The Power of Proper Manufacturing Process Optimization

No process manufacturer operates a flawless plant. Eventually something will go wrong. How managers and frontline associates respond to problems in those moments will determine the difference between operational excellence and manufacturing mediocrity — or worse.

The Performance Solutions by Milliken (PSbyM) Process Industries Performance Study found a wide variety of unfortunate problems in process plants over the past year:

  • Safety: A quarter of process plants reported an OSHA recordable incident rate  of 15 or higher.
  • Environmental: A quarter of process plants reported 8 or more environmental incidents.
  • Quality: More than half of process plants experience scrap and rework rates (percentage of products that must be discarded or reworked/remixed) of 10 percent or worse.
  • Complete and on-time delivery: A third of plants have delivery rates of 75 percent or worse.
  • Reliability: Almost half of process plants live with machine downtime rates of 20 percent or higher.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Managers and frontline associates at troubled process plants are almost certainly aware of these safety, environmental, and performance problems; how could they not be? But problems themselves are only part of a much larger issue at these facilities: How they manage them (or don’t) for the long-term. Why? Because in many process plants, staffers fix a problem as it happens and then scramble to the next one, never pausing to look for root causes. Over time, leaders and workers in these facilities get used to firefighting, often because they don’t have the time, resources, or skills to address problems more effectively. Worst of all, they begin to accept recurring, unfixable problems as an inevitable cost of doing business — which prevents them from exploring new solutions.

PSbyM practitioners help managers and associates approach problems differently. First, they present a zero-loss perspective — i.e., that the objective of good management should be zero problems. Just as important, practitioners teach managers and employees how to properly address problems as they occur, using a six-step countermeasure ladder that moves employees beyond fixing problems to preventing them in the first place. Practitioners often explain the ladder with a metaphor of driving a car — and the problem of speeding

  1. Tell/train/show how to do something different: This first step identifies what the problem is, and instructs staff on corrective action. (When learning to drive, you read a manual on highway regulations — e.g., speeding rules for different types of roads — and learn that speeding is a problem.)
  2. Audit or check for correct performance: Awareness of a problem doesn’t necessarily stop a person from committing an error. You need someone else to occasionally check your work, which serves as a reminder of correct procedures. (Seeing a police officer with a radar gun will usually cause drivers to slow down. But only if an officer issued a ticket for every time a speed limit was exceeded would this form of auditing be 100 percent effective.)
  3. Establish a visual reminder: An audit is only a periodic check. A visual reminder, such as safety warnings on machines, can reinforce awareness of correct procedures and prevent problems. (Posted highway speeds remind drivers of the speed limit.)These first steps on the countermeasure ladder deal only with the human element, and won’t always ensure that correct procedures are followed. Even when drivers understand traffic law, see policemen, or read posted speed limits, they may still speed. Steps 4, 5, and 6 go beyond the human element to address the work process itself.
  4. Make it difficult to perform work incorrectly: A mechanism can be applied to a work process that makes it hard for an operator to commit an error. These “poka yoke” or mistake-proofing devices can also stop a process before incorrect actions are taken, such as a broken beam in a light curtain shutting down a machine to prevent an operator injury. (An automobile can be equipped with a governor that prevents it from going beyond a certain speed.
  5. Automate and remove the human element: Applying automation or robotics to a process step can remove operators altogether, entirely preventing human error. (An autonomous vehicle removes the potential that a driver could speed.
  6. Eliminate the action altogether: Is the problematic action truly necessary? Designing out error-causing actions, while challenging, can also provide other performance benefits (e.g., safety, speed, reliability). (Instead of driving, individuals who take a train or bus completely eliminate the possibility of speeding.)

When managers and associates focus on training and discipline, installing visuals, and implementing audits, problems can be reduced — but not eliminated. They’re human, after all. But when they move beyond the human element to steps 4, 5, and 6, they can eliminate problems altogether — injuries, poor quality, machine stops, etc. — and keep them from recurring.

The PSbyM Process Industries Performance Study highlights issues faced by process-industry executives. Performance Solutions offers these leaders a complete and proven performance management system, principles, and tools — such as the six-step countermeasure ladder — that help to minimize or eliminate problems. If that approach is missing in your plant, sign up here to receive more news and analysis, and to learn more about how Performance Solutions by Milliken can help. Read more about our take on automation in manufacturing.

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