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What is a Mill Champion and Why are They Needed on Every Project?

In this inaugural installment, I will walk through the importance of having a Mill Champion. This topic was presented at TAPPICon 2022 and generated a lot of discussion among participants as they reflected on getting their project justifications just right.

To put it simply, a Mill Champion believes that the proposed solution is a good, sound project, helps to support it throughout the front-end loading lifecycle, and most importantly, defends it when the project mysteriously stops working in the middle of the night.

When Are Mill Champions Needed?

This Mill Champion concept is needed regardless of project complexity or the number of times it has been successfully deployed elsewhere. A key challenge Mill Champions face relates to people’s beliefs or doubts about the proposed solutions and accompanying changes that often result. So, a Mill Champion is needed to help get any project on track. And while I say, “Mill Champion,” this person may not be the Project Manager or even reside at your facility. They could be at a sister mill, an SME, or someone from corporate, but they likely have been involved in the project in some capacity.

For example, did you know that over 50% of the Advanced Process Control Loops (APCs) are shut down within 24 months? There may be numerous reasons for shutting the APCs down and placing them into manual control mode. But the question is, “Why are we not returning the APCs into service?”  Time and effort went into designing and implementing them. So, what has changed so drastically that these APCs are no longer being used? This is just a quick example of having a Mill Champion to prevent issues I have seen. And the reason why the issue exists might be as simple as it is merely something new and different. 

Understanding Our Battles

A salesperson is at the door trying to introduce you to a new piece of technology. Your operations and engineering group have reviewed it and think it has merit. But, when brought to the Mill Manager, they have so many other issues (production, increase in raw material costs, personnel turnover, etc.) that the response is, “Don’t bother me; we’ve got a battle to fight!” And our fight, as a Mill Champion, is fought on many fronts in seeing that the work accomplished does not erode.

Mill Champions need to foster a culture of continuous improvement while being tactical with the solutions available to address the issue at hand, as there are always multiple vendors with competing products seeking our business. Therefore, we must develop a good scope/issue statement that clearly defines the problem and boundaries agreed with stakeholders. Also, we must be good listeners to evaluate proposed solutions so that we select what most closely addresses the scope and balances the typical desire for “good, fast, and cheap.”  Yet while we, as Mill Champions, attempt to lay the groundwork for the future as opportunities arise, we still need to support the here and now.

The Reality of Many Facilities

For reference, there are generally four main investment categories. Each company might use slightly different terms or subdivide based on their needs, but in general:

  • Sustaining
    • Replacing end-of-life equipment like a tank and pump
    • Typically, little to no return
    • It might have a slight energy saving, such as a VFD pump
  • EH&S – Environmental, Health and Safety (Compliance)
    • These are compliance related
    • Mainly no returns but occasionally a 30% IRR!
  • Cost Reduction
    • These could be VFDs, APCs, LGVs, Lighting, etc.
    • Range from ~10% to 60%+
  • Revenue Generation
    • Typically, Business Driven (e.g., capacity increase, new products, etc.)

Most pulp & paper facilities in North America are 40 to 50 years old. In addition, roughly 80% of projects frequently from these P&P facilities will be in the Sustaining or EH&S category. In other words, these are low or no-return projects! Ouch. These need to be balanced with return projects. This is quite important to understand. Yes, that pump and tank have been providing an excellent service for 40 years, but it needs to be replaced as an end-of-life Sustaining Project.

How Can Mill Champions Be Influential?

Imagine you’re the Mill Manager looking to be a profitable mill. It would help if you balanced these non-return projects with return projects. For the Mill Champion to be effective, they will need to understand what critical infrastructure needs to be replaced and advocate necessary high return projects to offset the no or low return projects.

But being a Mill Champion does not mean you will have to go it alone. It is critical to engage your colleagues and support from accounting and financial groups to develop good IRRs and map out cash flow overlaid with planned projects, both the no-return and proposed return projects. Balancing needed infrastructure projects with high return cost reduction ones and communicating how everything could work together is very effective. Yes, this step will be hard to set up initially, but it goes a long way in influencing decision-makers. And for this to be truly successful, as I said previously, a Mill Champion is needed to help get the project on track and stay on track. It is essential for implemented return projects to generate that return. That’s what keeps things going and why a Mill Champion is needed.

In summary, a Mill Champion needs to be able to:

  • Cultivate A Culture of Continuous Improvement
    • Multiple vendors (OEMs) with competing products are always seeking your business. As with all projects, when developing an investment proposal, we must first define the opportunity/issue to improve the status quo.
    • Yet, we are too busy to listen to a salesperson’s pitch most of the time. We all have battles to fight …
  • Maintain An Awareness of Available Technologies
    • We typically know the existing technologies well but do not have the time to learn or to understand new technologies.
    • Further, we are, by nature, risk-averse to new technologies.
    • We place much more credibility on a technology that has been ‘proven’ within another P&P mill, especially internally.
  • Be A Champion Dedicated to Success
    • As this writer has observed, you can have the best technology in the world, but unless you have a “Mill Champion” that helps defend it when issues arise (usually 3 in the morning!), it will fail. Even after funded and fully deployed, proven technology can & will falter unless it is monitored & given support.

I hope you all will take a moment and ask yourselves, “how can I be a champion?”  As so much of being a good Mill Champion involves being adept at developing reasonable IRRs and good Project Manager skills, I promise to provide a follow-up post on these topics and, with luck, help in your daily efforts.