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Learning how to improve our work together

23 Sep, 2019 | published at 09:02 CET

Thirteen colleagues at Phoenix have now completed their training to become certified improvement specialists

Just a minor adjustment to various processes can make the time spent at work much more enjoyable, improve safety, help save the company a great deal of money – or do all three. This is what the Phoenix team in Hasselt, Overijssel, found out during their ‘self-improvement’ project. All thirteen certified self-improvement specialists are now putting their learning into practice, and a new group is undergoing the same training.

It started with an idea from Phoenix plant manager Marc van den Berg, who comes to the interview dressed in jeans and a safety vest. He wanted to see if there were any improvements that could be made within the company, which is part of
Faber Halbertsma Group. Phoenix produces wooden pallets on a huge site north of Zwolle. “But we weren’t looking to rope in consultants to explain what to do with their buzzwords. We wanted the change to come from our people.”

Marc came into contact with Thijs ten Brink from Voluyt, an agency that assists organisations seeking to optimise their work processes internally, a process they call ‘self-improvement’.

Getting started

Self-improvement: is that an alternative to the good old suggestion box that never saw a slip of paper in its life?

Yes and no. Yes, because Self-improvement is based on a method that our colleagues have been enthusiastic about and implemented successfully. Every participant found at least three ways to make improvements within the company.

No, because it is not a voluntary initiative, so it isn’t a case of just scribbling something down or shouting it out. In his role as an advisor, Thijs is not your typical consultant. He is dressed casually, though he pairs his outfit with safety shoes. He explains about the meticulous, proven method that is used to turn the colleagues at Phoenix into improvement specialists. They received a certificate after completing their training. They are now equipped to find points for improvement in the company, their team or the department, determine whether it is worth the effort to change things, and oversee the process. Thijs did the same thing in his role as a guide.

Marc: “For me, the best thing about the method is that the employees started out looking at those issues that they wanted to tackle, not what the manager or CEO thought was important. The result is that people are enthusiastic as they start to look for bottlenecks, make proposals and find intelligent solutions.”

Smarter and quicker

The thirteen colleagues at Phoenix completed an entire programme that started with a training session during which they learned how the improvement process works. The participants had to look for a point for improvement and assess it from various perspectives and roles. They were also able to decide for themselves whether it was worth the effort to go about implementing the improvement. Afterwards, they learned how to prepare an action plan to carry out the improvement. Thijs: “The unique thing about this method is that it is the participants themselves who choose what to improve. They learn how to assess the issue and resolve it.” Thijs helped them along the way.

“And if you then look at the improvements that have been made, you’ll see that there’s a long list of changes. The focus is on reducing irritating situations at work, making the workplace safer, improving sustainability and efficiency, and so on,” states Marc. “It is important that we are safer and smarter in how we work and reduce machine downtime. The priority is not to save money. Although some people don’t believe that, but it’s true.”

Marc van den Berg:
“You can’t know if something is ever truly done. Improvement is a continuous process – after all, a company and everything it revolves around is in a state of constant flux.”

Flap

Can Thijs and Marc offer an example of something being improved at Phoenix? They glance at one another and say in unison: “The flap!” When drawing up a list of the things that hindered production, there was one problem on one machine that had been a major thorn in the team’s side for years. The machine is used to rotate pallets during production. However, it often fails to manage this, so the pallet – which weighs 37 kilograms – has to be moved manually.

Marc: “For years, pallets would often jump out of position, meaning that you had to stop the machine. We analysed the machine to see what kept going wrong. The solution was to attach a flap to the machine. It ensures that the pallets are aligned properly, meaning that the machine no longer has to be stopped. The flap cost 1500 euros, and now a source of frustration, irritation and back pain for our employees has disappeared. What’s more, this flap saves us 18,000 euros per year.”

Marc and Thijs mention another bottleneck that was improved: on arrival at the Phoenix site, lorry drivers are now given a map along with clear instructions on where to load or unload on the premises. It is similar to when people are told where to camp when they arrive at a camp site. If the driver has to wait for longer, they are given a beeper so they know when it’s their turn to drive up to the designated spot. This eliminates chaos and means that nobody has to go looking for the lorries any more. In other words: a minor tweak to the operating practices results in major satisfaction for the Phoenix employees and drivers.

Judgements

In the company lobby, there is a framed summary of improvements made to various issues – and the wall is full after two years of self-improvement. Are there any conditions that have to be met in order to able to work with the improvement specialists? Marc: “You have to believe that you will not be laughed out of the room for taking the initiative. There are no bad ideas. That’s why it is important to not be quick to judge and to give people enough room to present their ideas. This method enables decisions to be made based on facts and figures rather than emotions. You can’t know if something is ever truly done. Improvement is a continuous process – after all, a company and everything it revolves around, is in a state of constant flux.”

The success of the method at Phoenix in Hasselt means that it will also soon be rolled out at Faber in Assen.

Thijs ten Brink:
“It is the participants who choose the improvements to be made.”