Another year, another crop of shining examples of manufacturing excellence. According to the statistics, the UK's manufacturing industry is in recession. Maybe so - yet our winners are not only robustly profitable but, in a few cases, have requested that we avoid publishing precisely how much money they make. How are they doing this? Focusing on excellence is part of the answer. When times are hard, wasting capacity and resources on poor quality or low levels of productivity is a short-cut to ruin.
And with customers whose resources are stretched, the ability to respond quickly and imaginatively to their needs is vital. But that has always been the case.
What's new about some of this year's winners is that they have re-thought their strategies over the past two or three years, and increasingly positioned themselves within profitable niches. Take Linpac, joint winner in our Household & General Products category. Making cardboard boxes is mundane, one might think - but Linpac prospers by offering much more. Such as boxes that don't jam up customers' packing lines; boxes with dimensions chosen to maximise the amount of product that can be packed on a truck; and boxes that can be assembled faster, saving precious seconds on high-speed packing lines. Or take Southco, our Factory of the Year, which specialises in hinges, handles and latches for industrial equipment. This focus enables it to offer no fewer than 20,000 variants, embracing widely different technologies, and incorporating patented innovations. Its mastery of the niche is so absolute that even the giant automotive manufacturers come to it for designs. Needless to say, the business is highly profitable - and being privately owned, has investment freedoms not given to publicly held companies with shareholders to pay.
Apart from this, is there another lesson to take away from this year's winners? Yes. Many of the entrants had talked to winners from previous years, and visited their factories to learn as much as they could. One or two companies even had customers - previous winners themselves - who stipulated this as part of their business relationship. And one company in particular benefited from the first-hand expertise of a Best Factory judge as its non-executive chairman - a first in the history of the awards.
The judges agonized over the potential conflict of interest, but were drawn irrevocably towards recognising the undoubted excellence that they saw. The factory in question had entered merely seeking the free benchmarking report, available to all. But excellence, it seems, has its own reward ...
This year, we are pleased to welcome the Department of Trade and Industry's increased commitment to the scheme. It joins as an active partner, keen to help us promote best practice in pursuit of competitive, world-class manufacturing standards through these awards.
FACTORY OF THE YEAR
BEST ENGINEERING FACTORY
SOUTHCO MANUFACTURING CO
Southco's catalogue of hinges, latches and handles includes no fewer than 20,000 variants, all of which it manufactures in-house from an extensive range of materials using technologies as diverse as plastic-injection moulding and zinc-alloy diecasting. Better still, from a designer's point of view, the catalogue is accompanied by a computer-aided design library on CD-Rom - simply locate the part you need and drop it neatly into your own engineering drawing. What could be simpler?
And if the required part isn't in the catalogue, Southco will happily design one to your requirements. The company's designers use the very latest stereolithography techniques to produce a working prototype within days. And it will probably incorporate a number of Southco patented innovations - all of which are 'defended very vigorously' by the US-based company's lawyers, notes managing director Andrew Molloy drily.
Although Southco has long been a force to be reckoned with within US manufacturing industry, the company's foray into Europe is comparatively recent. But with a growing number of European companies using Southco products - including Daimler, Alstom and Alcatel - it opened a European distribution centre in Worcester in 1994. Manufacturing began a year later, and today the Worcester factory produces more than 1,000 of its most popular designs - a full 50% of which are exported.
It would be easy to ascribe many of the factory's strengths to the fact that it's essentially a greenfield operation. Easy, but probably wrong: over the years, the judges have seen plenty of young factories with sclerotic processes and crippling labour relations. At Southco this simply isn't so - perhaps because the privately held business makes no bones about being highly profitable and choosing to invest a large proportion of its earnings into a com-bination of new technology and what Molloy describes as 'people stuff', such as college training for the workforce.
Inevitably, though, it's the intelligent application of the investment in technology to which the eye keeps returning. Between 10pm and 6am, for instance, the factory is a lights-out plant - the people have gone, but the automated plastic-injection moulding machines carry on churning out components on their own. The well-equipped engineering workshop even manufactures the injection-moulding tools in-house.
