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Continuous improvement, a blueprint for continued success

Continuous improvement has always been a core part of Air Products’ business culture and is not only aimed at providing a benefit to customers, but also to employees and other stakeholders.

Air Products South Africa prides itself on a solid safety track record, innovative new products and developments, and success in the industrial manufacturing sector. This positioning is underpinned by a solid business strategy that is focused on key aspects, one being a constant drive for continuous improvement (CI) through a multi-pronged CI process.

Continuous improvement has always been a core part of Air Products’ business culture and is not only aimed at providing a benefit to customers, but also to employees and other stakeholders. Improved business processes ultimately benefits the customer and is achieved by obtaining input from the customer and developing means to respond to their needs. It is further important to find the critical areas for improvement and use the correct approach to identify activities which do not add value. This process, which aims to improve levels of service, products and increase efficiencies, merges tools such as Process Mapping, Air Products Cause and Effect and the Total Improvement Process.

The CI process is not restricted to a particular aspect of the business, which makes it an ideal standardised tool to use for improving performance across different business units. The success is largely dependent on the involvement of the employees as they play a key role in defining the steps in the process, continuously monitor the performance measures and ultimately detecting unexpected variations. In order for the process to succeed, the full commitment of the individuals forming part of the process is an essential requirement.

The number of individuals involved in the CI process varies – it comprises of one to twenty people, or even more, depending on the number of stakeholders involved and affected, as well as the level to which they are impacted. Although the continuous improvement process structure remains standard, it is adjusted to address the objectives of the department, process or function at hand.

Hein Brink, Production Manager at Air Products comments on the importance of changing processes and systems in a manufacturing environment: “In today’s competitive manufacturing climate, it is essential to establish a competitive advantage when it comes to price, service and product. In establishing and maintaining this advantage, it is important to constantly review processes and systems and make the necessary improvements. Another important aspect for Air Products is to constantly engage with customers in order to identify changing and evolving needs and addressing them immediately. Our improved processes further aim to align to market trends, anticipate possible changes and ensure that we are in a position to adapt where necessary to meet the changing needs of the customer”.

According to Air Products’ Continuous Improvement Facilitator, Nqobile Mfusi, the CI process, which is aimed at both processes and systems, consists of four important elements:

People: They are at the heart of the high performing organisation and their contributions and ideas are crucial in the improvement process.

Tools: These are used to enhance performance and consist of multiple methods through which the workforce can actively become involved in the process.

Learning: This increases knowledge amongst the players involved in the process through connecting, reviewing practices and performances and by sharing lessons learnt.

Leadership: The buy-in of the leaders plays a fundamental role in the process and it requires that they embrace the change, understand why adjustments needs to be made and take ownership of the improved process.

Brink further mentions that continues improvement is not necessarily initiated by the leadership team, and that Air Products encourages employees to make suggestions on improving processes and systems. “We believe that the input from all employees at different levels is extremely valuable in reaching our CI objectives as they work closely with the processes and systems and are therefore in a position to identify obstacles and suggest more efficient alternatives. Although our customer’s needs are at the forefront of what we do, we also strive to create a work environment where employees play a role and share in the success of improved production, service and processes”.

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