A Squad Trained to Score

Glacial Lakes Energy began using its scorecard early in 2012 to track performance at the company’s two plants. As the program took off, the management team rolled out a certified operator training regimen last year to further boost its metrics.
By Susanne Retka Schill | December 24, 2013

Every morning the numbers are posted to the scorecard—green squares for the goals that were met the day before and red for those that weren’t. If the scorecard is all green, says Frank Moore, director of operations, the standards are set too low at Glacial Lakes Energy LLC.

When a plant is already a top producer, taking it to the next level isn’t necessarily easy. “Glacial Lakes was performing well,” says Moore, a 30-year veteran in the ethanol industry. “Operators and managers were doing an excellent job, yet in any process, there continues to be upside potential. But the higher the level of performance, the more difficult it is to improve that.”

The Glacial Lakes staff began using its scorecard early in 2012 to track performance at the company’s two plants in Watertown and Mina, S.D. As the program took off, the management team rolled out a certified operator training regimen last year to boost its scores, or metrics, in all key areas of operations. With about 80 percent of the process operators now certified at a core level, the company has begun a training and certification program for staff in the grains departments, who handle incoming and outgoing shipments at the two plants, and the maintenance department. 

A greater emphasis on personnel training began about three years ago at Glacial Lakes when an in-house evaluation turned up a number of challenges to overcome in the quest to boost performance, including such things as limited individual empowerment and accountability, weak procedures and inadequate training. “Training is the biggest weakness across the industry,” Moore says. “We tend to be an inbred industry; we need outside ideas.”

Specifically, standardization was one of the plant’s core problems. “Each shift had its own procedure and none were following the SOP (standard operating procedure),” Moore says. “One of the challenges is standardizing the process and treating the process as a science and not an art.” 

Also on that list of challenges was limited human resources—the in-house time and expertise to build a solid training program. As the management team at Glacial Lakes began planning, Gary Johnson, a Novozymes account manager, stopped for a visit. As they talked about the plant’s needs, Moore asked whether Novozymes would share its expertise in training plant operators. That quickly evolved into a partnership that helped fill the gap for Glacial Lakes. A team of eight from Glacial Lakes spent a day and a half brainstorming with the Novozymes training team, followed by a visit from several Novozymes trainers and multiple conference calls.   

Recognizing a need in the industry and seeing the results at Glacial Lakes, Novozymes invited other producers to its facility in Franklinton, N.C., in early November to learn about the program, which it hopes to duplicate. About 20 ethanol producers, mostly plant and operations managers from 10 companies, attended the training workshop. Together, in North Carolina, the producers were told about the lessons learned by the enzyme company in implementing its own operator training program, as well as what the Glacial Lakes team learned during its adoption of the system.  

Some of the attendees said there is a clear need for better training industrywide. Midwest Renewable Energy LLC in Sutherland, Neb., for example, started up last April after a 14-month shutdown. Only one person out of a dozen came back to the operations crew when the facility came back on line. Others at the seminar reported experiencing higher-than-normal turnover as even longtime employees were spooked by the number of shutdowns in the industry and sought alternative employment. Everyone at the seminar was looking to enhance their existing training program.

Scorecard Challenge
Moore explains that the first step taken at Glacial Lakes was adopting the scorecard approach to management, a process that was led by senior and midlevel managers but included significant input from shift leads and everyone throughout the system. “We knew what was important to the business, but it’s different when you put it down in writing and try to measure it each day,” he says. Key metrics were identified, including such things as moisture levels in the ethanol and distillers grains, ethanol yield, the percentage of ethanol in the stripper and unscheduled downtime, among others. The bigger challenge was agreeing  on daily performance numbers.

The scorecard has become part of the discussion at every shift change and regular department meetings, and a friendly competition between the company’s two plants has evolved. It also illustrates a shift in management focus. “Scorecards tend to take the personality out,” Moore says. Rather than reacting to an event, the scorecards facilitate discussions about how to improve performance. 

“It’s allowed us to have conversations on things like how DDGS moisture ties into tons of shipments,” explains Mina Plant Manager Joe Gillespie. “It allows us all to see how things interact.” 

The daily scores also help in identifying problems quickly. “When both plants are struggling, it gives us a tool to brainstorm solutions,” Gillespie says, giving as an example the dip in corn oil yields that occurred at both plants when the new crop came in. And, the scorecard becomes a tool for continuous improvement. “It is a vital first step, taking a look at the data and starting a detailed analysis.” 

