For most organisations it is their process which consumes the most resources but also delivers the most value. That is the product – whether physical or service based. All processes have the potential for waste and by understanding the process better you can often reduce or eliminate this waste. So, the process is at the heart of the organisation’s sustainability impact. Process improvements will often deliver reductions in energy and other resource use or better productivity from the same level of resources.
Process improvement is more than just tweaking to do things ‘a bit better’ or responding a specific problem or event. It is about being systematic in analysing what you do, identifying and evaluating options and solving challenges so that you can make improvements that make a significant difference.
In order to improve your process you need to analyse what is currently happening. There are a number of techniques that focus on different factors and yield different results. They may target areas such as customer value and non-value add, wasted energy and materials and the flow of productivity, among others. You may want to use more than one technique so that you cover more aspects of your process.
From the analysis certain process steps will emerge as having significant sustainability impacts. Once these problem areas are identified you can work to find suitable solutions. The application of a system such as Lean, Total Quality, Statistical Process Control or Six Sigma can lead to a process of greater capability and less waste. This in turn can deliver benefits to sustainability performance and the bottom line.
To target improvements in the flow rate of your process you might use a technique called right sizing. In a process context right sizing targets the capacity of each step and brings them into balance. It aims to eliminate the scenario where the different steps in the process all have different capacity resulting in some being overloaded while others have relatively little to do. This will typically improve the resource efficiency and productivity of the process.
De-bottlenecking recognises that most, or maybe all, processes have a bottleneck. This is sometimes called the ‘rate determining step’ because the bottleneck forces other steps to go at the same rate. Identifying and removing the bottleneck will often lead to more efficient operation of the entire process.
Many of the lean techniques focus on improving the flow of work and these are usually implemented as a lean system with other interrelated techniques to improve efficiency across a whole business. For example, line balancing, levelling and work cells aim for a smooth flow of work that exactly meets demand by managing the layout of the workplace, availability of resources and scheduling.
Improving customer value
Value stream mapping shows process steps which add value as perceived by the customer and those that don’t. You can then target how to eliminate the non-value adding steps which are technically waste (muda) because they are not wanted by the customer (see Waste management). This will improve the sustainability of the process as all steps will have been consuming resources.
Once the non-value add steps have been eliminated, or at least minimised, you can target the remaining steps. You may be able to reduce the amount of handling or the distance and frequency of movements throughout the process. Eliminating unnecessary movement can result in lower transport costs and better production rates.
You might also apply techniques that enable you to reduce the amount of work in progress (WIP) and stored material and inventory. This can deliver significant reductions in storage requirements and associated resource use.
Optimising equipment performance
Optimising is the term we use to describe the process of moving towards 100% efficiency. This is never achievable so something which has been optimised yesterday can be optimised again tomorrow. The process of optimisation involves analysing the process and working out where the inefficiencies are and how to reduce them. This is usually specific to each process.
Re-tooling and re-engineering
These apply technical solutions to make process improvements. Typically they involve significant redesign, changes and upgrades in equipment and technology which provide opportunities to make improvements in resource efficiency and environmental management. There may also be benefits from equipment that is easier to use or more ergonomic and therefore reduces risk of injury or can be operated by workers who have not previously had the opportunity.
Energy recovery systems
Energy is expensive and is the major contributor to climate change and the carbon footprint. While the goal might be 100% efficiency – so that 100% of what goes into the process is useful output – this is never achieved. Usually the inefficiency in energy use shows up as heat; and heat is being recognised as a valuable by-product.
If your business processes demand high levels of energy or heat you might want to investigate cogeneration. This is usually a system where the enterprise generates some or all of their own power – in such a way that the potentially wasted heat is recovered and can be put to use. Some plants are now moving to trigeneration where electric power, heat and cooling are all generated and even greater savings in fuel costs and carbon emissions can be achieved. Sometimes these businesses will be linked into the grid for some of their power needs and they might feed excess electricity back into the grid.
On a smaller scale you might identify equipment that emits heat as a result of the inefficient use of fuel or other energy. This heat can often be captured and used. Hot air might be sucked out by fans and diverted to the heating ducts. Or a heat exchanger could be used to heat a fluid which is piped to the space heating system or for process heating. These processes can also be applied between plants and organisations. This is common in the US and Europe where steam is sold and piped to another location for heating or other uses.
Engaging workforce capabilities
The people that do the work, operate the plant are the most familiar with the operation of the process. Typically they are a great source of ideas for improving the process. A functioning continuous improvement process will help capture this. As the people on the front end develop their understanding of the process, they are better able to recognise signs of sub-optimal performance and either do something about it or make recommendations as to what changes might be useful. This requires significant technical knowledge about the process and the principles of its operation.
A process improvement may need staff with different skills – or maybe the analysis has shown that the main problem is the way staff are currently working. In either of these situations re-skilling of the workforce will be required to improve sustainability outcomes.
Managing your performance
Things to think about in process improvement for sustainability include:
- A strategic commitment to minimising all types of waste throughout all business processes
- Using tools and techniques from Lean and the Competitive Systems and Practices and Sustainable Operations qualifications to identify waste and improvements
- Scheduling regular and adequate maintenance for all equipment using proactive maintenance strategies such as Total Productive Maintenance (TPM), Reliability Centred Maintenance (RCM)
- Looking at full cost analysis and energy efficiency of equipment options when purchasing and re-engineering
- Identifying the skills needed to support new processes – and providing skills development programs.
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