Everybody who runs a business knows that the economy is just kind of stumbling along, and will likely continue the pattern of slow or no growth for at least the next several months. With mergers and acquisitions on both the manufacturing side and supplier side of the industry, the precast concrete sector is still in consolidation mode.
It happens on the back side of a recession, especially in our sector, where much of the work comes from municipalities. A recession hits and a year later the state and local tax receipts decrease, and in response those sewer projects and other local infrastructure initiatives are put on the shelf. If you’ve been in the industry for any length of time, you’ve seen the cycle before. This time it’s worse. As a result, the precast industry is getting leaner, with some companies going out of business and some producers combining operations.
Last year at the NPCA 46th Annual Convention in Coeur d’Alene, we heard from an expert on lean manufacturing, Paul Akers, who runs a multimillion dollar company with a passion for lean production. Akers lives his philosophy. During his keynote speech, he talked about making coffee. You can pour sugar and cream into a cup of coffee and then use a plastic stick or a spoon to stir it. Or, if you’re living lean, you can put the sugar and cream in first and pour the coffee on top, providing a self-mixing action. You’ve saved a piece of plastic going into the landfill. It’s a microscopic step, but multiplied hundreds of millions of times, it adds up to something.
There is no room for waste in our industry. We’ve got to think lean about everything to survive, and that’s not a bad thing, because the result will be plant operations that are safer, cleaner and more profitable. There are many ways to incorporate lean into your operation, and you can visit paulakers.net to see how he does it. There is a Lean Six Sigma movement that focuses on improving efficiencies, and there is a subset of Six Sigma, known as the “5 S” system that is particularly effective for precasters. You can find out more about Lean Six Sigma and the 5 S’s online – literally thousands of websites are devoted to this topic.
The 5 S’s are elementary principles that you’re probably already practicing to some degree. But there’s always room for additional staff training to drill the concepts home to your employees. Here’s a basic look at the 5 S’s:
• Sort – If you can’t use it, get rid of it. If it is something you use, find a place for it and keep it in that place when not in use.
• Straighten – Organize continually throughout the day and make every step, movement, action in the plant count. The most frequently used tools, for example, should be the easiest to locate and reach.
• Shine – A step beyond just straightening, keep everybody’s focus on the importance of maintaining equipment, keeping it clean and respecting your work area.
• Standardize – One of the advantages of precast over cast-in-place is our ability to produce identical products in a controlled environment, so standardization is the lifeblood of a precast plant. But are there office processes, cleaning processes or other work processes that can be standardized to improve efficiencies? Here’s a suggestion: Ask your employees for suggestions and give prizes or rewards for the best ones.
• Sustain – It’s more than just a “green” thing. Building a lean culture in your plant can save money through decreased use of fuel and electricity, fewer office supplies and longer service life of equipment. There are many ways to incorporate sustainable practices in your plant and many of these are common sense things that can become habits in a lean manufacturing culture.
The Six Sigma movement has been around for about 25 years, and giant manufacturers like Motorola and GE have built it into every facet of their culture. Lean Six Sigma emerged about 10 years ago as the natural evolution of the process. In an era where waste has become a four-letter word, it’s simply smart business to get lean. What are your best lean ideas? You can share your ideas on the online version of this column at precast.org/blog.