Training Upgrade
In addition to using a scorecard to measure performance, Glacial Lakes has put a heavier emphasis on providing personnel with certification-driven training. Adapting the operator certification system employed at Novozymes, Glacial Lakes now asks all of its operators to be certified. Experienced operators were asked to complete the certification in a few months, while new hires will be asked to become certified within two years. The training is broken into areas such as propagation, cook, fermentation, distillation and drying. “We want certified operators to be able to display skills to operate the entire facility and not just one specific area,” Moore says. “With only four people per shift running a 120 MMgy plant, it behooves us to have everyone able to work in any area.” 

Spelling out what needs to be known in each area in detail is no small task, Moore says, but developing the program requires managers to define their expectations for employees. Each area’s training module is approached from three angles, knowing, understanding and demonstrating. The specific points of knowledge needed to properly operate in each area are listed, the underlying theory and concepts required to understand the process are outlined, and, the specific skills to be demonstrated are detailed. Safety training is integrated throughout. The training manual will become a living document, Moore adds. Any time a process is changed or new equipment is added, the training materials will be updated. 

While some of the training is done in small groups, materials are also available online and linked to the relevant standard operating procedure (SOP) for individual study. On-the-job training is done with shift leads, the plant engineer, midlevel and plant managers all participating as needed. When ready, the employee takes written and oral tests on the information learned and demonstrates the specified skills. There are about 20 tests in the production department at Glacial Lakes and, given that shutting down and starting up each part of the plant is on the list of competencies to be demonstrated, the process takes at least a year. When all steps are accomplished, the employee receives a signed certificate in a small ceremony where Glacial Lakes managers recognize the achievement. 

There was little pushback from employees when the program was rolled out, Moore reports. It opened dialogue among experienced operators about the things they found easy or hard, and it improved morale. “There’s been a totally different attitude from hourly employees as we laid this out,” he says, adding that one goal of the training and certification process is to provide a clear path for employees. “We want to put control of their destiny into their hands.”

Achieving certification as an operator is tied to a pay raise, and everybody who wants can continue training for the next certification step. To become senior operators, they need a deeper understanding of the process and critical control points, along with demonstrated troubleshooting skills. The final level of certification, which is still being developed at Glacial Lakes, will be for supervisors, and will include another level of training in people skills, coaching and other management skills. 

People Benefits
After the first year, about 80 percent of the operations crew has become certified at Glacial Lakes. The training program provided new insight on experienced employees. “You’d be surprised at the number of holes you’ve got out there,” Moore says. “You’ll find managers that are not fully trained themselves. We’re in a rapidly growing industry, and people were promoted without having every needed skill.” And, sometimes the perception of who was the best operator may be wrong, Gillespie points out, recalling  one quiet operator who was exceedingly knowledgeable.  

The training has had immediate benefits. “Some parts of the plants had bottlenecks because they weren’t understood,” Gillespie says. The training process helped in finding and solving some of those, improving throughput. Admitting that developing the program felt like climbing Mt. Everest at times, he adds, “the benefits far outweigh the effort. The investment in time will give rewards to the bottom line. We’ve absolutely seen that.” 

In presenting their program at the Novozymes workshop, Gillespie and Moore fielded questions and shared stories with the other managers, describing in greater detail how the program was developed, explaining why they adapted certain parts of the Novozymes system to meet their needs, and showing examples of their training checklists and SOPs. Similarly, Novozymes’ training staff described how their program was developed and what their approach to dividing the training into manageable steps looks like. A similar workshop is likely to be held again and plans are in place to host a leadership training workshop for front-line employees this winter. Novozymes also expects to repeat the “Golden Batch” workshop for lab managers that outlines a system similar to Glacial Lake’s scorecard.

After the Novozymes workshop, Moore says he got a few calls asking if he would share the Glacial Lakes materials, which he says he isn’t going to do. “This cannot be a canned process,” he says. “It needs to be developed internally.” The training checklists, SOPs and supporting documents are, admittedly, an enormous task to develop, he says, although most plants will have some in place. “This has been a tremendous individual development tool,” Moore adds, “even just in putting this program together.” Not to mention that Glacial Lakes is seeing a linear improvement in all those metrics tracked on the scorecard. “In 2013, every production record improved,” he says quietly.

Author: Susanne Retka Schill
Senior Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine