Recycling Workforce IssuesLeadpoint MRF Associate

As seen in Waste Advantage, May 2021 Issue 

Nearly every aspect of the recycling industry is changing—and changing fast. From consumers to suppliers, equipment manufacturers to government entities, things that used to take years to change are now taking months or weeks. It is easy to understand the competing priorities faced by operators and how easy it can be for a plant’s team to get overwhelmed or stuck in old habits and perceptions.

To make the tough decisions and stay ahead of the rapid pace of change, the most successful MRF operators adopt a learning mindset. They take the time to stop, look around, and become acutely aware of the realities of where they are today. They make decisions based on what they learn and set a vision for where they want to be.

This agile approach requires operators to be vigilant in recognizing what is not working. They must be open to possibilities and embrace a more flexible approach to running the plant. It is only then that the journey toward high performance can begin. There are four steps MRF operators can take to create a high-performance work team that will drive productivity, efficiency and profitability at their site.

Step 1: Embrace change

It is likely that recycling has changed since your plant last updated its operating practices. The first step toward productive change is to recognize that the world is a different place today than it was one, two or five years ago. Embrace that change. Recognize that there can be new ways of doing things that are working elsewhere and that might help you improve your operation. Here are some examples:

  • Look for help. Seek experienced partners that can support more of your key functions and add their specific expertise to your plant. They can relieve you of the burden of having to know and manage everything on your own.
  • Look at your wages. Are they stuck in the past, or have your teams adjusted wage rates for the market realities in your community today?
  • Is it time to revisit and update your agreements with local municipalities and landfills? Have you approached them for a partnership conversation?
  • There may be a new creative way to do business with equipment manufacturers, options that could allow you to upgrade or retrofit the plant in phases.
  • What new financing arrangements are available through your bank? Can you rework your line of credit, vendor contracts, or credit card agreements?

Be open and curious while suspending assumptions. That is part of the learning mindset. Be willing to accept that changes may work … or they may fail. A “fail fast, succeed fast” philosophy can allow you to pivot toward more of what’s working and away from what is not for maximum financial reward.

Step 2: People, Process and Performance

In addition to being honest with yourself about what is working for the plant, look at what is working for your people. Two important aspects of a workforce business plan are wages and performance measurement.

It is important to ensure that your wages match the job. This is a hot button issue for most MRF operators; nobody wants to hear that the solution to their productivity problem is to pay their people more. Consider this: fast food restaurants often pay minimum wage. Their target employee is entry level—someone who may be new to the workforce and learning how to behave in a changing world. In a recycling plant, your target employee is dependable, focused and flexible. They are providing for their family, taking on multiple roles and working on sophisticated equipment in a dangerous environment. As your sorters gain experience, they become more productive and deliver greater value to your organization … yet quite often they are making the same wage as a fast food employee.

Paying the minimum market wage can absolutely save you money. However, it will cost you on other levels and inhibit your successful journey. To get more productivity from your employees, offer them a greater employment value. Can you help them learn new skills, add them to a committee or provide opportunities for growth? Loyalty from you can create loyalty on the people side and start to move the wage-productivity equation in the right direction.

When it comes to process measurement, your sorters are probably evaluated on their pick counts. When an experienced sorter, let’s call him Pete, has a drop in his pick count, do you assume it is because he’s failing on the job? Take the wider view—Pete may not be the problem.

Perhaps it is Jose, who has been operating the frontend loader for 10 years. If the incoming material has changed but there has been no change in how Jose is loading the system, maybe he is creating the problem that is affecting Pete’s pick count.

Or, to improve efficiency maybe you have installed a new fiber screen. It is helping to you gain valuable commodities, but at the same time, it is creating more residual that Pete must learn how to manage … and nobody has trained him or adjusted his pick count goal or priorities.

The point is that to improve the productivity of your people, consider all the variables. Resist making assumptions based on outdated thinking and create a workforce business plan that aligns with your MRF’s business plan.

Step 3: Fishing in the Data Stream

MRF operators are awash in data. With a broader view of the recycling world and a workforce business plan in place, which data should you look at and how can they inform the rest of your operation? Here are three among the hundreds of data points available to most MRFs: turnover, bale breaks and maintenance costs.

Turnover Rate

Let’s start with people and turnover rate. Every MRF has turnover. Studying this one data point can give you a barometer of the overall health of the organization, but it is wise to look beyond to learn what is driving the data.

