No one knows better than the worker himself how to improve the work process of which he is a part. Ergonomic, safety, or environmental problems, as well as improvements in efficiency, costs, or production times, become evident to those who put their bodies into industrial plants on a daily basis. And some companies decided to listen to them: with different methodologies, programs, and initiatives, they encourage the participation of workers in improvement processes.
By organizing work teams to develop projects and implementing suggestions, employers obtain a double benefit: continuous improvement and strengthening of the work environment.
An emblematic case is that of Toyota, which in Argentina has been applying the concept of continuous improvement for 20 years. The Japanese theory is that there is always something that can be improved: “If I ask someone if they have a problem and they say no, then that is the main problem,” summarizes Andrés Massuh, the company’s HR director. Continuous improvement “is one of the two pillars of the company, along with respect for people,” he says.
At the Zárate plant, 5,000 people work under an agreement, and in 2018 94% joined one of the 750 quality circles that operate every year, a tool that allows workers to detect a problem, design a solution, test it and consolidate it so that it can later be standardized as part of the process. “In the plant, a work cell is made up of four team members and a team leader. They are the ones who best know what problems they have in terms of quality, safety, ergonomics, and costs. So, quality circles are formed to recognize a problem, to see what is the ideal situation to fix it, to fix it and to leave it sustained in time”, explains Massuh.
These circles develop during paid overtime. Every year, the top 10 compete in Argentina and of those, the top five compete against Brazil. From there come the two groups that travel to Japan, where they share good practices with 46 quality circles from 24 countries.
“When all this process is over, the team member or team leader feels that he or she developed, that he or she grew personally and professionally. We have quality in the process and we develop people”, adds the manager. And he exemplifies: “They visualize the problem, but explaining it and putting it in a presentation has a degree of difficulty. You learn and it takes time. It’s impressive how they improve from the beginning of the project to the final presentation.
Quality circles are complemented by a system of individual suggestions. “We receive 15 suggestions per year per employee: about 70,000 per year. They can range from how we recycle gloves in a particular process to a tool that if manufactured differently can have an ergonomic advantage,” explains Massuh.
Something similar happens at the Ternium steel mill. In the Continuous Improvement program, which was launched in 2015, workers are organized into multidisciplinary teams of between 8 and 12 people, with a minimum of 60% of plant personnel. “It is very important to generate teams with plant and technical-professional personnel to promote innovation,” says Diego Siri, director of Continuous Improvement.
The teams, which meet outside working hours, in paid overtime, work from 5 to 8 months designing the proposal for improvement in areas such as increased productivity, reduction of qualitative deviations, logistical efficiency, environmental improvements, reduction of energy consumption and improvements in people’s safety. “All projects are implemented: in fact, they end when the results are obtained,” Siri says.
So far, 60 teams have participated in Ternium’s 7 industrial plants. One of the projects presented, on reducing water consumption in steel mills, “managed to reduce the consumption of electricity equivalent to the consumption of about 6,000 homes,” exemplifies the executive.
When a team closes the project, a presentation is made to the Industrial Management and every year an event is held open to all personnel, where the teams compete and a jury chooses the best. “The initiative has a strong impact on the work environment: it generates links between different areas, between professionals and operators, which then continue in force,” adds the executive. “On the other hand, it is highly valued by operators to participate in decision-making and be able to contribute ideas to improve their own work,” he says.
Acindar began a transformation process in October last year. “The company needs to improve its competitiveness to be able to export in a sustainable and stable way,” says Silvina Saavedra, director of Strategy. “We have an export tradition, but no stability in exports because international prices are very fluctuating and our competition is very strong.