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Continuous improvement for process industries can feel like trying to fix plumbing with the water turned on. No matter how carefully you approach the problem, messes will occur.
At petrochemical and bulk chemical plants where operations run around the clock, any downtime subtracts from potential revenue. The only recourse is minimizing losses and augmenting operations in ways that enduringly promote expedient changes while upholding the safety and quality standards of today.
That’s where CI makes its case, particularly when applied to these areas:
- Scheduling maintenance.
- Enhancing equipment reliability.
- Optimizing labor.
- Standardizing the latest methods for changeover and turnaround.
- Analyzing inventory turns.
- Responding operationally to pricing variation.
With that said, process-improvement researchers – Satya S. Chakravorty, for one – have found that CI initiatives, while beneficial, often face several barriers that sink success. How have CI implementers in process industries struggled the most to reduce the impact of applying this important discipline to their operations?
They didn’t finish what they started
CI, referred to as kaizen in the circles of lean manufacturing and Six Sigma, does not mean existing in a state of perpetual adjustment, where something is always in progress. Rather, kaizen encourages an openness and willingness to change at all times, a focus on betterment over contentment with the status quo.
Facilities run into trouble when they begin a CI project and fail to fully follow though, instead choosing to look at what lies ahead than what’s in their laps currently. The first thing to go is the detailed real-time analysis, then motivation wanes, then the project lingers on unfinished or is wrapped up hastily. Prevention requires three resources: a senior-level leader to take ownership of the project at hand, a quantifiable terminus, and a method for articulating gains to project stakeholders to energize involvement.
They never considered those most affected by changes
CI pushes adopting companies toward operational perfection, but as a philosophy, it also challenges the behavior of those directly involved in improvement initiatives, both leaders and technicians.
Change management of any name requires advocacy spurred by honest collaboration. Not every improvement will appear as such to certain workers, and indeed they might not be. The benefits of change may not readily present themselves. It’s up to project leaders to communicate what operational excellence will be achieved through improvement. Those leaders must also learn to use that communication as a springboard for changes as opposed to facilitate involvement in the middle or end of a project.
They didn’t recognize when enough was enough
CI projects push limits, but eventually limits push back. Using music as a metaphor, columnist and consultant Alastair Dryburgh illustrated two different ways facilities with continuous improvement initiatives react to those hard limits.
“There’s a very clear standard of what makes a good pianist or violinist,” wrote Dryburgh, “and the difference between the really top people and the next level is very small […] In rock, rap or hip hop, on the other hand, it’s different. Everyone is working in the same sort of genre, roughly, but success comes from establishing a distinctive sound and personality.”
Companies tend to think about continuous improvement too literally, as making something progressively better and better. Eventually, however, they reach a limit where the investment into change far outweighs the slight return. Those organizations must consider the value of innovation as CI. What’s left to determine is whether the limit can go no higher or if doing something daring in another area will achieve even greater operational performance.
They didn’t leverage the right expertise
Advanced process control systems commonly used in process industries bolster best practices for operational data utilization, but they aren’t everything. Big data insights that encourage CI need capable hands to convert those values into actionable strategy.
A report from McKinsey suggested process industries balance every project involving upgrades to organizational support with representation from four critical knowledge bases: information technology, domain (pertaining to the literal processes), advanced analytics, and change management. Respectively, these stakeholders will draw out the data used to justify improvement initiatives, assess the impact of alternate models for optimization, develop the boundaries that will evaluate improvements as they happen and ensure projects are carried out to the letter of the plan.
If leaders at processing plants are without such expertise, they should consider a partnership with operational consultants for large-scale projects or for advice on how to train current operators to support future endeavors. For more information, contact the operations management consultants at USC Consulting Group.
Shifting consumer trends around meat have pushed businesses to rethink their processes. A recent study published by the Natural Resources Defense Council found American consumption of beef fell precipitously between 2005 and 2014, fueled in part by sustainably minded customers and health concerns. Today, the U.S. eats about 80 percent of the beef it did 12 years ago.
But beef isn’t the only red-meat protein with declining consumption, according to the Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. In early February, the DOA ERS reported per capita annual supply rates for pork dropped nearly 4 pounds between 2010 to 2014. Veal and lamb suffered a similar decrease, now down to just 1 pound per person per year on average. For perspective, the average American currently consumes about 50 pounds of beef products annually. Fish and turkey availability has stagnated in the last five years, while chicken availability has steadily increased since the 1970s.
Food processors cannot ignore these seismic shifts in consumer opinion, lest they fail to develop plans for positioning their products well among the next generation of green-thinking carnivores. As companies make moves to adjust their processes and align their production lines with consumer expectations, what areas of focus should not go overlooked?
Fold new cutting operations into legacy processes
Raising cattle produces a significant greenhouse gas footprint, which affects how consumers buy meat products. In response, many beef and pork producers have started considering all the ways they can capitalize on less popular parts of the animal, which open consumers to new cuisine options and low prices without changing much of their internal processes. Newfound appreciation for shoulder cuts like shoulder tenderloin and flat-iron steaks demonstrates how such a move can make as much businesses sense as it does environmental sense.
It is unwise, however, for the beef industry to consider the processing of these new cuts as temporary or secondary to their main lines. As consumer opinions about meat evolve, companies must offer the flexibility to change while still incorporating the same level of quality assurance and affordability customers have come to expect. These businesses should think long and hard about how best to integrate new workflows cleanly into existing processes without raising prices or investing in superfluous equipment.
Excite customers with informative packaging
Continuing from the last point, should new products receive the same old packaging? For many reasons, yes. Standardized packaging reduces procurement costs, as purchasers most likely receive bulk deals from suppliers, and limit changeover along with the downtime costs therein.
But if meat processors want new cuts to make a splash and have a lasting impact on their customers, they may need to guide them with better on-package messaging. Take oyster steaks, a cut procured from the rump. Visually, they aren’t as pleasing to the eye as a strip steak or a T-bone, they are just as grill-friendly and succulent, not to mention far cheaper. Use packaging to instruct the inquisitive consumer on how to prepare these less expensive cuts, how they compare to other more popular cuts, and perhaps provide recipes. Each of these marketing methods reduces the risk to the consumer who wants lower grocery costs, but doesn’t want to buy something they can’t eat or cook.
Reevaluate equipment degradation and operator training
Whenever asset-intensive industrial businesses expand their operations, they ought to consider the impact this change will have on how they calibrate and repair the processing equipment they use. By offering a reinvented menu of primal cuts, meat producers may subject their cutting and deboning assets to greater risk of operational deficiency and, as such, will have to pay close attention to their scheduled maintenance programs. Adjustments are a near certainty.
Furthermore, new cuts require new staff training sessions. Once meat producers decide on which cuts to bring their customers, they should work with equipment operators and butchers on-site to design and drill a standardized system for harvesting these new products without slowing other operations down.
USC Consulting Group offers meat producers and other food and beverage companies the opportunity to work with industry experts who can streamline production, reduce waste, and maximize long-term value. To learn more, check out our case study involving process automation in the poultry industry.