Rock to Road

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Baseball and hot mix asphalt plants

A look at what these two topics have in common


December 4, 2019
By Ken Monlux
Photo: Getty Images

Like millions of Americans, I enjoy baseball on the radio. One Saturday, I was listening to my favourite team while working. The game was on low, in the background. The game went into a rain delay, allowing the broadcasters to go into fill-time mode. They went on and on with data, tendency, statistics, and trends. At that point it hit me, I stopped looking at my spreadsheet, I turned-up the radio and thought, “What do baseball and hot mix plants have in common?”

As it turns out, they share quite a bit. Both have access to large amounts of raw data. The volume of data collection has grown over time with the help of modern technology. Both collect data, with the goal to be used as a method of evaluation. Both work within a highly competitive marketplace. But this is where the two go their different ways. As I sat there and listened to the broadcaster drone on, I was amazed at how baseball looks at, and drills down data in order to make an improvement to the team. This is the starting point in my comparison of the two industries. Fans sometimes
forget that baseball is a business. Like all businesses, they need:

  1. A quality product to sell (a winning team that is fun to watch);
  2. A requirement to evaluate their performance and make decisions to improve; and
  3. To grow their customer base.

Sound familiar? It did to me. I asked myself, “What can baseball teach the hot mix industry about how to use data to improve their business?”

To learn the lesson of baseball, I turn to Bill James, the father of Moneyball. He changed baseball. Bill did not invent baseball statistics, but he discovered that there could be a different and better way to collect and analyze data. Looking at the same data in a unique way, he was able to pull out additional and enhanced information. For example, batting average was out, and on-base percentage was in. He was able to see and evaluate talent in a new way. He put aside the traditional way of evaluating the game and never looked back.

What is the takeaway for mangers of asphalt plants? To answer that question, we have to be honest at how we collect and evaluate plant data.

A modern hot mix plant, in the course of a production day, will develop a lot of raw data. Some is recorded, some is shown on a dashboard in real time, and other data is written summaries (end-of-shift reports). In reviewing plant locations throughout the United States, you will find a wide variety of raw data collection methods. The range goes from no collection at all, to companies who collect every bit of raw data. With that said, I want to state: The plants, on either end of the above statements, have the same ability to evaluate and to improve their operation (none). So, with that acknowledgment, let’s look at typical forms of plant data collection. The basic information ranges from the following:

  1. Tons produced per day or shift;
  2. Trucks tags: Tons shipped per day;
  3. Inventory;
  4. Quality control; and
  5. Timecards: Daily hours of operation.

All this raw data is sent to a central location (usually the main office) to be organized, collated, and returned to the plant manager in the form of a summary report. Stated another way, the data flows up and is summarized and distributed down to the plants. It is not uncommon for the formatting of these reports to be geared towards upper management, not the local manager. Some firms have spent large amount of money to build ever more technical and complicated systems. In an effort to capture every variable in production, they can, if not careful, lose sight of the goal of improvement. They can focus too much on “today’s in-vogue data point,” or of one particular segment of the operation, and become blind to long-term trends. This traditional method of reporting requires the plant manager to have the ability and the aspiration to perform the needed analysis. The quality of this analysis can differ widely based on such factors as:

  1. Plant manager background: i.e. education, training;
  2. Time management: Does the manager make the time to evaluate and to unearth the benefits of the report?;
  3. The time lag in the daily data collection and the monthly distribution of the report; and
  4. Desire: Does the manager have the desire to use the report to improve the plant operation?

Once again, looking at how most baseball teams are now looking at data collection, and the ingenious way they analyze the data to get an advantage over other teams, I would like to propose hot mix companies rethink their method of reporting. What if a hot mix plant report could pivot from a summary format to a “log-based” document?

Log-based documentation
A log-based document is a daily record of the operations. The log-based system goes beyond the daily plant report. It’s an alternative way to look at distributing information. It’s a managerial device that is based on the task of a ship’s log.

The ship’s log, is a document whose job it is to keep track of ship’s travel. It’s a way for the captain to document all aspects of the ship’s actions. Without a log, a ship would be lost. Similar to traditional reporting, a log-based system uses various platforms and databases to collect information. But that’s where the similarities end. Like in baseball, the log looks at performance in a new and different way.

Looking at how most baseball teams are now looking at data collection, and the ingenious way they analyze the data to get an advantage over other teams, I would like to propose hot mix companies rethink their method of reporting. Photos: Getty Images

The log is tailored to the local plant site. All plants are different. Even plants of the same design and manufacturers will operate differently. The log-based system is formatted based on “local knowledge” and geared toward local management.

A log-based system is:

  • An easy to read archive of operational performance;
  • An interactive communication tool, allowing local management to ask questions, seek advice, or just a sounding board for concerns;
  • Able to easily reconstruct any given day of operation;
  • A way to distill data down to five key components to highlight success: Vital signs (see below); and
  • Designed to challenge the manager to redefine new issues and challenge again.

A log-based system is not:

  • A replacement of the decision-making responsibility of the managerial team;
  • A financial based report: Not filled with massive amount of numbers; or
  • Used to make judgments on the operational decisions;

The “Vital Signs” are a five-bullet point summary. They are simple, site specific and goal orientated. Each vital sign is constructed to allow local management to make simple changes. They are limited to five to provide quality information without the risk of data overload.

In addition to the vital signs, the log-based format has other areas of describing the operations of the plant:

  1. Narrative overview from the plant performance;
  2. Recap of conversations between the editor and the manager;
  3. Day-to-day summary of weather;
  4. Appendix I.: Daily Shift Plant Report: an electronic copy of the plant reports by date;
  5. Appendix II.: Inventory;
  6. Appendix III.: List of in-house or outside major projects supplied; and
  7. Appendix IV.: QC spreadsheet: Based on data supplied by in-house QC department.

In order to achieve the stated goal of a log-based system, an extra step is needed prior to the report being delivered. This extra step allows the manager to expedite their comprehension of the report.

Numbers alone don’t tell you much unless you can read them in a timely manner. By reviewing on a daily basis, the editor of the log is looking for issues that may hamper the operation.

In the task of producing the vital signs, an independent and experienced professional would review the collected data. This extra step also allows for “questionable issues” to be discovered in a timely manner. Stated another way, if a question comes up, the manager is notified, and has the ability to adjust in an appropriate time. A log-based system does not make the decisions in the operation, it draws attention to a trend or a process that does not look right.

Conclusion
Like baseball teams in the mid 80’s, you may be dissatisfied with your data evaluation and analysis reports. Ask yourself, “Does my team benefit from our current method of reporting? Would I be willing to reevaluate our company’s current method?”

Before you answer that question, be aware that change is hard. To roll out a new system of any sort will cause seismic waves. This was a hard lesson to be learned by MLB. They got pushback from the players, managers, the scouts, and even the front office. It was only when one team took a chance, that the rest of the league changed. That world was changed forever. It may be the same for you. If your management team is willing to rock the boat a little and look at data in a different way, you may find a better path. I do not know many plant managers who will volunteer to make a change. “Too much stress,” “Don’t fix what is not broken,” and, “I don’t need that type of oversight,” are just a few of things you may hear. What I say to that is, take a second look, and you will be surprised by what you see. Given time, your management team will come to trust a log-based system. It’s never bad to have an independent sounding board, someone in your corner to confirm your day-to-day decisions. If given a chance, it will save you time, and feature your manager’s abilities.