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Continuously improving your processes

05 January 2016

On 18 November 2015, Food Processing hosted a roundtable at SMC Pneumatics’ headquarters in Milton Keynes to discuss continuous improvement within the food and drink sector. Continuous improvement is a topic often facing mistrust or even fear within a lot of industries. The benefits to implementing continuous improvement as a company-wide strategy are far reaching though, and relatively easy to establish if there is buy-in from the whole company.

Attending the roundtable were: 
Dennis Allison, Managing Director at Pacepacker Services
Steve Arnold, Business Development Manager – Food and Packaging at SMC Pneumatics
Tony Dowling, Robot Sales Specialist at KUKA Robotics UK
Matthew Lambert, Sales Director at Lambert Engineering
David Waters, Operations Director at Kliklok International
Paul Wells, Resource Conservation Manager, PepsiCo Europe

What is continuous improvement?
As it is a strategy, there are many different approaches to continuous improvement. 

“From SMC’s point of view, there are two areas that we deal with,” says Arnold. “We deal with food manufacturers, looking at their processes and understanding the challenges they face in the factory. We also work with OEMs, finding opportunities in their businesses to add value to their business. At the PPMA Show this year, we used continuous improvement as a theme and one of our displays focused on the eight pillars of TPM. There’s a gap in the industry, from those aged 55 years and above who have the experience but are looking to retire and those aged 21 and below who have no or little hands-on experience. There’s a gap there that needs to be filled and we can be on-hand to help.”

The consensus around the table was that continuous improvement looks at a variety of processes within the business and ways to improve them. 

For Lambert Engineering, continuous improvement is about being competitive in a changing global marketplace. “As a business, you have to develop to be successful, but it’s looking at how you can achieve that,” says Lambert. “Ultimately, the goals are driving competitiveness, eliminating waste and maintaining customers while developing partnerships. That’s a cornerstone of a successful business.”

“Whether its processes within your own business or your customers’ business, it’s looking at what erodes profit, and if that is waste, then looking at how that waste can be minimised,” says Allison. “The best way is to test it and measure it, because if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. Getting that waste down into numbers makes it easier to measure and therefore manage. If you’re measuring and continually testing it, you also have to use that knowledge you’ve gained. The key is to act upon what you’ve learned, even if it is just a small thing. That small thing can make big changes to your business.”

Waters discussed what he called the one dollar improvements that can transform a business. “What tends to happen with continuous improvement is delayed perfection,” he explains. “Instead, it’s better to push for smaller changes. Know where you want to get to with clear goals for people to achieve. Don’t collect data unless you’re going to analyse it and use it. And one of the most important things is to bring your workforce on the journey with you. You have to engage them in the process otherwise it’s an uphill struggle. At a previous company, I needed to cut waste on the build time of a machine, so I deliberately chose the engineer who objected most to management’s involvement in his process. We managed to reduce build time, and what had previously been a break-even product turned into a £30,000 profit on every sale. By persuading him, it eased the way for others to look at their own processes. But continuous improvement isn’t just about people on the shop floor. It’s also about administration, looking at shortening their processing times. Why is it taking the accounts department ten days to process end of month results? Can that process be shortened by a day or a week? That has a huge knock-on effect for the rest of the business.”

There was agreement that any continuous improvement strategy needed to be driven from the top down. Effecting change can only come from changing the entire culture of a business, and the workforce is the first, and often most difficult, part of the process.

One of the biggest fears regarding implementation of continuous improvement is the idea that jobs will be lost if processes are improved. But this isn’t necessarily the case, as reduced takt times enable people to be taken out of the production process to become part of a kaizen team or to allow them to explore other parts of their job that might have been time-restrictive before. Reducing lead times also allows companies to bring in more business, improving growth. And ultimately, it allows the company to grow without investing in more people. 

“Bowmore Distilleries’ Continuous Improvement Manager gave a presentation about a year ago describing the challenges the company was facing,” says Arnold. “They embarked on a continuous improvement programme that took them five years to accomplish. They dealt with resistance within the company and convinced them to get on board. Now they make triple their profit, they’ve boosted productivity and increased their order book without losing any staff. But it still took them five years. It’s an investment.”

PepsiCo benefited from continuous improvement in 2012 when PepsiCo Europe relaunched their resource conservation programme aimed at engaging the engineering and operations teams following clearly set out principles and foundations. The programme has now been in place for almost four years in over 75% of their sites across Europe.

From a resource conservation standpoint, the key is measuring against a benchmark, and at PepsiCo, they work from a zero base. “If you’re going to make crisps, there’s a perfect recipe to make that bag of crisps,” explains Wells. “Converting potatoes into crisps takes a certain amount of energy, and once you have that to measure against, you can see how efficient you are against that zero base and that gives you your true potential. While 100% efficiency might not be feasible, you can certainly compare your site’s current performance to another site, which allows you to define your benchmark. You can then work towards best practice and define activities to produce products with less energy. This helps us to reduce our impact on the environment and the company money.”

The conversation then turned back towards employee engagement, and while management buy-in is important, it is just as important to listen to those in middle management and below as they are the ones using the processes and have plenty of suggestions for improvement that will benefit not only takt times but cost-efficiencies and employee morale too. 

