Continuous Improvement for the Process Industry

Article by Ian Madden CEng MIChemE

Ian Madden explains how to tell if continuous improvement is happening in your organisation

I AM a chemical engineer and business improvement consultant and have spent most of my working life in the process industry. When I first became interested in continuous improvement there were plenty of publications that described applying continuous improvement/lean thinking to the world of parts and assembly operations, but I could not find one that described my world of raw materials, formulas, recipes, and processing operations. Many of the assembly industry books available describe that the cultural aspects of lean and all the tools and techniques are transferrable to other sectors but there is no explanation of "how". 

For example, one book contained a description of a Kaizen event that involved moving a whole work cell in 5 days, but what happens if you work in a company such as a paper mill that has millions of pounds' worth of capitally-intensive equipment that runs 24 hours a day 7 days a week. A small team with spanners and pallet trucks is not going to move that in a few days! Another example is the principle of "single piece" flow – very easily to visualise when you are making a car but what happens when you are interested in washing carrots or pumping paint down a pipe?

I am passionate about continuous improvement and lean manufacturing and the benefits they can bring to people and the organisations they work for. And because they are underpinned by respect for people and focused on waste reduction, I think they could make a serious contribution in helping overcome the climate crisis.

So how do we help process industry professionals get there?

I start with the  three-legged stool model (Figure 1) to describe the critical elements.

Figure 1: The critical elements of successful continuous improvement

The first thing is to really understand what "respect for people" means.

Years ago when I had a "proper job" as a Manufacturing Operations Manager of a fish-feed plant, the team that worked for me was producing some extraordinarily results – they turned the business around. Prior to our improvement focus, the business had many thousands of tons of defective and out-of-date stock stored in rented external warehouses that had been caused by faulty manufacturing processes and a make-to-stock scheduling policy. The team improved their processes to consistently achieve 100% right-first-time production with just-in-time manufacturing, thereby eliminating the need for finished product stock holding.  We started to get visited by teams and senior managers from across the global organisation that I was working for at the time so they could learn and copy what we were doing. As, they were mainly fellow engineers, they quickly understood the key performance indicators that we were measuring, the improvement projects that we had put in place, our operational meetings structure and the continuous improvement techniques that we had used, but seemed to struggle when the team started to talk about less technical aspects of our business including philosophy and culture. This seemed to jar with our visiting colleagues as it meant they would have to change their view that technology was the answer to everything.  So what is this philosophy?

The following passage was written by Nick Meakin, who was my boss at that time and is someone that I have learned a terrific amount from. I think it very succinctly describes how a leader should behave within an organisation that follows a continuous improvement philosophy.

“You as a ‘new’ manager did not need to know how everything worked and where the problems were as you had many  people working in the operation who, between them, knew exactly how it worked and where all the problems were because they lived with them every day.

“One of the issues with ‘traditional’ control structures is that they assume first-level people are lazy and are not interested. They tend to be designed to control the 3% of people who don’t care about doing a good job. Reorganising to permit the 97% who do care and facilitating the removal of things that slow them down or get in the way of them doing the right thing is the fastest way to get ‘better’ happening. And for that, you do not need to know what is going on, you just need to be a good judge of people, a good listener, a fast learner and be able to allow things to change, ie you are a ‘manager.’”

Figure 1 shows how respect for people is the foundation on which a continuous improvement (CI) culture is built.

It also shows the legs of the stool: operational management; leadership; and strategy deployment.  We all know that a three-legged stool is a very stable seat but if you take away one of the legs the stool will fall over!

Effective leadership is critical to many walks of life as well as to successful CI.  The tools and techniques are not unique to CI.

With regard to operations management and strategy deployment there are many tools and techniques that can be used to deliver successful CI.

As chemical engineers and process industry professionals we are taught to think process from day 1 so the way I like to explain CI and how the pieces fit together is to firstly explain the process shown in Figure 2.


Figure 2: The never-ending continuous improvement journey

Business analysis

How to review the current situation, highlight the opportunities and arrive at a plan to realise those opportunities.

At the fish-feed plant we used detailed data capture to pinpoint major financial loss areas and determine areas for improvement. Through line studies and observation we then were able to determine root causes and quantify improvement opportunities such as targeting the effective settings on the cooker extruders to reduce the incidence of "floating feed". Salmon feed has to sink to be eaten by the fish!

