An Inward Eye: Making the Case for Real Operational Improvements

By Larry Robinson

It started with scrap.

We knew there was a problem. Scrapped vinyl extrusions were beginning to take up space in our facility’s parking lot because there was nowhere else to put them. Much of it was generated from some inefficient start-up and shut-down processes. Some of our equipment was also creating unaccounted-for complexities, and it wasn’t uncommon for production runs to fail a final inspection. As we would come to learn, some of these problems were intrinsic.

This was the situation at one of our production facilities a few years ago. Since then, we’ve made significant improvements that have brought benefits to our business. We even turned the scrap problem into a new revenue stream by reselling it to vinyl fencing manufacturers. But these changes didn’t come easy. Optimizing our operations required a shift in mindset at every business level. Today, we see the results.

Identifying the “Why”

Manufacturing is a business of cause-and-effect. If there is a problem with production, it’s essential to identify the root cause. In our facility, we did have some equipment that needed to be upgraded, but the equipment itself wasn’t necessarily the root cause of some of our inefficiencies and scrap. Getting to the root of our issue involved getting into a frame of mind that constantly asks: “How can we make things better?” We’ve done this in part by instituting daily improvement meetings involving all production staff, where we ask ourselves where we might have fallen short and what it’s going to take to fix it. We also identified that, in serving our customers, our organizational mindset had become reactionary. We’d wait for orders to come in before developing a plan to deliver. Today, we plan our production monthly and involve team members from across our organization, including sales, purchasing, and production. We forecast demand, plan out our production schedules, and obtain the needed raw materials as proactively as possible.

We invested in new equipment, and modern extrusion lines have proven easier to work with for operators, helping to eliminate some of the inherent complexities of our old system. This, in turn, enabled us to boost morale and engagement on the shop floor. But it wasn’t just the new machines that did this. It was our team’s focus on shifting the culture—to one that values teamwork, collaboration across all levels and continually asks, “Why?”

To be clear: We still run into problems every day. The big difference between now and five years ago is that we try to keep those problems in front of us, where we can focus our collective attention and fix them as we go.

When you make significant improvements to your production process, the benefits can impact all parts of your organization. For example, our strategic decisions were focused largely on operational efficiency— our ability to make product quicker, more consistently and at higher levels of quality. We also wanted to get it into the hands of our customers in a timelier fashion.
We succeeded at these goals, but simultaneously we made a significant impact on our company’s sustainability footprint. We now recycle more than 90% of our generated scrap.

It doesn’t always take a significant capital investment to take a critical eye to your operations and ask yourself: “Is this the best way to accomplish my goals?” Answers might not come immediately, and they might not always be easy, but they exist—and it takes organizational commitment at every level to find them.

Larry Robinson is vice president of operations for window and door profiles at Quanex Building Products.

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DWM Magazine

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