The Operations Director and the secret of the 30% productivity increase

The Operations Director and the secret of the 30% productivity increase

John is an autonomous maintenance project leader in the only Dutch factory of a large German multinational. After a year of hard work, this location is really excelling; safety, quality and productivity have improved dramatically and those who haven’t seen the factory for a year will not believe their eyes. That is exactly what Global Operations Director Hans Müller is about to experience.

In the taxi on his way to the Dutch factory, Hans Müller yawns and take a gloomy look out the window. He is not looking forward to the annual visit. It is always a mess, the staff are rude and undisciplined and last year he hurt himself quite a bit when he got stuck behind a long strip of packaging plastic. The only reason he hasn’t closed it down is that they need to spread and can’t do without the Dutch location. This year, he won’t even be meeting the production manager; a team leader is all he will be getting. What an insult.

Enthusiastic reception

Reluctantly, he grabs the file and reviews the spreadsheet with the latest figures. He can’t believe his eyes: a thirty percent productivity increase? Someone must have made a typo. But the quality numbers are impressive too: outages reduced by 31% and 23% fewer customer complains. And then the financial results: a 14% gross profit increase. He checks the appointment confirmation. Why is his meeting with such a nobody?

A young man is waiting for him in the parking lot. He vaguely recognises him from one of his previous visits.

‘John Veldhoven, angenehm’, the young man says as he extends his arm.

They shake hands. ‘Müller. Hans Müller, aber das wissen Sie schon, nicht?’

‘Natürlich. Kommen sie herein.’ John has a big smile on his face.

His enthusiasm makes Hans Müller slightly apprehensive.

Luckily, they first head over to Robin’s office for a cup of coffee. Hans Müller wants to discuss the numbers with Robin, but Robin isn’t interested. ‘They are correct, believe me. John will show you how we’ve done it. He was in charge of the project that did the trick. ’ As soon as Hans Müller takes his final sip of coffee, John jumps to his feet. So impatient.

A production area like a neat sports centre

They don’t head over to the factory floor right away, as they usually would. Instead, John leads the way up a long, narrow, metal flight of stairs. Müller tries to hide it, but the climb is taking its toll. What is this nonsense? To top it off, he is asked to wear a white overall, safety goggles and a hairnet, at which point he loses it. ‘What are we doing here, Mr. Veldhoven?’

John beams: ‘An audit’. He swings open the door to the factory floor and signals for Mr. Müller to lead the way onto the platform.

With a frown on his face, overheated from the stairs and in a bad mood, he enters the platform. He takes an angry look out at the factory floor. He cannot believe his eyes. This doesn’t look anything like last year’s chaos. It looks more like a sports centre. The floor is marked with lines and dots everywhere, the equipment is sparkling clean, and all the packaging material is tidily stacked in large containers, which are neatly organised within marked lines on the floor. Two operators glance up and smile. One of them waves. Never before has he been greeted for an inspection with such warmth. John gives him an iPad.

‘What is this for?’

‘You’ll find out, Mr. Müller. Please, lead the way. Today, we will be walking the blue audit route.’

Effortless audit

Müller is drawn to follow the blue line on the floor.

John demonstrates the app. ‘Tap here to start. It’s self-explanatory.’

Which is true. As they approach the first machine, three activities appear on the iPad screen. Müller taps the first activity which prompts a video to start. He looks back and forth between the screen and the machine and sees that everything is in order. The screen offers two options: OK and Not OK. He looks at John for directions.

‘Yes, just tap OK.’

‘Fabelhaft. Has this been implemented for the entire factory?’

‘Absolutely. All inspection points, maintenance tasks and work instructions; they are all here. It shows everything you need at that point in time. It contains a total of around 5,000 activities. Our route addresses 18 of them.’

Hans Müller follows lines, observes, checks and taps OK. It’s almost boring, that’s how easy this is. They tick all the boxes on the screen.

‘An audit also involves recognising what is going well,’ John clarifies.

