High performance

Chris Bujak tells Martin Ashcroft how Air Products applies the tools of continuous improvement to the CI process itself, to create a high performing organization. ÔÇ£From the very beginning, it was never just a manufacturing thing for us,ÔÇØ says Chris Bujak. ÔÇ£It was always a quest for creating a high performing organization. It can be applied everywhere.ÔÇØ ÔÇ£It,ÔÇØ in this instance, is continuous improvement, and Bujak is a global director of continuous improvement for Air Products, a world leading producer of a diverse range of products from gases like helium and nitrogen to nanomaterials, polymer emulsions and gas generation equipment. Many of the philosophies and techniques of what we now know as continuous improvement go back to the early 1900s. The best known in recent times is the Toyota Production System, which has been evolving now for over 50 years. It took a while to catch on in the Western world, but itÔÇÖs here now, and itÔÇÖs here to stay. ÔÇ£I would paint a time line for Western industry that would go something like this,ÔÇØ says Bujak. ÔÇ£A tremendous amount of creative thought existed from the 1900s through WWII and then it seems to have been misplaced or forgotten when the West attained industry leadership. Then the business challenges of the ÔÇÖ70s happened and people started looking for ways to address the gap and convert ideas to practice.ÔÇØ In the 1980s, he explains, there was much emphasis on employee involvement and teamwork; the famous GE Workout program is a good example. ÔÇ£We developed something here that we called the ÔÇÿIsÔÇÖ of PerformanceÔÇöideas, interpersonal skills, and involvement,ÔÇØ he says.The late 1980s and early 1990s were what Bujak calls the age of discrete CI tool applications. ÔÇ£People would find out about something, apply it with good results and then run into limits. When applied to different problems, the tool would not always achieve a positive result. Or if it did prove locally successful, it would not make an overall business impact or the result would not sustain. Here, we found out about kaizen, applied it and got good results. We had successful experiences with other continuous improvement tools such as flow and design for manufacturability, but the dark side was that some application gaps existed and there wasnÔÇÖt anything to pull it all together. ItÔÇÖs the old joke about if all I have is a hammer, all problems look like nails.ÔÇØTowards the end of the ÔÇÖ90s people like Womack and Jones in their book Lean Thinking tried to bring the elements of continuous improvement together. ÔÇ£We started to deploy an integrated formula around that time, too,ÔÇØ says Bujak, ÔÇ£and had some success with it. We achieved enough results and critical mass in some organizations that around 2000 our executive leadership suggested we take it across the whole company.ÔÇØ Bujak is a mechanical engineer by trade. He started in Air Products as a design engineer in 1976, so heÔÇÖs seen the whole process of continuous improvement from the beginning. He later became the general manager of process systems manufacturing and engineering which included a union shop that built large heat exchangers and where a number of continuous improvement techniques were used. ÔÇ£Air Products, like many companies, had a tradition of making improvements in all its operations. That was never the issue. It was about trying to significantly increase the rate of improvement beyond what it had been able to do previously, better than the competition and on a sustained basis. It was, and still is, about creating a unique culture of people and organizations that can see the wastes and have the tools and support to eliminate them.ÔÇØ When Air Products started applying tools such as kaizen and DFM, involving people in engineering, manufacturing, purchasing, and at its suppliers, in an integrated way to identify and attack opportunities, results proved to be over and above what could have been achieved previously. This approach depended on having one formula for the whole company, but as Air Products has a diverse product portfolio, that was not going to be easy. At the time there were two Business Groups, one in chemicals and the other in industrial gases. The company had to find a formula that would fit everything it did, from the manufacture of 400,000 lb heat exchangers to the filling of thousands of gas cylinders a day, to a continuous process plant with gases and chemicals coming out of a pipeline, all day, every day. ÔÇ£We did an intense merger of all the continuous improvement models,ÔÇØ says Bujak. ÔÇ£We literally did a kaizen event and ripped apart six sigma, lean and other approaches in terms of their processes, their philosophies, their structure, identified the ÔÇÿbest of the bestÔÇÖ and put it all back together again in a common process, tools and structure. We used the tools of continuous improvement on continuous improvement.ÔÇØ To rewind a little bit, Air Products had done a benchmarking study in the late 1990s on what people were then starting to call high performing organizations. ÔÇ£The purpose of the study was basically, what are they, how do you create them, what are their characteristics, what are we right now and what are our gaps?