By Phillip Cutler, P.E.
Continuous improvement is the ongoing enhancement of products, services and processes. Improvements can be incremental over time or a breakthrough that happens all at once. The key is positive change.
Precast concrete manufacturing facilities should build a continuous improvement plan into their long-term strategies, because while jobs begin and finish, continuous improvement is ongoing and evolutionary.
NPCA RESOURCES DESIGNED TO HELP
Henry Ford once said, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”
The late Greg Chase often used that quote while teaching the Production and Quality School Level III Leadership course. Chase used it to emphasize concepts related to precast plant management principles. These words apply now more than ever.
NPCA resources developed during the past few years support these principles in order to help member facilities.
In 2019, the NPCA Quality Assurance Committee adopted a continuous improvement section (1.1.4) and a companion section (2.5) into the NPCA Plant Terms and Conditions.
Section 1.1.4 outlines four areas – production, processes, facilities and operational – where continuous improvement efforts should focus. The committee recommended that plants, at a minimum, take part in at least two of the three following areas to be considered for continuous improvement points:
- Actively participate in the NPCA producer portal.
- Conduct semi-annual self-audits.
- Educate plant staff beyond quality control personnel.
Section 2.5 provides guidance on how continuous improvement is scored, with additional clarification available within the 15th edition (January 2022) of the NPCA Quality Control Manual for Precast Concrete Plants.
Since that time, many NPCA members have incorporated continuous improvement activities and have observed positive results beyond the direct changes.
POSITIVE CHANGE IS FELT BY EVERYONE
Continuous improvement does not have to be revolutionary or involve expensive new equipment. It can be as simple as how staff members answer the phone, make shop drawings or design structures. It can build upon current practices for precast product manufacturing, loading, delivery or storage.
Anything that benefits all staff members – whether a primary, secondary or tangential participant – fits within this definition.
From management and engineers to drivers and the maintenance crew, any department can improve how it does things. Experience is the best teacher and often is a steppingstone toward improvements.
Inland Northwest Precast in Newman Lake, Wash., conducts continuous improvement activities, and Director of Quality Assurance Greg Papich likes what he sees.
Inland Northwest utilizes the NPCA producer portal to store pertinent documents and materials certifications as well as to schedule shutdown dates when critical personnel are not available. The portal also assists in organizing contact information and other items critical to annual certifications.
“We really enjoy using the portal,” Papich said. “Not only does it make things easier for our annual audits, but it also is great for organizing our QC documents. We have found that the semi-annual self-audits force us to always have processes in place that will assist in having our plant operate at a high level.”
Since implementing continuous improvement, Inland Northwest has noticed an improvement in the physical appearance and organization of its plant. Important plant documents and records are stored on computers instead of in binders, folders and overflowing filing cabinets. This also makes the annual unannounced certification audit smoother for plant personnel, since all the records are stored in clearly labeled electronic files and personnel quickly and easily can direct the auditor to the necessary files.
The NPCA Producer portal also serves as a conduit to continuing education.
“This empowers our employees at every level,” Papich said.
By truly including everyone, ideas become infectious and intellectual involvement grows, said Andrew Nashawaty, general manager of Scituate Concrete Products Inc. in Marshfield, Mass.
“Take education for instance. We have had a few employees take some classes, and they advance in the company,” Nashawaty said. “Others see that, and now we have over half of our Marshfield plant employees asking for additional education.
“Employees have gained confidence through all of their NPCA PQS educational exposure and experiences. We have multiple employees enrolled in Precast University working toward Master Precaster.”
And this leads to results.
“Our mix designs have improved significantly from ideas off the floor,” Nashawaty said.
START SMALL, BUILD TO BIG
Knowing where to start can be the most difficult step for many companies. Papich said start small and work from there.
“You have to come to the realization that this is exactly what the program says it is: ‘continuous improvement,’” he said. “If you are continually improving, then it will always be positive.”
Inland Northwest started by bringing employees into a room and having roundtable discussions on what naturally improves over time and what could use some help. By talking to production and QC personnel, management realized that there are many processes in place that were not as efficient or effective as they could be.
The company considers opinions from every level of the workforce – from the newest employee to the most experienced veteran.
“We do not treat this program like ‘extra credit,’ ” Papich said. “It is mandatory, so it forces us to always be looking to make our plant the best plant in the country.”
An important and often overlooked key to successful improvement is total commitment by management and a willingness to empower and encourage the workforce with support and enthusiasm, Papich said. No improvement idea is too small or insignificant. In fact, a series of small, incremental changes often are more manageable and sustainable than a standalone breakthrough event.
“Embracing change is a key to successful implementation,” Nashawaty said. “Sometimes, just the initial thought of continuous improvement seems so daunting. ‘We don’t have the staff. We don’t have the time or resources.’ These things couldn’t be farther from the truth. Just get in there and try it.
“After three years in, we can’t imagine our business without active participation in continuous improvement efforts.”
Ideas drive businesses, plant processes and culture to change and evolve. To get started, all it takes is an open mind and the courage to try. PI
Philip Cutler, P.E., is the director of quality assurance programs at NPCA.