Equally impressive is the investment in a new robotised diecasting facility, which takes metal ingots in at one end of the line and turns out pressed, tapped and cleaned components ready for powder-coating at the other. But it's not just the technology that is impressive at Southco; clever human touches also abound, such as well-ordered cleaning stations complete with everything needed to keep the factory floor spotless.
BEST ENGINEERING FACTORY
FUJIFILM ELECTRONIC IMAGING
The scanners and printers manufactured by Fujifilm Electronic Imaging are not humble desktop devices, but enormous pre-press reprographic machines for use in the printing industry, costing tens of thousands of pounds apiece. It's not the most obvious product mix, but deputy director of manufacturing Greg Lockett explains the link: 'We make machines that turn light data into electronic data - or the other way round.'
Whereas competitors' equipment does this using largely mechanical processes, Fujifilm's machines use a patented technology based around the precise alignment of laser beams. It's a clever technical trick that commands a premium price, but from a manufacturing point of view it's a potential nightmare.
Take the aluminium drum that lies at the heart of the process. Weighing 250kg and measuring 150mm wide by 70mm across, it must be machined and polished from a single casting to be almost perfectly cylindrical. Deviations must be less than 25 microns per metre - a tall order on castings this size. The heavy machine shop that carries out the task won the judges' ungrudging respect.
The modified vertical lathe that carries out most of the machining has to be aligned to within 7 microns, yet it's the size of a bus. 'There's only one other like it in the UK,' says Lockett. The factory dumbfounded naysayers by successfully moving it from a sister plant. 'They said it would never work again once moved.'
The relocation was part of a drive to shrink lead times and improve manufacturing efficiencies. 'We aimed to squeeze 70% more revenue from each square foot of manufacturing space, but actually achieved 140%,' says Lockett. 'It used to take us about four weeks to produce a machine; now it takes just seven days.'
Once machined, the casting is assembled together with circuit boards chock-full of electronic wizardry and a clutch of 300 milliwatt lasers (also produced in-house). The whole assembly is fine-tuned by technicians working in laboratory-like conditions. A series of minute mirrors revolve around the giant polished drum at 40,000 rpm, and each laser beam must be aligned to strike the relevant mirror to within a tolerance of 5 microns.
Fujifilm's Peterborough plant is cutting-edge: a blend of skilled machining, clever electronics and a dash of hi-tech. But it's also a salutary reflection on the British manufacturing industry: 95% of its output is exported, yet some component castings are imported from Thailand because British factories don't like producing to the required tolerances.
The AEEU is the UK's most forward-looking trade union, having pioneered partnership as the new model for industrial relations. Its merger with MSF will create the UK's second-largest union, with more than a million members in every sector of the economy. The AEEU has signed more voluntary recognition agreements since 1997 than all other trade unions put together and will continue to modernise industrial relations to adapt to the changing economic environment.
BEST ELECTRONICS & ELECTRICAL FACTORY
SPONSOR: FIT FOR THE FUTURE
ALENIA MARCONI SYSTEMS OPERATIONS, HILLEND
Despite the name, Alenia Marconi no longer has anything to do with beleaguered telecoms giant. The Dunfermline factory was one of the defence businesses that the corporation dumped in its lemming-like rush for the new-economy cliff - some of which, like Alenia Marconi, have turned out to be anything but the dead-end businesses they were taken for.
Its mission, explains operations director Jim Roe, is low-to-medium volume, high-complexity defence electronics. It produces the circuitry found in Brimstone and Longbow missiles, for example, and some of the advanced avionics found in the European Fighter Aircraft. Skill and quality count more than output: 'Fifty printed circuit boards a month is high volume to us,' notes Roe. About two-thirds of the firm's output goes outside the Alenia Marconi group to US defence contractors such as Northrop Grumman.
