Three Tips for Applying Continuous Improvement to Process Industries


We at EON have been fortunate to work with a number of premier companies across a variety of industries. Two industries where we’ve done considerable work are chemicals/petro-chemicals and heavy process, which has allowed us to learn quite a bit about what it takes to make continuous improvement relevant and sustainable in environments that tend to be highly asset intensive. As one consultant I know once put it, it’s important to understand how CI works at a facility that is mostly pipes, vats and tanks. So, here are 3 tips for applying CI to the process industries.

SEE ALSO: What is Continuous Improvement and Why is It Important? 

Tip 1: A Strong Maintenance & Reliability Focus is Essential

Simply put, the plant’s maintenance & reliability maturity is critical to its success. Process industry plants make use of sophisticated equipment that needs to function in a highly precise and repeatable fashion to ensure that product is made to specification. In addition, the consequence of equipment failures in many process plants is significant because repair work may take many hours or days and there is often a lack of equipment redundancy. For these reasons, it’s important that CI have a heavy emphasis on helping the plants to migrate up the failure curve through a preventive & predictive maintenance program focused on maintaining the inherent reliability of the entire system. Additionally, scheduled outages and major turnarounds must be well planned, coordinated, and executed to avoid major delays (the application of SMED can be quite beneficial for planned maintenance work). Finally, when there is a failure, the plant must have a well-defined work management process in order to properly prioritize, plan, schedule, and execute all maintenance work.


Tip 2: The Introduction of Lean Must be Thoughtful

While the process industries were somewhat slow to adopt Lean thinking into their continuous improvement models, our experience is that many have come to see the value of Lean for their environment, so there is little controversy in that regard anymore. And, in reality, there should never have been a controversy. The 7 (or 8) major wastes can all be seen in a process industry plant as easily as an assembly plant or discrete parts manufacturer. That being said, there are certain Lean-based tools and practices that don’t apply the same way in a process plant. For example, process industry plants aren’t likely to move toward cellular manufacturing anytime soon because the equipment is both fixed in place and highly interconnected. Similarly, it’s important to recognize that the process flow is typically determined by the design of the asset itself, so process plants have real limitations in that regard (unless there is an engineering or capital solution). Finally, in certain process plants the concept of a product changeover doesn’t apply either because they only make one product or the transition from Product A to Product B is done “in process” and is programmed through a distributed control system.

What’s required is a thoughtful examination on how to apply Lean to eliminate waste, such as what I mentioned above about using SMED to streamline a planned maintenance activity or using a Kanban system to manage spares inventory in the maintenance stockroom (poor parts management can be a huge cost driver in process plants). In addition, it’s sometimes important to condition the workforce to “see” waste in a different way. For example, many process plants have an “in process” system to rework out of spec product.  Our experience is that often in-process rework is not viewed as a problem even though it involves 2 of the 7 forms of waste, defects and excess processing.  


Tip 3: Certain CI Practices and Tools Will be Implemented Differently

There are numerous examples I could use to illustrate this point, but I’ll focus on two – 5S and Operator-led maintenance. Starting with 5S, process industry plants tend to cover a lot of acreage, much of which isn’t sheltered and may be staffed by operating teams that are quite small compared to plants in more labor intensive industries. So the implementation of 5S is likely to take longer and the sustainability process will have to accommodate a small team covering a large physical area.

Moving to Operator-led maintenance, the equipment in process plants tends to be quite sophisticated and problems with the equipment may not always be visually identifiable, so it’s important to have a clear vision for the nature of the involvement that Operators should have in maintaining the equipment. At a minimum they need to be a part of the solution when it comes to identifying potential or actual equipment failures through general inspections. In many cases Operators can be provided with devices and trained to test equipment condition in the field and feed that information back to the maintenance department.  In some situations they may even be able to perform certain maintaining tasks, such as basic lubrication. Typically however, the appropriate end state is not for Operators to do advanced maintaining work because the level of skill required necessitates using trained Maintenance Technicians.


SEE ALSO: How to Choose the Right Lean Manufacturing Tools for Your Business 

The Industries Vary but the Key Challenge is the Same

The tips addressed above speak to some of the differences across industries when it comes to the broad-based application of CI. However what we’ve come to learn is that many organizations regardless of industry struggle with the same fundamental challenge…sub-optimal CI management stemming from use of the wrong tools. In the world we live in today, companies differentiate themselves by using reliable information to make smarter business decisions. Yet far too many companies are driving a structured CI program with limited visibility into the impact it’s having on the business and very little employee accountability for meeting CI commitments to the business.

If your organization is challenged in this way, take a look at EON, the world’s first comprehensive CI management platform for modern improvement teams. EON’s strategy setting, performance analytics, best practices implementation, and project management features make it easy to establish the managing processes that drive CI at the plant level. At the same time, EON’s leading indicators scorecard makes CI governance straight forward by providing real business intelligence on the nature, status, and impact of improvement work across the enterprise.

If you’d like to learn more about EON, don’t hesitate to contact us. We can solve your CI management problem quickly and permanently.  


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The EON Platform team works tirelessly to write content that provides valuable, actionable insights.