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Practical example: Implementing improvements is a joint process

Guest blog by Arnold Herrmann
Guest blog by Arnold Herrmann

Management consulting, Quality Assurance

Eliminating the cause of a problem. Drastically reducing the number of rejected products. Reducing the costs of failure. In most cases, changes have to be made in order to realize sustainable improvement. There is always the risk of falling back into old habits. In this practical example, you can read how the organization Vessel* went about it.

Background

Vessel is a tank storage company. It stores chemical substances for various major corporations. In addition to tank storage, Vessel also offers a number of transshipment services, such as loading and unloading train cars, ships and tanker trucks.

 

Making improvements and managing risks

The severity of the risks involved calls for flawless services. After all, an incident can easily lead to serious accidents and major damage. Prevention is therefore critically important. At first glance, this is not compatible with the desire to be fast and flexible. Drivers want to hit the road again as fast as possible. Ship captains want to cast off at the earliest opportunity. Clients want maximum flexibility and the option to request last-minute changes. However, Vessel cannot afford to make any mistakes…

The approach

The motivation 

It was bound to happen some day: biodiesel from a tanker truck was pumped into a tank full of ethanol. This not only resulted in a contaminated tank, but also in tons of contaminated final product and contaminated installations. This incident and several other “near misses” made Vessel decide that it was high time to take action. This time, the company wanted lasting results.

Improvement teams

In conference with management, it was decided to explicitly involve people from the work floor in the process. The quality manager:

“...in the past, we often thought we could take care of things for our operational staff. Our efforts ultimately had little to no effect in practice. After some time passes, people invariably fall back into their old habits. At Herrmann's recommendation, we explicitly involved our employees in the improvement process. We formed a team to tackle the question of how we can prevent chemicals from being unloaded into the wrong tank...”.

The team consisted of three employees from various disciplines who were all directly involved in the process. Over the course of various sessions – each no longer than one hour – gradual progress was made. 

“...when dealing with issues like these, proper guidance is really important. Herrmann is there to make sure the various steps are taken quickly and efficiently. The substance is our responsibility, however. Our colleague come up with ideas and feel a sense of ownership regarding the problem at hand. That is a major step in the right direction in and of itself. The external guidance helps us maintain our pace and keeps everyone's eyes on the ball...”.

Results

The initial results were presented after just a few sessions:

“... it became clear that many past mistakes were made because the operators had trouble choosing the right hose for the job. The fact that the hoses were not stored in an organized manner only made things worse. The team itself came up with a very practical solution for this. A unique color combination was added to the different hoses. The work orders also contain a color code to indicate what hose the operators should use. The team has tried out this method in practice for several months, with excellent results. Not a single mistake has been made since...”.

Sticking with it 

Being evaluated: does the approach using improvement teams work for Vessel? Does it have lasting results?  

“...the enthusiasm and the encouraging results have inspired us to form two additional improvement teams, for a total of three. It does not really matter to us whether the solutions people come up with are theoretically optimal or not. What matters is that they came up with and implemented these ideas themselves. People also correct each other if necessary. In other words, there is ample support throughout the organization. That makes the improvement process fun, meaningful and - above all - highly effective...”.

Conclusion

Getting employees to provide input and actively take part in the process leads to guaranteed support and better results. This makes the improvement process more effective, fun and meaningful! 

* The names of the organizations are deliberately fictitious