The process to improvement

To create a culture of continuous improvement, Felicity Kelleher has drawn on practical and theoretical knowledge. Manufacturers’ Monthly finds out.

When speaking with Felicity Kelleher, plastermill, compounds continuous improvement coordinator at building products manufacturer, CSR Lightweight Systems, she is in the middle of driving a 20 per cent rate increase in the company’s dry compounds line. By utilising process mapping, Kelleher can see where the bottlenecks in the process are and is working to identify and implement sustainable solutions to overcome them.

“Focus areas include improving equipment reliability and locking in changes with appropriate maintenance routines, as well as establishing error proofing and standard setups and conditions for our processes.”

This current project is a result of the continuous improvement philosophy that is imparted through Lean Manufacturing tools to all members of the workforce – from shop floor operators to upper management.

“That encompasses running training on a six-weekly cycle on key Lean tools and techniques,” said Kelleher. “Then running a pilot cell project, which is using all those tools that we learn about and showing examples in the workplace so we can practice what we’re learning as well.”

This “cross-functional” role, as Kelleher describes it, involves her drawing upon both her project engineering skills, as well as mentoring experiences. For the current project, Kelleher is applying the practical tools that have been developed with Lean principles to improve production at CSR.

“Together, we did some process mapping using a tool called a SIPOC (suppliers, inputs, process, outputs, and customers), which helps you identify each step of your process
to make a product. We did that for each of the processes in our dry compounds line that helped all of us be on the same page and understand where our improvement opportunities are and what risk factors are associated with each of those,” said Kelleher.

The next step was to complete the analysis using the value vs ease matrix to develop improvement actions and plans.

In pursuing these goals as part of her current position, Kelleher has drawn upon her background as an engineer and her training in the roles that she has had in the past.

“My classic engineering background and my reliability engineering background has definitely helped – an understanding of what causes a failure and how to find the data. Finding not just your biggest downtime but also being mindful of frequency of downtime has really helped.”

This experience was first developed through Kelleher’s study at UNSW, where she completed a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering with Honours. During this time, Kelleher took advantage of an opportunity to put what she was learning in the classroom into practice with an industry placement.

“As an undergraduate engineer, I completed a couple of placements with Caltex, first at their refinery and then in their bulk distribution network. The first one was in project engineering and that placement helped me develop a lot of my soft skills, and then my second placement was with the reliability and maintenance departments, which allowed me to develop technical skills in condition monitoring. Through that I managed to secure myself a full-time engineering role straight out of university. I graduated on a Friday and started my full-time role on the Monday.”

This experience was fundamental to Kelleher’s current position at CSR, however it was augmented in a significant way.

“My knowledge about how to improve the reliability of machines has really helped me transition from a reliability and maintenance role at Caltex into a process improvement role at CSR. Part of the challenge was changing my thinking; you’ve got to look at the machines, but you’ve also got to look at the people, which was a big transitional thought process for me when I joined CSR.”

Understanding the role that people play in ensuring a manufacturing process runs smoothly was highlighted when Kelleher completed a secondment as a shift supervisor.

“The shift supervisor secondment allowed me to be part of the team and work closely with our operators. It allowed me to experience and appreciate what it’s like to work on a 12-hour, 24/7 rotating roster and the strains that it can put on your body and your family. The pressure of having to make a decision at 3am as the senior manager on site was a really great character and confidence building experience.”

The first steps to ensure that this extra load was more equitably distributed was to ensure that their sacrifices were valued.

“One of the things I was very passionate about was walking up to anyone who was on overtime and say ‘Thank you for helping us out.’ They don’t have to come in, but ultimately they’re helping us to continue to run, and that helps us develop a very positive culture,” said Kelleher.

Watching the impact that such work had on them and herself, Kelleher strategised to make the factory run smoothly without compromising the health and wellbeing of those who made it function.

“I collected some data about our biggest overtime users. Together with Human Resources and our production manager, we sat down and  developed a plan to address those issues and put controls in place to manage the fatigue for those people,” said Kelleher.

At a higher level, work was done to reduce the amount of overtime worked by the staff, which in some cases led to production rates slowing, but the payoff for the business was felt in other ways.

“As a business, we’re choosing to lower our production rate on some of our lines, to allow people to recover and manage their fatigue levels appropriately,” said Kelleher.

This change in approach shifted the fundamental nature of work for those doing unsociable hours.

“They’d gone from a team where they said ‘Hi’ and ‘Bye’ to each other to where they were checking in, and seeing how each other were going, which was really great.”

Acknowledging that always running to full capacity may not always be in the best interest of the business fitted with Kelleher’s approach to implementing Lean principles to reduce waste in supply chains and stock levels.

“Part of Lean is not producing too much ahead of time, so it’s also fitting in with that philosophy of, ‘We don’t need to produce a certain amount right away, so let’s reduce our rates, let our people recover, and just produce what we need.”

It was this experience of working with operators, reducing waste, and valuing the people within the process that Kelleher took back with her to her role in continuous improvement. Having an improved understanding of what it takes to run a production line has led to better savings to be found in the improvement of processes at CSR, benefiting both the operators and Kelleher herself.

“I’ve drawn on the experience of our operators. They know the process much better than I do, they know what frustrates them on a daily basis, so drawing on their ideas and their feedback we managed to make a structured approach. This improvement project has allowed me to mentor our operators through a structured approach to problem solving but also for them to teach me what they do on a daily basis.”

The value of mentoring, not only in process improvement but more broadly has been part of Kelleher’s success since her time at university and on placement at Caltex. Today, Kelleher mentors a second-year engineering student, and has empowered her to drive her own project.

“I’m letting her run wild and then seeing what she comes back with, keeping a close eye on how she’s going, but having the freedom to explore the different tools that we set out in front of her.”

In this mentoring role, Kelleher shares with her mentee an important lesson that she learnt early on from one of her own mentors.

“It’s alright to get it wrong – as long as we learn from it. But also, when you’re right, back yourself. Get the data to support you and really know that you’ve done your job well.”

Kelleher’s work at CSR and in elevating her profession was recognised by being nominated for the Excellence in Engineering Award at the 2019 Women in Industry Awards.

“To me it was validation that the business appreciated and recognised the work and effort that I was putting in, and to be nominated in a category with such strong individuals was
just amazing,” said Kelleher of her experience at the Awards. “To see what people are achieving in the industry was fantastic.”