At Air Products South Africa, continuous improvement (CI) is as deeply embedded in the company’s value system as safety and customer service. “It is”, says Hein Brink, Production Manager: Industrial Gases at Air Products, “a truly overarching policy, linked to every aspect of the business”.
“Continuous improvement is a ‘universal language’ which applies to everyone, and every process. Everyone understands CI, because essentially it is about increased job satisfaction, and everyone benefits. CI is based on a highly theoretical and analytical process, yet the results are hard benefits in terms of costs and efficiencies. It is about a future reality which becomes a current reality, and it is ongoing,” says Brink.
Air Products uses tried and tested problem-solving tools, or methodologies, such as Kaizen, when implementing CI. The process is guided by its internal qualified CI facilitators and managers, and driven globally by the parent company Air Products and Chemicals Inc. (APCI). In accordance with the Kaizen methodology, change occurs in small, incremental steps; and, in many instances, is based on suggestions and input from workers on the ‘shop floor’.
“We rely especially on long-standing employees who have hands-on involvement with the day-to-day operations, to help make sustainable changes. In this way we collaborate with our people and give them a voice – and often the simplest ideas can make the biggest difference,” Brink points out.
He adds that CI at Air Products started some ten years ago with a focus on depot layout, analysing product throughput (that is cylinder utilisation and availability); as well as staff workflows and administrative processes.
A recent and very good example of ‘CI at work’ is Air Products’ Cape Town facility which, says Brink, has enjoyed substantial benefits from recent CI implementation. Process improvements related to upgrades in equipment have resulted in increased capacity for high purity (HP) gas analysis; as well as significantly enhanced efficiencies in cylinder handling.
“Investment in analysis equipment has given our Cape Town team the ability to perform HP gas analysis on-site, whereas previously this had to be done at our Kempton Park facility. Cape Town can now do its own analysis of HP gases, eliminating considerable transport and distribution costs,” explains Sugene Vickernand, Regional Sales Manager: Cape at Air Products South Africa.
Further improvements, through capital investment, have been implemented in the cylinder handling process at the Cape Town facility, which have removed 80% of manual cylinder handling. Line manifold processes have been replaced by palletised filling, increasing both safety and efficiency.
“This equipment for product flow-through represents the latest technology for cylinder filling and handling and has enhanced productivity, with the added advantage of increased safety on-site,” says Vickernand.
Air Products’ customers in Cape Town are reaping the benefits of the improved system, according to Vickernand. Such benefits include increased availability, shorter lead times and enhanced security of supply, all of which contribute to the company’s drive towards improved customer service.
“CI is designed to eliminate waste, and save time, labour and transport costs, and ultimately these benefits are all passed on to our customers,” Vickernand adds.
He emphasises that CI is a highly consultative process and, at Air Products, is based on what the company calls ‘events’ – structured brainstorming sessions during which processes are clearly analysed and mapped, before deciding on an action plan.
“It is important to make changes which are both specific and measurable. CI, when carefully planned, should eliminate waste in any existing process, and prevent waste in future processes. One of our own methods is Air Products Cause and Effect (ACE) which sets about identifying the causes of a problem, sets improvement targets, plans actions and tracks the progress. It is about facilitating a process in a highly structured way.”
Vickernand also notes that the company ensures that successes in CI are shared nationally, and globally: “For example, identifying improved processes in cylinder storage and throughput, and seeing where this process can work in other geographic areas.
“At the end of the day, CI is about making life easier – and better – for everyone, our customers and our staff alike. It is an ongoing, dynamic process which, itself, is subject to continual improvement!” he concludes.