to encode the business process on the shop floor and to analyze, improve, and adjust if necessary.
Using shift handovers as informational hubs
A digital Plant Process Management (PPM) solution helps process manufacturing shift workers and their managers to track compliance, ensure safety, and improve performance. It is a trackable, single source of information for communication between front-line personnel and managers to ensure smoother operations and transparency during shift handovers.
This article is part of our monthly Your Space column. Read more from our Your Space series.
Continuous improvement initiatives, particularly knowledge-sharing, can be strongly supported by a focus on Plant Process Management. It enables manufacturing shift workers and their managers to track compliance, ensure safety, and improve performance through knowledge-sharing. It supports a “single source of truth” that ensures collaboration with complete transparency. By embracing a PPM approach, manufacturers confirm that information-sharing has been streamlined and team-to-team collaboration has greatly improved, proving that PPM builds a strong foundation for effective communication and is an important pillar in supporting CI.
PPM solutions must ensure communication across all shift changes and contain all shift documentation in the form of semi-structured data. The solutions should also provide interfaces to other production-critical systems, including process historian, maintenance systems, or LIMS solutions.
For example, incidents in the area of occupational safety are recorded digitally on a form as part of shift communication and supplemented with relevant details such as category and severity. Technical malfunctions or planned and unplanned shutdowns also become part of the shift report. Many deviations in the production process can be identified in the process data and the shift teams can be automatically prompted to add relevant data on these events. The events of each shift are thus digitally coded.
These efforts build a strong teamwork structure within the organization, supporting the efforts of all involved departments, which naturally strengthens discipline and overall morale.
Transforming to a high-performance culture
Communication among teams on a sustained basis allows problems to be solved more quickly and drives faster adaptation to new challenges. This transparency from standardized communications procedures builds a culture of trust, supports discipline, and energizes morale. Quality circles are influenced and suggestions for process improvements are transparent, adding to the success of a true team approach.
A plant does not achieve its maximum potential on its own. People must know how to operate it and the plant must be maintained to keep producing. However, not every operational incidence can be written into procedures. There must be a reliance on people to do the right thing based on operational discipline. The culture is the last ingredient to establish a resilient high-performing operation. Teams must not only meet directional standards, but they must also feel free to exercise best judgement as situations arise. Continuous improvement is a process and thus the culture should inspire people to be proactive, creative, transparent, and fully informed and to act as one synchronous team focused on productivity and improved performance.
PPM supports CI as it does not require alterations to processes but documents them more efficiently through the applications of the processes. It offers a low-risk, high-impact digital investment.
In several instances, by deploying a PPM solution as part of CI, it has been shown that some manufacturers have seen a significant ROI on hard dollar investment and also a significant uptick in team spirit and morale. For example, one manufacturer reported a boost of monthly production. A batch process for active ingredients struggled with a 24-hour output volatility. The plant ran at full capacity for only a few shifts due to costly interruptions that resulted in higher maintenance costs.
By sharing production data and gaining transparency among shift teams and senior experts, the driving mode was normalized to a constant output level, which was increased significantly. In fact, the manufacturer reported that previously the plant ran at total capacity for only 30% of the time. With the new focus on sharing data and operational transparency, the plant began running at target capacity 85% percent of the time.
Relying on the human factor
Striving for continuous improvement with technological advances, it is critical to embrace the human factor. Throughout the enterprise, people are ultimately tasked with understanding and sharing the data that impacts production, quality, and safety. When teams operate collaboratively, they should be recognized for their contributions. The achievement of CI goals is an ongoing journey, particularly as we begin to embrace the advantages of Industry 5.0. A culture that inspires people to be proactive, creative, transparent, and fully informed will be foundational in the CI journey to maximize productivity and improved performance.
This story originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of Plant Services. Subscribe to Plant Services here.