The approach taken by management was discussed, focusing on the way management expresses their goals. A lecturing-style approach was considered to be less useful than a coaching-style that expresses support and builds a team approach to continuous improvement. Listening to employees is a valuable tool, as it allows employees to make mistakes as they work their way towards finding an answer. It enables them to learn for themselves, and perhaps even stumble onto an answer that wasn’t expected. 

“I’ve been involved in wash up meetings where projects went over cost, and the aim of the meeting was to look at how and where we could improve,” says Waters. “Unfortunately though as soon as you look at problems, people get defensive. Even when management weren’t being judgemental, as soon as an employee perceives it that way, then the process needs to change as it benefits nobody. I changed the direction of the meetings from looking at cost to looking at processes and analysing those figures.”

Engaging employees
Keeping employees engaged and interactive with the process is clearly a huge part of the continuous improvement strategy. For example, Pacepacker Services hold alignment meetings with everyone involved in the project to keep everyone on track. The size of the company allows them to do this, whereas a multinational company may not find it so easy.

“We share the business strategy with the team so that they’re all aware of what we’re trying to achieve,” says Lambert. “We have scorecards that link the vision of the business to a number of sections with both short and long term objectives, one of which is Lean, waste and so forth, which then rolls out to each team so they can determine what they have to deliver to meet those goals. Every person has a scorecard and they list five things they have to do as individuals to help the team achieve their objective, which is reviewed by their manager on a monthly basis to see if they’re on track. It’s linking behaviour to goals. It works brilliantly well for us as a company.”

Cross-functionality is also an area that needs to be managed. Encouraging conversations between departments can lead to interesting discussions and highlighting areas that can help one or both departments to function better.

“We set up customer supplier agreements between departments, such as engineering and the shop floor, or engineering and purchasing, for example,” says Waters. “If you talk to one department about what they want to improve, it will probably differ from what the shop floor want, for example. They have an internal customer-supplier relationship that can be improved, in the same as way as with an external customer or supplier. It’s about bringing teams together to work towards a common goal.”

Waters then shared a story about a company he used to work with, who made engines in a variety of colours. They invited their customers into their factory, where a customer realised that he’d been buying yellow engines that he’d been painting black as soon as the engine arrived onsite – an unnecessary action when the company provided black engines as well, saving the customer time and materials.

“On our multipack bags, we used to punch a hole through the secondary packaging so that the bag would deflate, which meant that the factory had little bits of plastic being blown by compressed air which would end up across the factory floor,” says Wells. “One of the operators asked why we didn’t use a serrated punch. It’s not completely round so there’s no waste and we didn’t need to use compressed air anymore.”

The Total Cost of Ownership
Three main areas were identified as important when it comes to the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO); namely maintenance, purchase and cost, and energy. This varies from region to region based on these prices, so someone in the US looks at a different number set to someone in the UK because energy is cheaper in the US. If an oven, for example, has low efficiency, a food manufacturer may look elsewhere for a product that has a higher efficiency and recover the wasted heat. Companies are more willing to spend more on an upfront cost, such as using IE3 motors and gearboxes compared to equipment that has IE2 motors or gearboxes that are less efficient. 

“Changeover time is very important too, in addition to maintenance, cost and energy,” says Waters. “That’s a cost of ownership to our customer if they’ve got to shut down the line for 30 minutes to change over products. If you can get that changeover time down to five minutes, then it’s a huge benefit to the customer. If there are people operating the line who aren’t engineers or fitters, it’s also a benefit to minimise the possibility of error.”

Lambert Engineering looks at the total cost of partnerships, from the very first point of interaction through to when the machine is taken out of service in 15 years time, or whatever the lifespan of the machine is. “We consider the costs from the time of enquiry to tender and analysis and making a decision to place an order,” Lambert explains. “In the old transactional model, that process can take six to nine months, which is a huge loss of revenue and production. We’ve found ways to shorten that period of time by driving strategical partnerships. Then we look at the process of designing and building the equipment, followed by the performance of that technology through OEE and reliability, for example.”

In the food and drink industry, it’s common for engineers and technical staff to produce a wish list of sorts about what a new piece of machinery can do, before the purchasing team then strip it back to basics to meet budgets, and they end up with a basic machine. But later down the line, the company ends up retrofitting, which costs a fortune. 

“We do a lot of work with food manufacturers to improve a process, but where it often breaks down is that it doesn’t get linked back to OEMs, or it might be mentioned but there’s no formal process to implement those changes for the next project,” says Arnold. “That’s where we find challenges. We’ve gone through the stages and made improvements, but how does that information get back to the OEM for monitoring and implementation so we’re not repeating the whole process a year down the road?”

Standardisation seems to be one solution. Rather than using several different hinges, use one standard hinge across a range. It also becomes more cost effective for the company if they can buy larger numbers of components. 