ÔÇØ says Bujak. As a result of that study, five fundamental elements of continuous improvement emerged which would form the framework of the companyÔÇÖs approach. ÔÇ£We rallied around these five things because we kept finding them over and over,ÔÇØ he says. And the number one element they chose was simply, people. ÔÇ£Arguably, he says, ÔÇ£the only discriminating factor in high performing organizations is their people. Virtually everything else can be leveled. Unleashing the talent and creativity of everyoneÔÇöwhat they know, helping them learn, how they knit together, providing the opportunity to apply themselves to business problems and customer solutions is the basis of a great organization.ÔÇØThe second element for Air Products was focus. ÔÇ£You can have the greatest people in the world, but if youÔÇÖre climbing the wrong hill . . .ÔÇØ This is about creating a common, simple understanding of the business, and aligning people effectively so theyÔÇÖre driving in the same direction. ÔÇ£Having a structured process and using data to evaluate opportunities enables the organization to get great line of sight from business drivers down to the daily activities of people. Having people understand the ÔÇÿwhatÔÇÖ and empowering them to the ÔÇÿhowÔÇÖ is what you are trying to achieveÔÇöit is focus not control,ÔÇØ Bujak emphasizes.ÔÇ£The third one for us was the tools,ÔÇØ he continues. These can be any from the now familiar basket of continuous improvement tools; kaizen, flow, six sigma, but also the soft toolsÔÇödecision making, communication skills, and tools to assess how well teams are working together. However, even here Bujak sees gaps in many conventional improvement approaches. ÔÇ£Tools can confuse people by using different approaches to achieve the same thing,ÔÇØ he says. The fourth element was learning, because thatÔÇÖs how people improve themselves and adapt to constant change. ÔÇ£ItÔÇÖs important to learn from success, from failure, from each other, from inside and outside the organization and to apply what youÔÇÖve learned,ÔÇØ he says. ÔÇ£We try to supercharge learning by building a community of practice for all the CI practitioners and by including knowledge management tools in the toolkit so people can share their learning and best practices even better. ÔÇ£And the last element is the one youÔÇÖd expect,ÔÇØ he says; ÔÇ£leadership.ÔÇØ When organizations get started at the grass roots or middle-out level, they can run into a ÔÇÿglass ceilingÔÇÖ where further spread, or even sustaining the gains proves difficult. ÔÇ£When you put all the elements together and make them real, the impact is incredible.ÔÇØ Having identified the characteristics of a high performing continuous improvement organization, the challenge was to figure out how to turn themselves into one. ThatÔÇÖs where the tools of continuous improvement were put to work on the continuous improvement process. ÔÇ£We built a continuous improvement ÔÇÿvalue streamÔÇÖ or process that can be used for every organization in the company and made it ÔÇÿrealÔÇÖ with an infrastructure, tools and job aids,ÔÇØ says Bujak. ÔÇ£Any of our businesses and functions, as part of their annual planning cycle, can use the CI process. It helps people analyze and find the waste in their organization from customer, business and capability perspectives. It then gets distilled down into an annual plan with the critical areas of attack, objectives and tools for improvement identified.ÔÇØ When it comes to change management, the popular belief is that the challenge is at the grass roots of the organization. ÔÇ£My experience has been the opposite,ÔÇØ says Bujak. ÔÇ£They actually understand quickly because they see how powerful it is to help them eliminate a lot of their own frustration in their work process.ÔÇØ The bigger change management issue, he says, is middle management, because they are often asked to undergo a significant role change and take on additional accountability. ÔÇ£WeÔÇÖre asking them to go from fire fighting to fire preventing, from giving of orders to being coach and teacher, from power over people to power with people.ÔÇØThis is the one area where Bujak admits, if he could go back and do it all over again, he would have spent more time. ÔÇ£WeÔÇÖre doing some remedial work on that one right now,ÔÇØ he says. ÔÇ£ItÔÇÖs almost a natural tendency for organizations to work the highest level because you need the leadership and executive support, and to work the lowest level because everybody is concerned about the people. Some place in the middle, something gets missed. We are pumping up training for middle management, including CI process and tool training as well as providing help on specific issues such as change management, data analysis and techniques for sustaining the gains.ÔÇØ Air Products has also given more detailed training at the executive level recently, because the more familiar they are with the issue, the more supportive they can be to their middle management. Bujak leaves me in no doubt that the prime purpose of Air ProductsÔÇÖ continuous improvement effort is to help people to overachieve. The ultimate example of that can be summed up in a single memory. ÔÇ£Some years ago,ÔÇØ he says, ÔÇ£one of my kaizen instructors was training up a supervisor in a packaged gases plant. After he was certified the gentlemanÔÇÖs mother arranged a dinner for him at home and they invited my tool instructor. When the mother heard about what her son could now do, she said she never thought her son would be able to do that. If you can overachieve what your mother thinks you can do, you can change the world.ÔÇØ