Operations management facilitation

How to design, implement and install an effective operational management system so that the performance is predictable, reliable and consistent on a daily basis.

Citing the fish-feed plant example we started to measure key performance indicators such as "extrusion right first time" and review them and take action on variances to expectations on a minute/hourly/daily basis through an agreed management process. This enabled the process issues to be dealt with in a much more timely fashion.

Fundamental continuous improvement tools

How to choose what basic CI tool is needed for a particular circumstance and how to use them.

For example at the fish-feed plant we implemented "standard routines". This involved the whole workforce in developing their own standard operating procedures, training and ensuring compliance to them during production. This was feed forward rather than feedback control. The level of ownership generated  meant that many hundreds of small improvements were identified and implemented by the team on their own. For example one team repaired a palletiser for £20k and doubled its speed. The previous estimate had been £100k to fix it. The operator, with no previous engineering training travelled to Germany to learn what to do and make suggestions to the manufacturer. He had never been abroad before and we funded his passport application!

Strategy deployment facilitation

How to design, implement and install an effective strategy deployment system so that the strategic objectives and priorities of the organisation can be delivered.  

The whole of the senior management team developed  a strategy that focused on the "vital few" priorities,  eg moving from a production of many products to focusing on the production of our key movers. At the fish-feed plant we were ruthless in reducing the range, which was a significant shift of focus for the sales team.   

Improvement activities and projects

How to determine and deliver an effective CI plan and projects on a site and/or area level with the use of more advanced tools.

At the fish-feed plant, in addition to the foundations discussed earlier we implemented a range of improvement projects and capital expenditures. One involved coating the colourants on the feed rather than mixing it into the feed. This enabled us to use one base feed for many varieties and reduce the necessity for making to stock as we could add the options late in the process.

Skills and culture development

The factors impacting skills and culture within an organisation including respect for people.

We started "mini-factories" at the fish-feed plant where we empowered employees to manage their own work areas, eg cleaning, maintenance, labour scheduling and even recruitment in some cases.

Once you understand this process you can start to learn and apply the tools and techniques that apply at each stage. It’s like adding more books to a bookshelf; you need book 1 and the bookshelf to start and build your knowledge!

Where are you?

So where is your organisation on this CI journey? How well is it incorporated within the cultural DNA of the company?

There are a plethora of so called CI or lean manufacturing "audits" available that purportedly help interested individuals measure this. In my view, whilst they have some value they are often too complicated, open to interpretation and can provide misleading reassurance to executives by telling them what they want to hear without even going to the shop floor.

So how do you tell? Here’s my ready reckoner:

1. What are the safety, quality, delivery, cost and morale (SQDCM) results, and how much have they improved over the last 3 years? No continuous improvement in these equals no continuous improvement!

2. What are the facilities like? Messy, untidy, congested does not equal continuous improvement.

3. Walk up to, in turn, at least three front-line managers on the shopfloor and ask these questions:

  • Where is your team’s performance and what are the shortfalls? (What is the current level of productivity? What are the top losses for each of your SQDCM KPIs? What are the trends for the KPIs?)
  • What are the reasons why you want to change the team’s performance? (What are the consequences to the team and the business if the results stay the same or get worse? What is your analysis of what needs to improve for the benefit of the customer, the business, the process and the team?)
  • What is your team’s target condition? (What SQDCM results need to be achieved, what needs to be done to achieve them by whom and by when? What is the first step you need to achieve to get there?)
  • What resources do you need to get there (time, skills and tools)? (Failing to plan is planning to fail! Is there the motivation, leadership and continuous improvement capability as well as the technical skills?)
  • What is your plan and where are you on it? (Is there an ‘improvement ladder’ of actions and improvement delivered,  with an indication of where the team are on it? Is the focus on actual improvements delivered rather quoting we are, say 50% on time?

If you get blank looks and/or platitudes for any of the answers then you can quickly determine that continuous improvement is not happening!

Ian Madden is a Business Improvement Consultant with Torrs Consulting. His new book Always Making Progress – The Fundamentals of Continuous Improvement for the Process Industry is now available (published by Routledge).

Article by Ian Madden CEng MIChemE

Business Improvement Consultant at Torrs Consulting

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