One dollar improvements
“Focus on small improvements that can make a huge difference,” says Waters. “Most people think that continuous improvement involves a lot of investment and big wins, but the most effective continuous improvements are low cost or no cost. Even if it’s as simple as making sure that there’s a place for everything and everything in its place, or removing horizontal surfaces that need to be cleaned. It makes a huge impression on customers as they walk around. It also makes the daily routine for employees easier.  The shop floor can be the cheapest marketing tool for the company because customers can be wowed by it.”

One outcome of PepsiCo’s benchmarking strategy is that their food plants aim to generate compressed air at no more than 5 bar pressure. “Dropping even one bar of pressure saves us seven per cent energy related to the generation of the compressed air,” says Wells. “Across 24 sites that’s a huge saving in terms of energy and cost. Doing small things can make a big impact. To close the loop, our central engineering standards for food states: ‘new equipment / machinery needs to use no more than 5 bar pressure’.”

Being able to understand a customer’s requirements is of huge benefit for suppliers, who may not have thought about continuously improving their machinery for energy savings, for example. But if a company is constantly improving all their processes, energy usage might be one area of wastage that has already been looked at and lowered to reduce waste, and could beneficial in ways that the business hasn’t even identified yet for future business.

Lean manufacturing for food and drink
For food and drink manufacturers, reducing downtime and over-processing is a huge problem. Can Lean manufacturing help?

“Certainly manufacturers are looking for standardisation to reduce total changeover time,” says Arnold. “One of the chocolate manufacturers makes around 100 different sized chocolate bars, and they’re looking to get that down to 17 standard sizes, so all chocolate bars will be the same shape and length within a set of standard sizes. That means lower changeover times. Standardisation will be a huge help.”

The best solution for Waters is one piece flow. “If I take chocolate bars as an example, the chocolate might go through three processes, one after the other,” he explains. “If it’s a batch production, there might be 1000 bars processed before sitting in a bucket while waiting to go onto the next process. If there’s a problem with the process, everything that has been made since the shift started is scrapped and you’re throwing away 1000 chocolate bars. Combining those three processes into one reduces that processing time and lowers the set up time with smaller takt times. The throughput through the factory will increase because you’re not waiting between processes. 

“If I have a series of processes, for example, and one process is 203 seconds while the next is 197 seconds, and every other process along the line is 197 seconds, the bottleneck I’m facing is that 203 second process. If I can concentrate my kaizen team on that 203 second process and get it down to 200 seconds, it’s still out of balance by three seconds but I’ve also taken three seconds off the processing time, decreasing my bottleneck. Consider the phrase WIP (work in progress) is evil. One piece flow takes all the WIP out of the process. If you walk around a factory and you can see work in progress, then you’re looking at an inefficient factory.”

Another piece of advice is to avoid working in silos and then sharing best practice. If the source of the idea lacks the skills to develop it, trust another department or group to do so. 

The suggestion of no inspections was raised, with the case put forward that suppliers should not need to go through inspections. There is a huge time and costs waste in not only visits from companies to inspect manufacturing premises, but also when deliveries are made and customers spend time and resources checking the quality and quantity of the parts delivered. 

“There should be an expectation that the product is of a certain quality,” says Waters. “We don’t do a Factory Acceptance Test on all the products supplied to us as we expect that product to work, which is why we have purchased it, and we as an industry need to get to a point where we can convince our customers to trust our quality. We would be able to lower lead time if inspections were removed from the process. But we are moving towards video, where customers can see demonstrations online rather than coming in person.”

Unfortunately, project managers are under pressure from financial directors before they sign off on a purchase, with the responsibility falling to the project manager if there are any challenges with the product, leading to more rigorous inspections. 

User requirement specifications (URS) are often used, but there is a concern that they are often out-of-date, recommending technology that is outdated or contradicts something specified earlier in the URS. For a URS to be viable, it would need to be constantly updated as new technology hits the market, or more flexible in its requirements. 

“The perfect URS would be our own specifications,” says Waters. “We develop our spec and show customers, explaining what our standard machine carries. If the customer doesn’t like or want something that appears on that list, we would be able to change it at cost, which would be clearly set out for the customer. We have the confidence to say that our technology is of a high standard, and would be confident in our URS to present that to customers.”

World Class Manufacturing
The group were asked for their thoughts on World Class Manufacturing and what was meant by the term.

“I think it’s going back to the zero base approach,” says Wells. “Don’t just accept your normal run rate to produce a kilogram or litre of product. Understand where your gap is against the theoretical energy or water needed for your process. It’s an incredibly vast subject.”

“For me, it’s manufacturing that allows us to be competitive on a global stage and to grow our business sustainably,” says Lambert. “If you can achieve those things, you know you’re on the right track because the pressures on manufacturing businesses are enormous and only continuing to grow.”

The definition, of course, changes from company to company and business sector to business sector. 

“In our business, the vast majority of our carbon footprint is upstream from our manufacturing process,” explains Wells. “So for us, World Class Manufacturing has to include agricultural processes. Most of our products come from the ground or off the tree, so we have to start the process with our growers.”

The discussion rounded off with general agreement around the table of the importance of the phrase ‘thank you’ to reward and inspire employees who may often feel overlooked or underappreciated. Recognition is vital to continuous improvement and not only because employee buy-in is vital.

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