But despite the exacting manufacturing standards that the plant must work to, it is some of the management processes that impress most. The plant is a set of mini-factories, each focused on a particular contract or customer. These 'co-located business teams' are, explains Roe, 'the biggest change we've ever made'.
Teams are focused on the requirements of particular projects, each one containing nearly all the functions needed to design, procure, produce, test and deliver what the customer orders. 'People have much more understanding of other functions,' observes Roe. 'Not only does this help them work more closely, but it also means that they can pitch in and help when necessary.'
Purchasing is another example. The US is not just a source of customers - it's also a prime market for supplies. Supplies manager Brian Turner explains that the business has developed considerable expertise in sourcing from US electronic companies. 'Tony Blair only discovered 'rip-off Britain' two or three years ago - we've known about it for 20 years,' he says. 'If a part costs pounds 1 here it will cost dollars 1 there, so we save 30% by buying there.'
The same imaginative approach is seen in the company's training methods.
Not only are some 160 people in the factory trained to the exacting American ANSI-J-001B manufacturing workmanship standard, but the company also trains field engineers from customers BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman.
The plant also has a contract from Scottish Enterprise to train 30 unemployed youths in manufacturing. They hone their skills by producing terminal blocks for Royal Ordnance and 'visual doorbells' for the hard of hearing, which are sold to social work departments across the country. Thus, the scheme combines a useful pool of potential recruits with a source of income. The net result is that the training department is a profit centre, not a cost centre, enabling the plant's full-time employees to be trained at zero cost.
FIT FOR THE FUTURE
Fit for the Future is the CBI's best-practice campaign. Backed by the DTI, it aims to help the UK become more productive and globally competitive by greatly increasing the number of firms engaged in the transfer of best practice. It encourages an exchange of ideas and expertise through a range of organisations, identifying sources of information and advice that will make a real change towards business excellence (tel: 0870 600 2513; www.fitforthefuture.org.uk).
JUDGES' SPECIAL AWARD
PRESENTED BY CRANFIELD SCHOOL OF MANAGEMENT
BEST ELECTRONICS & ELECTRICAL FACTORY
LITTON INTERCONNECT TECHNOLOGIES
Silicon Glen has had a rough time of late. The global computer and telecoms industries have hit turbulence, and a number of once-booming Scottish factories have closed their doors. But at Litton Interconnect Technologies in Glenrothes, dealing with adversity has become a way of life. Set up in 1983 as a low-cost manufacturing site by US electronics giant Litton's German subsidiary, the factory's order book evaporated 10 years later when manufacturing reverted to Germany. Reduced to a core of just 70 people, the factory was left to wither on the vine.
Committed management, however, refused to let it die, and trawled the world for customers that could use its expertise in building the large printed circuit-board assemblies known as backplanes. It was tough: at that time, the idea of outsourcing to third-party subcontractors was almost unheard of. But the factory soon began to win repeat business from customers such as Ericsson, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola - each of which came to appreciate the quality, cost and reliability of its backplanes.
This year the factory wins the accolade of the Management Today/Cranfield School of Management Judges' Special Award, which goes to the plant that - while perhaps falling short in terms of all-round excellence - nevertheless excels in a niche manufacturing competency. This year it recognises the commitment that Litton Interconnect Technologies shows to 'poke-yoke' technology - the Japanese art of foolproofing manufacture so that it's impossible to assemble, insert or orient something wrongly.
Such devices can be simple - say, 3mm dowel pins located to prevent components being inserted the wrong way round. Others are more complex, perhaps incorporating a blend of proximity switches, guide pins, micro-switches and photoelectric cells. Only when all of them confirm that the right component is in place, correctly oriented, will a manufacturing operation begin.
Much of the credit for this, says general manager Hugh MacKenzie, goes to John Carr, the factory's toolmaker. Inside a workshop just off the factory floor, Carr and his assistant work miracles on an almost daily basis. 'Everybody out there is my customer,' he says, with a nod towards the scattering of dedicated assembly cells on which his poke-yoke devices are installed.
