Here’s How Heavy Equipment Operators Can Apply Lean Principles Successfully

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Few industries are 1:1 in operational experience, meaning it’s not straightforward to compare something like heavy equipment operations to the automotive industry. However, lean principles and methodologies were originally crafted in the automotive industry to improve efficiency and reduce waste, and it would be a shame not to replicate them elsewhere.

It would seem that applying these techniques doesn’t exactly fit with heavy equipment meant for large, complex tasks. However, operators and administrators looking to achieve excellence should not be fearful of incorporating lean paradigms, as it is certainly possible — and has been done before.

Achieving Operational Excellence Through Process Optimization

Lean manufacturing has evolved since its initial conception across several related paradigms. It has been applied to many industries outside of automotive and manufacturing, showing it’s entirely possible to modify principles to match industry requirements.

These sectors have one central idea in common: process optimization. The goal is to reduce complications and waste by removing bottlenecks and achieving consistent improvement. Reducing risk, in its many forms, is a major benefit.

Staples of the paradigm involve enhancing operational efficiencies, reducing inventory problems or bottlenecks, eliminating inaccuracies, using ethically sourced supplies, and lowering total impact with a focus on reducing waste. Some of the more tried-and-true ideas may not match heavy equipment tasks exactly, but the core principles can still be applied.

Heavy equipment operators and administrators can start by analyzing current practices. Going lean calls for optimizing workflows and introducing improvements over time. That’s impossible without a deep understanding of the existing operation.

What processes provide the most value to the team, business and customers? What is the biggest contributor of waste, including time and effort? Are there existing bottlenecks or lengthy processes that can be eliminated? Are projects being completed on time and within budget?

Achieving a collaborative, continuous and optimized workflow is the goal. However, companies must start small and start with what they know. They should focus on optimizing what’s already in place.

Here are some heavy equipment factors to consider for your existing operations:

  • Fuel costs and efficient use
  • Accident or event frequencies
  • Unplanned downtime
  • Materials and component sourcing times
  • The level of personnel training or awareness
  • Value stream

1. Start Small, Think Big

Administration can run into problems deploying lean practices if there’s a lack of transparency. It’s crucial to have buy-in from the entire team. Analyzing when and where to improve existing processes shouldn’t come from the top down. Instead, it should involve an extensive research process that weighs the concerns of all personnel, from heavy equipment operators to project managers.

Everyone needs to be on board and understand where they stand in the big picture. What impact do they have on the greater operation, and how is that affecting efficiency and waste production?

This can begin with operator training and education. After all, your entire business is in the hands of your heavy equipment operators. There are easy-to-miss signs that your workers need better training, but it’s still the ideal place to start even if your team seems fine.

Companies should also focus on better managing equipment, tools and resources to reduce waste in all its forms. Are your maintenance policies reactive or proactive? Are you and your teams efficiently using fuel by cutting down on idling and wasteful downtimes? Are there alternative methods for improving efficiency, such as swapping to all-electric equipment?

2. Create and Maintain Flow

Companies should create a streamlined operational flow, keep it consistent and eliminate slowdowns. You should consider the outlying parts of a project, like site planning, personnel management, and vehicle or resource tracking. Can any improvements be made to administrative and planning tasks to shore up efficiency and performance?

What needs to be done before those heavy equipment operators arrive on-site? How often are they waiting around for teams to complete their tasks? Do workers have everything they need to get started on a project? Are they lacking fuel or other resources required to begin their work?

Bottlenecks are major impediments to a streamlined flow and continuous improvements. Making sure heavy equipment and all necessary resources are on-site before operators arrive is a simple solution. Improving communication during a project is another consideration. The faster you can make and communicate adjustments, the faster people can react, leading to better results.

3. Develop a Pull System

Some paradigms utilize a pull system. It’s fairly simple in concept yet can be challenging to implement. Tasks are added to a queue, allowing workers to delegate to themselves accordingly. When someone completes a project, they can select a new job and begin working immediately.

This can create that flow required from the previous step. No one is waiting around, no time or resources are being wasted, and there’s no need to micromanage teams — they police themselves. It creates an automated system, albeit with manual tasks and duties in the mix.

4. Seek Consistent Improvement

Lean calls for consistent improvement whenever possible. Vigilance is the key here, as you and your team should constantly look for ways to do better and enhance efficiency. You must look at improving worth, which is why understanding the value stream of your operation is so critical.

Continuous improvements happen if everyone on the team takes ownership of their responsibilities. That means you and your management team must place more trust in the rest of the crew while also affording them ample opportunity to take control and ownership. It’s tough to do if you’re used to micromanaging and haven’t considered creating a more autonomous operation.

The key is striking a balance between that trust and your control. You don’t want your workers running so freely that you cannot fix bottlenecks or appropriately deal with performance problems and other challenges.

Prepare Your Heavy Equipment Operators

The buy-in for lean principles needs to be team-wide, so you must prepare heavy equipment operators for the changes. The human factor will make the difference in operational excellence because everyone has to take responsibility and take action.

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