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Lessons Learned from Making Real Operational Improvements

Kent, Washington, is the longstanding home of Quanex’s Mikron brand vinyl window profiles, a site where we’ve made significant improvements in recent years.

We made these improvements because the state of the fenestration industry has demanded it, and because we identified a need to better serve our vinyl customers at a critical moment. It required a change in mindset at every level of the operation. It required commitment. It required investment. And today, we’re seeing the results.

Throughout the experience, we learned what it takes to succeed in challenging market conditions. We’re still not perfect—but here’s what the experience taught us, and how it continues to inform how we’ll approach our future:

Start with “Why”

Manufacturing is a business of cause and effect. That means it’s important to identify the true root cause of any problem.

At the Kent facility, we knew we had a problem with scrap. We were generating so much we needed to house some of it in the plant parking lot. So where to begin? The easiest answer appeared to be some of our aging extrusion equipment (which we did replace—more on that soon). But as we investigated more closely, we discovered the equipment itself was not necessarily the root cause of some of our inefficiencies and scrap problems.

We found that attending to the core issue involved shifting our collective frame of mind. We needed to stop asking, “What needs fixed immediately?” to temporarily overcome a production issue. Instead, we needed to constantly ask, “How can we make things better?” We’ve done this in part by instituting daily improvement meetings, involving all production staff, where we discuss where we might have fallen short and what it’s going to take to fix it.

And we did, in fact, invest in new equipment. In late 2019, we purchased 10 state-of-the-art extrusion lines from Extrunet, an Austria-based company that specializes in industry-leading extrusion technology. The lines are easier for operators to work with. They have helped eliminate some of the complexities of our old equipment, which has in turn helped boost team morale and engagement. But it wasn’t just the new machines that did this. It was our team’s focus on shifting the culture—one that values teamwork, collaboration across all levels and continually asking “why?”

Enhanced On-Time Delivery

Scrap wasn’t the only area we sought to improve with our new equipment and shifted attitude. In delivering products to customers, we found we had become reactionary—we would wait for orders to come in before developing a plan to deliver on them.

This was another opportunity for change. Now, our teams plan production on a monthly basis. Team members from every level of the organization are involved, including sales, purchasing and production. We forecast demand and work to obtain the needed raw materials as proactively as possible. As of early 2022, our on-time delivery rates are upward of 98%. That’s something our customers have come to appreciate amid ongoing, widespread supply chain challenges.

Unexpected Benefits

Finally, we learned that when you make significant improvements to your production process, the benefits can be found in some unexpected places. For example, our strategic decisions were focused on operational efficiency. We wanted to make product more efficiently and at higher levels of quality and consistency. We also wanted to get it into our customers’ hands faster.

We succeeded at these goals, but simultaneously, we made a significant impact on our company’s sustainability footprint. We now recycle more than 90% of our generated scrap. Meanwhile, our new equipment generated a significant energy savings of nearly 1,500,000 kilowatt hours annually—that’s as much as nearly 1,400 homes.

Keeping up with demand in today’s environment requires new kinds of strategic decision-making. Every manufacturer should be continually looking at their processes and thinking about how to achieve continuous improvement. Always be asking yourself: “Is this the best way to go about our business?” You might not find the answers right away, but they’ll reveal themselves with commitment and determination.

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