By Elaine Schmidt

Headquartered in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, Hertel has operations in more than 20 countries throughout Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Australia. The company offers construction, maintenance, modification and dismantling solutions at client sites, such as on- and off-shore oil and gas facilities, power plants and other specialized facilities.

For Hertel employees, process improvement is not just a good idea; it is an integral part of what they do every day. The company’s motto, “Perform, Deliver, Improve,” makes Lean Six Sigma a good fit for the business.

Hertel began its deployment in 2006. According to Ben Doornbusch, who is Hertel’s international business improvement manager, the Lean and Six Sigma methodologies are regarded as two sides of a single coin, joined in an effective diagnose-and-cure relationship.

“We use Six Sigma’s DMAIC methodology within our company as a reference to define and analyze a problem, while the actual solution almost always consists of Lean techniques: increase the efficiency of the processes by reducing waste and redundant steps, reducing handling times, et cetera,” said Doornbusch, who is based in Rotterdam.


Headquarters: Rotterdam, the Netherlands

Founded: 1895, by Alexander C.L. Hertel, as a producer of insulation material

Number of employees: 12,000

2009 revenue: 759 million euros

Primary business offerings: Construction, maintenance, modification and dismantling solutions for clients in a diverse range of industries, including oil and gas and power generation


Streamlining Tasks
In the course of working with multiple, disparate clients, many Hertel employees perform the same tasks on each job. The tasks, which are common from one client to the next but at different locations, present opportunities for improvement through Lean Six Sigma.

When Hertel has a job to do for a client, such as shutting down an oil refinery for maintenance, a team of Hertel employees is sent out to determine the specific course of action needed. The team includes one of the company’s eight full-time Black Belts, along with engineers, designers and other specialists. The Black Belts analyze all processes on site and identify non-value-added activities. Then, together with the rest of the team and the site manager, they decide which steps should be taken to eliminate or reduce these activities, and develop an action plan. The managers are responsible for follow up for the improvement plan.

By developing these action plans, the teams also can gain a better sense of the budget needed for a job. These accurate cost estimates are critical. “We have to know what our cost will be,” Doornbusch said.

For instance, a large part of that cost lies in the number of worker hours that will be required to perform the necessary work. Some 80 to 90 percent of Hertel’s 12,000 employees are what Doornbusch called “hands-on” workers, also known as skilled tradespeople. By reducing wasted work hours on tasks that are similar from one job to another, Lean Six Sigma projects are allowing these employees to spend more time each day with their “hands on their tools,” as Doornbusch put it.

The focus on wasted worker hours also gives project planners the ability to estimate more accurately how much time will be needed to accomplish tasks, thereby increasing the accuracy of their cost estimates.

Erecting Scaffolds
As an example of how a Lean Six Sigma project simplified time estimation for one particular aspect of a job, Doornbusch pointed to the building of scaffolds.

Erecting a scaffold is a routine task that is commonly performed at a job site. But the task is also unique in that the scaffold configuration must be tailored to each site. In the past, work time was regularly lost because, as construction progressed, workers would discover they needed extra bits and pieces of scaffolding hardware in order to meet the specific requirements of the site.

A worker, or perhaps multiple workers, had to leave the scaffold erection area and walk to a central warehouse to retrieve the needed parts and bring them back to the site so that work could resume, which not only was time-consuming but also presented safety concerns in crossing the site.

The unpredictability of what additional hardware might be needed for the job, and therefore the number of times someone would have to trek to the central warehouse, made estimating the time and cost of a “routine” scaffold erection anything but routine.

The solution: The project team devised a sort of mobile warehouse in which a small stockpile of extra parts and pieces could be brought to a scaffold site by tractor. In addition, bicycles were added to the building area so that any trips by workers across a site could be accomplished more quickly.

Gaining Acceptance
One of the big challenges for Lean Six Sigma practitioners at Hertel has been what Doornbusch called “acceptance” – in other words, buy-in.

“Among the Black Belts who are working for Hertel, focus is put on soft skills,” Doornbusch said, explaining that the soft skills are needed to address the difficulty of asking people to make sudden changes in the way they do their job.

“People are being pulled out of their comfort zones, a situation which requires intense guidance and coaching,” he said. Part of the task of the Black Belts becomes easing workers through the transition to new ideas and ways of working.

Providing Yellow Belt training to hands-on employees helps create a common language of Lean Six Sigma, as well as an understanding of the mechanics of process improvement. Doornbusch explained that all managers on a site, and some additional people, are given Yellow Belt training at the beginning of a project.

“This creates acceptance,” he said. “It’s not possible to go to a site with just a project leader and two or three foremen. Everyone must understand what you are going to do here; you can’t be in a separate room, working.”

Typically, a Saturday morning class provides the Yellow Belt training necessary to bring site personnel into the fold.

Correcting a ‘Mistake’
It is worth noting that when Hertel officially began their Lean Six Sigma deployment at their headquarters in 2006, they made what Doornbusch called “a little mistake.”

Although the first two pilot projects went well, Black Belts “were not 100 percent free for the job” when they finished their training. By the end of 2007, most of them had gone back into operations. The deployment lost momentum.

In 2008, working with a consultant, Hertel re-energized its Lean Six Sigma program, training people in the U.K., Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands and making sure those people were completely free to function as program managers. Doornbusch, too, was given a full-time Lean Six Sigma focus in January 2008.

The effort won Hertel the “Most Successful Re-energized Lean Six Sigma Program” award at the 2010 iSixSigma Live! Summit & Awards.

Hertel has developed its own Yellow, Green and Black Belt training materials and each year trains approximately 40 people.

The company plans to conduct a global rollout of its Lean Six Sigma deployment in 2011 throughout all its project and maintenance groups.

About the Author: Elaine Schmidt is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to iSixSigma Magazine.

About the Author