It's a workshop equipped with the usual panoply of lathes, milling machines and drills, but with rarer sights too: a programmable grinding machine, for example, and a computer-controlled CNC milling machine. Why? It's factory policy, says MacKenzie, to spurn the purchase of new production machinery in favour of second-hand equipment that it can refurbish itself. In the process, insights are gleaned as to how to improve and foolproof them.
BEST HOUSEHOLD & GENERAL
SPONSOR: ENGLISH PARTNERSHIPS
America's giant Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing corporation - popularly abbreviated to 3M - is famously innovative. Year after year, about a third of the company's sales revenues come from products that did not exist four years earlier. And it's a commitment to innovation that's fully in evidence at the company's manufacturing plant in Aycliffe, where a number of cutting-edge technologies are combined to create a product range of respirators for use in industry and toxic environments.
Less famously, of course, 3M is also numbered among America's most secretive of organisations - and, true to form, for the first time in the Best Factory Awards' 10-year history, the judges were apologetically barred from viewing a small but critical part of the manufacturing process in operation. 'You can patent a design and a product's construction, but you can't patent the method of manufacture,' said manufacturing manager Dave Walls.
The process in question is undeniably core: blown micro-fibres are extruded and formed into a mat 'web' that is then positively charged to attract particulates. Competitors know this, he adds, but can't replicate the full extent of the charge - hence the secrecy. The omission could have cost the factory the prize had not the rest of the operation been so steeped in manufacturing excellence and clever technology.
One thing that quickly stands out is that the factory has mastered the art of getting the simple things right - consistently, repetitively and without making a song and dance about it. Take its implementation of Total Productive Maintenance (TPM), for example, which exhibits a rare depth and richness. Noticeboards are full of photographs, charts, feedback minutes, agendas (even for team meetings), copies of letters to suppliers, the status of problem-solving initiatives - and so on.
How is it achieved? A combination of simplicity and quiet authority seems to have a lot to do with the sense of consistency. How many factories struggle to get the humble shadowboard working reliably - so that at any given time, tools and cleaning materials are always either on the board or in use? Compliance at 3M is achieved though a simple notice informing operatives that 'it is your responsibility to make sure that every item is present on this board at the start and at the end of your shift'.
Take another bugbear: hair length, which has an impact on both hygiene and the ability to operate machinery safely. Unique among a decade's worth of factory visits was a detailed board containing photographs of people's hair. This length and style is permissible - and this length and style isn't.
The approach to manufacturing automation is equally effective, even if the commitment to secrecy leaves the factory's IT department writing programs for computer-controlled machinery that in most other businesses would be bought in ready-written. And thanks to the high levels of asset care and operative-led maintenance, the factory has demonstrably beaten the devil lurking in every automation project: finely tuned machines that work wonderfully for a while before spluttering to a halt again. At 3M, the automated machinery runs - and keeps on running.
LINPAC CORRUGATED CASES (LOUTH)
Making cardboard boxes - especially for the big supermarket and grocery giants - is a low-tech, marginally profitable business, right? Wrong - at least in the case of Louth-based Linpac Corrugated Cases, part of the privately held pounds 1 billion Linpac packaging group.
Last year, the six-year-old pounds 30 million plant reached its planned maximum capacity of 100 million square metres a year, so operations director Simon Hedison negotiated a three-year pay deal that moved the plant to three-shift, seven-day working. 'It's a new plant, with new equipment, but really it's all about people,' insists Hedison. 'Unless you've got people motivated and engaged, you've got nothing.'
A full 10% of the plant's profits are shared between its employees - 'a wonderful motivational tool that makes sure that everyone is aware of costs and efficiencies,' he enthuses.
The plant's customer base - loosely described by Hedison as 'the bluest of the blue chips' - is as demanding as they come: Unilever, Pedigree Petfoods and a clutch of supermarket groups including Aldi and Lidl. The plant's skill lies in making itself indispensable to these by offering a combination of low-cost manufacture, just-in-time responsiveness and unrivalled technical prowess.
