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Thinking lean has improved capability for research business to grow

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Business Hawke's Bay

An improved focus on planning and continuous improvement are two benefits that Awatoto-based Analytical Research Laboratories (ARL) highlights from a new lean innovation mindset and two recent projects have shown how that thinking has achieved “more for less”.

A new and very much improved soil disposal trolley and a user-inclusive team to evaluate and determine a significant capital purchase of a key piece of equipment, are just two examples of what the company has achieved in a relatively short space of time.

ARL, fully owned by Ravensdown, analyses soil samples from throughout the country, helping to identify deficiencies and opportunities for fertiliser and additives that will improve farm productivity.

Manager Rebecca Withnall says that joining a High Performance Work Initiative (HPWI) late last year has allowed her to “pull back and review what is being doing done, and how”.  “We’ve done the work but having an outside advisor helping us see the direction and providing guidance on how to structure our new way of working, is invaluable.”

That outside advisor is local business improvement firm Smarter, Better, Faster (SBF) engaged under the HPW initiative offered by Business Hawke’s Bay in partnership with Hastings District Council and co-funded through Callaghan Innovation.

The principle of lean innovation is to work systematically to eliminate all non-value-adding processes and to utilise existing knowledge to create increased value through problem solving.

“Continuous improvement is part of our KPIs but previously it was tackled on an ad hoc basis,” says Mrs Withnall. Now there is a database for ideas to be entered by any team member. A continuous improvement team meets weekly and approves appropriate, generally ‘low cost and no cost’ solutions, with responsibility for driving the change going back to the person who submitted the idea.

In the case of the soil disposal trolley, a rapid prototyping process was employed that saw the soil preparation team actually using the trolleys, working on the new design. The trolleys take between 20 and 50 litres (60 to 80 kg) of waste soil from the sampling process outside for disposal, which can be up to five times a day during the busy season.

“The first prototype was worse than what they were using but they didn’t give up and learnt heaps through the process,” says Mrs Withnall.

Within a couple of months, the new design, based on a third prototype, was finalised and five trolleys have been built and are in use, saving frustration and heavy lifting by two people previously. Now the easy to push, self-emptying, robust all-steel model allows for better travelling across wet ground with greater stability.

Most importantly, the new model removes the potential for strain or sprain injuries and as it requires only one person to operate, is improving the prep team’s productivity.

“From the soil prep team’s perspective it was a real boost; it showed that management had listened to them and believed that they had the answers,” according to Mrs Withnall.

ARL has always worked to annual plans distilled to quarterly plans that are filtered into individuals’ KPIs, but under the guidance of SBF’s Glenn Manahi, a more inclusive decision making process is now employed in the overall business planning.

Case in point, it was apparent there was need for a new Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer (ICPMS), as the current instrument was significantly corroded and ongoing R&M costs and lost productivity through breakdowns and maintenance, were unsustainable.

Using lean innovation thinking, ARL chose to take a team approach to the capital purchase decision making process, with the equipment users, quality manager and lab manager evaluating the two potential replacements.  This decision process incorporated a complex analysis that assessed additional aspects such as future training needs, inventory, and maintenance.

“It was important that we asked the people using the equipment and responsible for its outputs for their knowledge, their expertise,” says Mrs Withnall. “They’re the experts in what they do, it’s management’s role to facilitate and then listen to and act on that experience. Now that team has a good understanding of the decisions made and can drive the outcomes.”

ARL had the opportunity to purchase the latest technology from two suppliers, the incumbent whose ICPMS was more expensive than a second supplier.

The project group met fortnightly to determine which instrument would be better for ARL. After careful consideration, the group assessed that the cost of time to validate, complete training and develop competence in operating the second supplier’s equipment brought the two options much closer together in ‘cost’.

Another consideration was the close relationship that had developed over time with the incumbent supplier, with a value placed on the after-sales service and reliability of the relationship.

The project group’s recommendation to stay with the same company’s equipment has been adopted and the updated model is due to be installed in September. At the same time, the project group reassessed the layout of the lab space and this will be reworked for more efficient productivity.

With processes and resources in order through the HPW work done to date, ARL is now in a position to expand its business, targeting work in its quiet season with the Hawke’s Bay market in its sites first.

“We’ve got a vision to be a leader in terms of analysis for the research industry but our capabilities up until now have not allowed for that,” says Mrs Withnall. “We couldn’t rush out and make promises and then not deliver but now we’ve nailed the delivery side of things, we can start having conversations out in the marketplace.”


Photo caption:  ARL manager Rebecca Withnall is ready to grow the analytical research business thanks to a lean innovation mindset that has improved productivity and grown capability to deliver.