Until they encounter an empty pallet blocking an emergency exit – certainly not how it should be according to the photo. Müller suggests removing it.

‘One moment,’ John says. ‘Let’s take a photo first so we can figure out how this happened in this week’s meeting.’

Of course. Structural solutions. Once the photo is made, they drag the pallet to the designated area marked in the instructions.

They notice two operators arguing over some material next to a machine.

‘Here’, one growls at the other as he points to a spot clearly intended for that material. The other nods and puts the material in the right place. The incident takes place with no supervisor around.

John: ‘People feel responsible for their workplace. We have all mutually agreed about how things should be done, so these things are not up for discussion. And if any room for improvement is identified, it is discussed in our weekly team meeting.’

It all sounds so self-explanatory. Müller wonders why this isn’t the industry standard.

In control

They complete the entire audit within an hour. Müller is impressed by the smoothness of the operation. He notices that employees are more at ease, more in control, and it seems like the production hall is less noisy. He can even hear the radio, as he catches himself humming along to the tune of ‘Ich bin wie Du’.

‘Arbeitsvitaminen’, John explains.

Müller has no idea what that means but decides to smile. Whatever it is they did here, he wants it too. He wants it in all his factories. Although he does wonder about the cost-benefit ratio.

A few moments later, they are back in Robin’s office – without protective equipment and with a good cup of coffee. Müller grabs the numbers and asks: ‘Did you do this deliberately? Send me the numbers a day in advance to avoid any questions?’ He looks at Robin, who looks at John.

‘To be honest’, John replies, ‘we don’t really use these numbers very often. I mainly work with the statistics from the audits. As long as everyone sticks to the process, the best results will follow automatically. Robin and I do analyse the financial figures once a month, and compare them to the audit statistics. This allows us to update any methods that fail to deliver on the intended results. For example, we have improved our production speed for a number of machines, which has created a bottleneck elsewhere in the chain. We are currently in the process of investing in an additional machine to alleviate the pressure.’

Hans Müller shakes his head. ‘Fabelhaft. So you are improving results by managing the process? Genius.’

They spend another hour talking about how John got it all done. Wasn’t a huge amount of capacity lost on setting up autonomous maintenance? As it turns out, it wasn’t; additional capacity was allocated at first, but the subsequent productivity improvement meant that most activities could quickly proceed at full capacity. The numbers have now improved so dramatically, that they even got rid of some temps.

‘And the out-of-pocket expenses?’, Müller asks. Those are limited to the monthly app subscription.

John sighs: ‘We should have done that much sooner. It would have saved us a lot of time if we had added all AM procedures to the app right away.’ He looks at Mr. Müller. ‘Consider it a lesson for the next location.’

Müller nods. He likes this man. ‘I will keep that in mind’, he says. ‘Because it seems you guys are pretty much done here.’

John: ‘We are just getting started. True, it is no longer a project. But this new way of working challenges us to keep improving. Our standards are sound, so we now have the opportunity to solve things ourselves and achieve structural improvements. It’s all in our hands, which infuses us with a great sense of autonomy and satisfaction.’

Robin adds: ‘And as you know, results have been improving every week.’


Hans Müller almost regrets having to leave to catch his plane. He calls his CEO in Germany from the taxi. ‘Hermann’, he says, gasping for air. ‘Hermann, listen, I’m in the Netherlands and they have finally done something right. Autonomous maintenance. We are going to do the same. Not top-down but bottom-up. Managing processes instead of results.’


‘No, it’s not expensive and we can recoup the costs within a couple of months.’


‘The workforce itself.’


‘Super motivated.’


‘The results are impressive. Let me send you a spreadsheet. We will talk in the office.’

Beaming with satisfaction, he leans back into his seat. Their Dutch factory as an example: who would have thought?


Randy Appiah

Robert Bouwman

EZ Factory founders


If you want more information on how to implement Autonomous Maintenance within your factory, or take it to the next level: our partner Pontifexx can help you. Visit their website for more information:

Pontifexx Autonomous Maintenance Continuous Improvement