'We work hard to differentiate ourselves from the competition,' says Hedison, pointing to a number of long-term partnerships with customers that aim to leverage the resources of both parties to generate savings through such techniques as 'back hauling', where trucks run full in both directions.
On the factory floor, the just-in-time responsiveness manifests itself in an enviable ability to switch from product to product with negligible loss of capacity - offering customers the convenience of small-batch sizes at large-batch prices.
It's a skill that the workforce has worked hard to hone. Take the giant corrugator machine, which in most cardboard businesses is the factory bottleneck. Not at Louth, where, brags Hedison, 'we've turned conventional wisdom on its head'. With innovations such as a best-practice manual for change- overs, complete with annotated colour photographs, care points and detailed schematics, the corrugator never stops, and now has more capacity than the downstream operations.
And once downstream, the focus is on combining efficient manufacture with exacting tolerances. The customers' packing lines for which the boxes are destined can turn into a critical bottleneck. An out-of-tolerance box at a customer's factory can jam a packing line solid, losing minutes of production while operatives free the offending box and prepare the line for resumed flow.
Through improved designs and closer manufacturing tolerances, Linpac has made the process of erecting, folding and sealing boxes much more reliable. This has boosted customers' packing-line efficiencies, enabling them to wring more production out of their investment. What's more, Linpac can suggest different box designs in order to maximise the cubic capacity utilisation of trucks and containers, thus reducing unit shipping costs.
The result? From the customers' point of view, the price paid for each box is put into a different perspective by the ability to make other assets sweat much harder. Best of all, it's a virtuous circle: as customers improve their packing process, the tolerances on Linpac's boxes become tighter and tighter - neatly locking out would-be competitors with less capable box lines.
BEST HOUSEHOLD & GENERAL PRODUCTS FACTORY
SPONSOR: ENGLISH PARTNERSHIPS
It's hard to be different when you're a butter manufacturer. With just two ingredients - milk and salt - there clearly aren't too many tunes to be played when it comes to product formulation. Nevertheless, Dairy Crest's creamery at Crudgington, in the heart of the Shropshire countryside, succeeds brilliantly at wringing as much variety as it can from such thin prospects.
Now throw in a customer base that includes the likes of Tesco, J Sainsbury, Safeway and Somerfield. As the Best Factory Awards have repeatedly shown, supplying such customers isn't always a comfortable experience, but there's nothing quite like it for breeding raw manufacturing excellence.
The plant's success dates back to the mid-1980s, when it was the springboard for the launch of Clover, the cream of the coyly named dairy spreads market - essentially blends of butter and the vegetable oils that go into margarine.
Competitors have copied the idea, but Crudgington has a stranglehold on the technology: while competitors use the grim-sounding surface scrape method, Clover is the only dairy spread that is churned.
Nor is this just an attempt to break out of the milk 'n' salt straitjacket. Supermarket shelves might tempt shoppers with various regional butters - Somerset, Cornish, Welsh and so on - but each pack has trundled down Crudgington's remorselessly efficient conveyor lines, albeit with milk genuinely sourced from the region in question. So, too, do various flavoured and speciality butters chiefly aimed at the catering market.
But with pretty much all avenues explored when it comes to variety, the plant's strategy for surviving a contraction within the dairy industry now relies on efficiency and people-management initiatives. It's the only plant within Dairy Crest to have an Investors in People award, brags general manager Jim Ferrie, and it's furthest along with a Six Sigma continuous improvement initiative that has thus far generated annual savings of pounds 191,000.
The rewards of such high levels of efficiency, adds Ferrie, come in the growing quantities of own-label business that the plant is winning from its supermarket customers. Whereas the plant once produced own-label butters solely for Safeway and Waitrose, it now serves all the majors, most recently winning Tesco's Value budget butter business; previously, the butter came from Europe. British manufacturing industry might bewail the strong pound, but the Crudgington creamery proves that, with the right focus on efficiency, there's still room to buy British.
