Digital solutions enable continuous improvement

Feb. 17, 2022
The achievement of CI goals is an ongoing journey, particularly as we begin to embrace advantages of Industry 5.0.

Every process manufacturer requires both breakthrough innovation and continuous improvement (CI). While actual breakthrough innovation is rather seldom, it will have a higher chance of success in an environment where CI is embraced as a key component of the culture and everyday life.

A successful CI approach is an integrated method where teams focus on the development of products, processes and services that are monitored with a commitment to consistently identify and make improvements in one or more areas that impact quality, safety and support competitive advantage.

Today, CI is heeding the call for environmentally friendly production sites. This call for sustainability is getting louder and louder. Climate neutral production and environmental, social and governance (ESG) have arrived at both stakeholder and shareholders desks. And, because of that focus, continuous improvement has become increasingly more important for chemical processing plants not only to capture more value, but also to meet sustainability standards.

The challenge is not just to implement environmentally friendly technology, but also to make sure that technology is deployed in an economically favorable operation mode, which supports profitable production output and competitive advantage. 

Of course, there are other good reasons for a CI commitment. Continuing volatile market demand and shortage of raw material driven by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has brought new challenges to process manufacturing. It is probably safe to say that market demand and material supply chains may never return to the same predictability and reliability as experienced in the pre-pandemic era.

However, as we realized during this pandemic, people have quickly adapted to these new circumstances. Their creativity, critical thinking and cognitive capabilities, have all demonstrated the value of human contributions in a technical world. Co-existence between human and machine and artificial intelligence (AI) creates more resilience. That is just one reason continuous improvement needs to be embedded into shift teams’ day-to-day operations.

Kaizen and the importance of teamwork

Supporting CI, organizational systems such as Kaizen look to improve the overall work environment, including having systems and strategies in place without necessarily focusing on percentile success rates. For example, CI initiatives need to be shared across all shifts to consistently gain feedback. When running a production trial for an improvement initiative, corporate management and plant management need to ensure that all operations teams are in agreement and the initiatives are implemented, like one team, continually 24/7.

The Kaizen approach consists of five founding elements. It is no wonder that “teamwork” tops the list as it contributes significantly to the achievement of the other four key principles:

  • Teamwork
  • Personal discipline
  • Improved morale
  • Quality circles
  • Suggestions for improvement

To form a strong team, communication is foundational. While the strongest and richest form of human communication is face to face, the pandemic — with its requisite social distancing — required teams to collaborate via digital methods, particularly regarding shift handovers. What many process manufacturing organizations learned is that a digitized standardized communication process is essential for the new normal, as well as for upcoming AI initiatives to reconcile human context with machine data. And AI will only thrive if human intelligence is incorporated as part of the solution, especially for situations where hazardous and complex processes are operated by highly skilled and experienced experts.

Continuous improvement initiatives need to be shared across all shifts to consistently gain feedback. According to senior analyst Ian Hughes of 451 Research, “Capturing people’s knowledge at intervals such as shift handover or inspection routines, is incredibly important for the whole process.” This context helps to encode the business process on the plant floor and to analyze, improve and adjust if necessary.

Shift change as an information hub

Shiftconnector is a plant process management (PPM) solution, which helps process manufacturing shift workers and their managers track compliance, ensure safety and improve performance. This provides a trackable, single source of information for communication between frontline personnel and managers to ensure smoother operations.

Continuous improvement initiatives can be strongly supported by a focus on PPM. This approach supports a “single source of truth” so that all employees can collaborate with complete transparency.  Process manufacturers that have embraced a PPM approach confirm that information-sharing has been streamlined and that team-to-team collaboration has greatly improved, proving that PPM builds a strong foundation for effective communication and is an important pillar in supporting CI. 

PPM solutions must ensure communication across all shift changes and contain all shift documentation in the form of semi-structured data. They must also provide interfaces to other production-critical systems, including process historians, maintenance systems or LIMS solutions.

For example, incidents surrounding occupational safety are recorded digitally on a form as part of shift communication and supplemented with relevant details such as category and severity. Likewise, technical malfunctions or planned and unplanned shutdowns become part of the shift report. Many deviations in the production process can be identified in the process data and the shift teams can be automatically prompted to add relevant data on these events. The events of each shift are thus digitally coded.

These efforts build a strong teamwork structure within the organization, supporting the efforts of all involved departments and thus strengthening discipline and overall morale.

Building a high-performance culture

Obviously, teams that are communicating with each other on a sustained basis have an advantage as more eyes and ears can solve problems more quickly and adapt faster to new challenges. This transparency and standardized communications procedures build a culture of trust, support discipline and energize morale. Quality circles are influenced and suggestions for process improvements are transparent, adding to the success of a true team approach.

In the real world, a processing plant does not achieve its maximum potential on its own. People must know how to operate it. Also, the plant must be maintained to keep producing. But not everything can be simply written into procedures. There also must be a reliance on people to do the right thing, which is based on operational discipline but goes beyond. The culture, as displayed in the diagram above, is the last ingredient to establish a resilient high-performing operation. Teams must not only meet directional standards, but they must also feel free to exercise best judgment as situations arise. And to really achieve CI on an ongoing basis, the culture should inspire people to be proactive, creative, transparent and fully informed to act as one team focused on productivity and improved performance.

PPM does not require alterations to processes but documents them more efficiently through the applications of the processes. It offers a low-risk, high-impact digital investment. In fact, in several instances, to deploy a PPM solution as part of continuous improvement, it has been shown that some process manufacturers have seen a significant return on hard dollar investment and even better, an ROI in terms of team spirit and morale.

For example, one customer reported a boost of monthly production. They operated a batch process for active ingredients and struggled with a 24-hour output volatility. The plant ran at full capacity for only a few shifts due to costly interruptions which resulted in higher maintenance costs.

By sharing production data and gaining transparency across shift teams and senior experts, the driving mode was normalized to a constant output level, which was increased significantly. In fact, the customer reported that previously the plant ran at total capacity only 30% of the time. With the new focus on sharing data and operational transparency, the plant began running at target capacity 85% percent of the time.   

CI relies on the human factor

As we strive for continuous improvement with technology advances, it is critical to embrace the human factor. It is the people who are ultimately tasked with understanding and sharing, throughout the enterprise, the data that impacts production, quality and safety. Thus, teams should operate collaboratively and be recognized for their contributions. The achievement of CI goals is an ongoing journey, particularly as we begin to embrace advantages of Industry 5.0. Building a culture that inspires people to be proactive, creative, transparent and fully informed will be foundational in maximizing productivity and improved performance.


Andreas Eschbach is the founder and CEO of the software company eschbach, which helps production teams stay safe and work smarter through better information sharing and collaboration. Holding a degree in computer science, he draws his practical experience from leading a variety of international software consulting, and implementation projects for leading chemical manufacturing companies, focusing on production, continuous improvement, EHS, and maintenance. His company is a provider of manufacturing solutions and headquartered in southern Germany with offices in Boston, Massachusetts.

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