Do you understand the impact of your turnover and what it costs you to hire and train a replacement? Is your turnover driven by the hiring process and onboarding? Do you measure the 30-day turnover and the costs and chaos that it brings? Have you surveyed your employees on how they see their future? Are your existing leaders focused on teamwork methods? Are your teams cross functional, diverse and inclusive? Do you conduct exit interviews?

Aim to understand if turnover is driven by factors like pay, lack of training, environmental issues or safety concerns. Segment your turnover data to understand when people are leaving. Are you losing 70 to 80 percent of your new hires in the first 30 days? If so, why is that?

Find out if people are leaving because of a manageable variable like start time. Here is an example. Maybe your first shift starts at 4 a.m. Why is that? What created the decision to start at 4? Is the reasoning still valid, and how does that start time impact others? If you start at 4, can the workforce find public transportation to the plant at that time? Does it interfere with school and childcare schedules? We worked with one MRF whose start time was established to fit the personal preference of the original MRF manager—a gentleman who had left the job years ago. Paying attention to variables like these can create a more stable workforce and an even more successful and profitable plant.

Bale Breaks

An all-important data point is revenue: where are you making money and where are you losing it? Consider the data coming from your customers and your internal bale break analyses. We have seen MRFs slow down their processes by 10 percent to focus on the most currently profitable material, be it PET, aluminum, or OCC, then make short term changes that raise profitability by 20 percent while maintaining processed tons.

We have seen other plants shift their focus to paper recovery to capture a 10 percent increase in selling this product. They were willing to change their system, but suddenly were sending 70 percent more to the landfill and increasing those costs by 40 percent.

Do not get mesmerized by a single data point. Look at multiple data and consider the entire ecosystem as you make this journey. When changes are implemented, make it a priority to ensure everyone in the system, from the front end loader to the balers, understands the revised goal, why it has changed and how it benefits them. Alignment and teamwork are critical to success.

Maintenance Costs

Finally, monitor your maintenance data like uptime. Look for hidden patterns in equipment operations and failure. One of our customers was stopping the line to clean their screens three times a day but noticed they were suddenly having to stop the system to clean five times a day. They did not want to spend money to replace the components that had worn down. They had operated for years with the belief that screens should not be replaced until the stars were ground down to a nub and jams became more frequent. However, the more frequent down-times had unintended consequences and were costing much more than the single, one-time investment. Your data can inform smart business decisions around pre-emptive pauses and preventative maintenance.

Step 4: Technology, Teamwork and Tomorrow

Let’s talk about robotics, virtual presence and artificial intelligence. Today’s recycling companies are eager to spend money on robotics to improve MRF efficiency. No question, robotics and AI are helpful. But to get the most out of AI, you must know what problem the technology is aiming to solve, make subtle adjustments to all your processes to incorporate the new technology and ensure that everyone is trained on how to work within the new system.

The most productive MRFs have great teamwork and great leadership with visibility into the operation. We have learned through the pandemic that monitoring behaviors through remote video or data streams can leverage your expertise quickly and efficiently. Adapting to real world day-to-day challenges is a key component on your journey toward building a high-performance team. No leader should make the journey blindfolded.

Teamwork is critical. We have seen plants and leaders who have the best of intentions but are led astray from their journey when their teams make assumptions based on the past and outdated mental models. For example, many tenured leaders segment their workforce into separate teams such as labor, front office, maintenance and everyone else, then manage each segment separately. The reality is the full team must be aligned on the journey for everyone to arrive at the destination successfully.

Leaders of tomorrow will come from the team you have in place today. Many leaders we work with look outside for future leaders and overlook that the general labor population may have the desire to do and be more. Leaders may make the assumption that sorters do not want to move up in the organization because they never raise their hand. The truth is that these general laborers may indeed want to grow but lack the experience, career development or self-confidence to speak out, ask questions of their leaders or state their interest in advancing. An open dialogue with multiple opportunities for communication must be fostered by the person leading the journey.

Ask any leader or executive how they became successful, and you’ll get a common answer. Every single one will say, “I had someone to help me” or “I had a terrific mentor.” Mentoring builds teams and productive cultures. Mentoring or buddy programs are free to embed at a MRF and can generate significant returns to the operation and to your people.

The Most Impact

Creating a high-performance work team is not magic; it is a journey. It takes diligence, attention to detail, an open mindset and a willingness to experiment with new ideas. Putting a MRF’s resources where they will have the most impact—whether it is creating a workforce business plan, digging into your data or building strong teams—is not just a good business practice, it is the key to better long-term relationships with your employees, customers and communities.

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