A UK government agency and one of the country's largest landowners, English Partnerships works with local and regional partners to offer property solutions for businesses seeking sites for expansion. It also provides wide-ranging site-selection information tailored to your project. Business location is a key factor in a firm's performance, and English Partnerships has the property expertise to improve the way your factory operates (www.englishpartnerships.co.uk).
BEST PROCESS FACTORY
SPONSOR: PROCESS INDUSTRIES CENTRE FOR MANUFACTURING EXCELLENCE (PICME)
NESTLE ROWNTREE, FAWDON FACTORY
The enormous product range of Nestle Rowntree's Fawdon factory, to the north of Newcastle, reads like a schoolboy's tuck-shop dream: Rolos, Rowntree's Fruit Pastilles, Jelly Tots, Tooti-Fruities, Breakaway and Blue Riband biscuits, and more besides. It's a huge breadth of food-processing technologies - wafer and biscuit manufacture, gelatine processing, sugar and chocolate coating - and one rarely found under a single roof.
But it's the volume of output that astonishes, especially on the biggest-selling lines: Rolos and Blue Riband biscuits, for instance, being packed on automated lines that reduce individual items to a fast-moving blur. Together, the factory's 700 employees produce some 35,000 tonnes of confectionery each year.
Yet its performance wasn't always so impressive, as deputy factory manager Roger Smith concedes. In 1997, the Rowntree factory failed an internal audit by new owners Nestle - 'something that's pretty much taboo,' he coughs. The symptoms, bad industrial relations, low machine reliability, poor inventory management, dismayed customers. Plus a leaky roof - untenable in food processing.
The solution? A pounds 6.7 million new roof, for a start. But also an entire re-think about how the factory ought to operate - prompted, in part, by a series of visits to a number of other Management Today/Cranfield School of Management award-winning factories.
No longer would the factory disappoint customers with poor inventory management and low levels of reliability, for example. These days, says Smith, 'if we say we can make it, we'll bloody well make it'. And industrial relations, which union convenor Steve Southward agrees 'were frankly awful', were slowly transformed by a move to what Smith characterises as 'honest and open trade union relationships, based on traditional values'. For proof, listen to Southward's intelligent exposition of the business prospects and profitability of the new Jelly Tots line on which he works, and which replaced eight people when installed 14 months ago.
Just as pivotal was a shake-up of the factory's internal organisation structure, says continuous improvement manager Duncan Brown. Out went the department-based structure, with all its scope for buck-passing. In came a series of zones: mini-factories tasked with producing a given product, with most (but not all) of the resources needed to fulfil their mission. Maintenance engineers, for example, are 'associated with zones, but not part of them'.
A continuous improvement programme, based on a Japanese-style '5-S' workplace housekeeping initiative and aimed at enabling the factory to make things 'faster, better, safer, easier and cheaper', has clocked up savings of pounds 250,000 a year. Indeed, from being a failing factory, the Fawdon plant has now been recognised within Nestle as something of a role model.
PICME is a DTI-funded project that helps UK process manufacturers reduce manufacturing costs while increasing work satisfaction and productivity - through benchmarking and lean manufacturing techniques. Participating company costs are assisted by a DTI grant and may be paid for out of savings and efficiencies made. Uptake in chemicals, polymer and pharmaceutical processing has been high since PICME's March 2001 launch (01642 430 025; firstname.lastname@example.org).
BEST PROCESS FACTORY
Reckitt Benckiser's cleaning products factory in Derby represents a microcosm of the two-year-old merger that brought the company itself into existence. From Britain's Reckitt & Colman came a raft of strong brands: Windowlene, Dettol, Mr Sheen and Harpic. (Other factories, notably the Hull plant, which won our Process Industry Award in 1999, produce equally strong brands in pharmaceutical and over-the-counter medicines.) And from Holland's Benckiser came an undoubtedly hard-nosed management focus on costs and cash. 'We're making 14% more product, with fewer people than at the time of the merger,' says site director Andre Croatto.
