Precast manufacturers can stay ahead and gain efficiencies with the right mindset.
By Bridget McCrea
That which we call a rose, by any other word would smell as sweet,” said Juliet of her star-crossed lover Romeo in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Such is the case in manufacturing, where the act of continually honing and perfecting operations goes by lean, Kaizen, continuous improvement and operational excellence, to name a few.
No matter the title, the results for companies facing heavy competition, pricing pressures, a tight labor market and various other challenges are welcome and necessary – and those that don’t step up can find themselves left behind and scrambling to catch up.
Whether a precaster wants to lower employee turnover, develop more competitive products, improve customer service, operate at a higher level of efficiency or all of the above, the path to getting there includes at least some type of continuous improvement. Companies are always identifying opportunities to streamline their work and reduce waste. Formalized by the popularity of lean/agile/Kaizen in manufacturing and business, continuous improvement helps companies identify cost-saving opportunities and work better, smarter and faster. For manufacturers, the opportunity to improve exists in the plant and office – in their people, tools and processes, and across their logistics and transportation operations. By taking an all-encompassing view on continuous improvements, companies can see significant benefits from their efforts, including improved productivity, lower costs, decreased delivery times and better employee morale and engagement.
As a supplier to many precast plants around the country, Barry Fleck, CEO at ALP Supply, is seeing a bigger emphasis placed on continuous improvement. In many cases, he said these efforts are driven by survival instincts and the realization that the competitive marketplace necessitates a dynamic business approach.
“We see a lot of companies struggling with day-to-day survival right now, and some of that can be traced back to the fact that these companies aren’t addressing and correcting their key challenges,” Fleck said.
Take concrete patching, for example. Fleck teaches it as part of Production and Quality School Level II – Production, and one of his first lessons focuses on avoiding patching altogether versus always handling repairs after the fact.
“When you’re patching, you’re replacing or fixing an error,” Fleck said. “It’s better to correct that error versus just focusing on getting really good at patching, which is not only time-consuming, but it’s also expensive.”
To kick off a continuous improvement strategy or ramp up an existing one, he said it’s best to start where your company is facing its biggest challenges (such as engineering, submittals, drawings, scheduling or product delivery).
“Everyone knows their pain points, but not everyone is addressing them,” Fleck said.
Improvements that stick
About 10 years ago, Smith-Midland Corp. assembled its first improvement team. This team would meet occasionally to discuss the different areas where the team needed to improve. Using those insights, the company’s management would set out to make improvements.
In some cases, the improvement process would take several years, at which point the improvement team would disband.
“Then, a few years later, we’d look around and say, ‘Well, we need to start these teams again,’” said Ashley Smith, president and CEO. “So, we would brainstorm and go through the same process.”
By the fourth time around, Smith pulled the notes from all previous improvement team meetings and noticed some areas of improvement were repeating themselves. In other words, Smith-Midland had never truly fixed the problem.
“We were getting ready to go through the process again and I said, ‘Time out. We need to do something differently,’” Smith said. “We needed a better way of making improvements that would stick.”
After exploring the options, Smith discovered the lean manufacturing principles that would become a core focus for the precaster.
“We’ve been working on them ever since,” he said. “It takes a lot of work, but the benefits far outweigh the time involved. Also, we’re much further ahead now than we would have been had we kept doing things the same way we were doing them before.”
The company’s employees and managers provide the backbone for its continuous improvement approach. In many cases, it’s as simple as training associates to identify and point out problem areas on the shop floor, out in the yard and in the office.
“We have a few people who are really on fire with this initiative, including one employee who’s committed to making one small improvement a day,” Smith said.
Recently, for example, that employee designed a shadow board where tools get hung up at the end of the day. There’s an outline of the tool on the board, making it easy to see exactly which tools are missing. Now associates don’t have to waste their time looking for a tool.
The team has orchestrated continuous improvement processes companywide. This focus so far has been in the shop, where it’s a bit easier to see improvements as they’re being made. However, the accounting department has also attacked reduced waste by going paperless and eliminating the paper shuffle that used to happen between sales and accounting.
A team-based approach
At the end of every job, the team at Bakersfield, Calif.-based StructureCast gets together to rehash all aspects of the project – from engineering to erection – to identify any areas where it may have missed out, worked more efficiently or improved its processes. From each one of those meetings, the company’s management team develops one or two procedural changes for the next project.
The same process is used in the company’s offices, where project managers play an important role in its ongoing commitment to improving and strengthening its operational approach.
“We’re very procedure-oriented, so every new job we complete changes the way we do things,” said Brent Dezember, owner and president.
At one point, StructureCast decided to implement Six Sigma principles but then came up with the post-project meeting approach instead.
“For us, a team effort has made a big difference in getting more people involved in the critique process,” Dezember said.
He admits it can be easy to fall into a rut doing the same thing over and over again, and he encourages other precasters to come up with a way to assess their progress, identify problem areas and work to solve those issues on a regular basis.
“In our industry, even minor mistakes are very costly,” said Dezember, who recalled the time StructureCast came up one panel short on a building project. Handling it after the fact cost the precaster exponentially more than it would have if handled properly the first time. “Those are the types of issues that we’re really focusing on and working to eliminate.”
A top-down approach
Paul Akers, president at FastCap, a product development company in Ferndale, Wash., and author of “2 Second Lean,” calls continuous improvement the “ultimate liaison between the precaster and the customer.” He said precasters that commit to this type of culture are truly putting their customers first.
“We’re in a business world where you have to always be thinking about improving and delivering more value,” Akers said. “Unfortunately, most manufacturers are just firefighting organizations. They run around trying to fix and solve problems.”
In most cases, those problems start with overproduction, which has to be transported and/or put into inventory. Then the defects start to surface and the over-processing, excess motion and unneeded transportation all kick into gear.
“By the time we’ve gone through all of those motions, we’ve wasted our employees’ potential since all they’re doing is running around,” Akers said.
To individuals who want to break that mold and start developing a culture of continuous improvement, Akers suggests taking a slow and consistent approach. Avoid starting with “too much too fast,” he said, because you’ll burn out your team in the process.
“Once you start, be 1,000% committed from the top-down and don’t just rely on middle management to handle it,” he said. “And remember that if you’re too busy to do this, you’re too busy because you’re not doing this.”
Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers manufacturing, industry and technology. She is a winner of the Florida Magazine Association’s Gold Award for best trade-technical feature statewide.