As the Derby plant amply demonstrates, it's a blend that has worked well - although, as Croatto (a former Reckitt & Colman executive) insists, it's still a little too early to see the full fruits of this. Over the past five years, some pounds 22 million has been pumped into the factory as part of a Europe-wide concentration of manufacturing capacity from 21 plants to seven. Not only does the factory look very different as a result, but its performance has been transformed.
Out went the invisible wall that divided the factory's two product groups into separate (and sometimes conflicting) cultures, and in came a new and united sense of purpose. Instead of buying in the plastic bottles in which its products are packed, the factory now produces them itself. And instead of continuing to rely on marketing to deliver fat margins, the factory launched a Japanese-style continuous improvement campaign, spearheaded by kaizen leader Caroline Gionis.
Complexity has been reduced, as the elimination of language variants has seen the number of products variations cut from 162 to 65. Already, says Gionis, overall plant efficiencies have climbed from around 25% to 55% - and should be more than 60% by year-end, on the basis of plans that are under way but not yet implemented. Interestingly, the factory has chosen to source most spare parts from one supplier, as opposed to the 30 or so it previously dealt with.
As is often the case, there has been a human cost. The number of people employed at the factory has fallen from 450 to 250 - which, given the rise in volumes over the same period, demonstrates the impact on the bottom line. But for those who remain, the future appears assured. Overall, the UK's manufacturing industry has suffered from the falling value of the euro, but one factory at least has shown how it is possible to rise to the challenge of cutting its costs to match.
BEST SMALL FACTORY
MOST IMPROVED FACTORY
SPONSOR: OLIVER WIGHT
What do you get if the financial institution backing your management buyout appoints a Best Factory judge as non-executive chairman? You get prodded, poked and cajoled towards manufacturing excellence - at least, if the experience of Newhaven-based Cash Bases is anything to go by.
Manufacturing custom-designed cash drawers for tills and checkout registers, the company is another of our winners to exploit a clever niche. Banks, supermarkets, post offices, foreign currency bureaux: all these and more come to Cash Bases for cash drawers purpose-built to suit their own business. And reliability is key: the drawers are knowingly over-engineered to ensure a 20-year fault-free performance. And although it really is a niche, it's one with a growing global reach: the firm's biggest contract is to supply the US Postal Service.
While John Budgen - a Best Factory judge for the past seven years - admits his primary responsibilities lie elsewhere, it's a rare board meeting that doesn't include a gimlet-eyed tour of the factory floor. And Cash Bases' senior managers have been walked by Budgen around the factories of previous years' winners - not necessarily a comfortable experience, but a valuable one.
So as the team of judges (minus Budgen) arrived to audit the plant, Cash Bases' shop floor had a familiar feel - clean, well-lit, brightly painted and with an obvious reliance on Japanese-style kanban scheduling systems. A well-ordered press shop is full of computer-controlled machine tools busily punching out sheet steel, with barely a second wasted. In the machine shop, skilled operators make the process of bending the sheets into shape seem effortlessly simple - it can take no fewer than 13 tightly sequenced bends to fashion each drawer.
It wasn't always this way, concedes Hugh Burnett, the MD. At the time of the buyout, productivity was low, customer-due dates regularly missed, few controls were in place and no systematic build procedures were followed. 'The manufacturing plan was more of a wish list, really,' he recalls. Jobs would jump the queue in order to boost output at the expense of customer promises. Now, late despatches have been halved, the number of end-of-line rejects has been cut from 7% to 1%, and customer complaints have fallen by two-thirds. Meantime, productivity has soared.
A move to new premises also helped. The business was spread over a number of industrial units, and consolidation improved flow and reduced levels of work-in-progress. Cash was tight, so if an award existed for the most imaginative way to turn a defunct carpet showroom into a factory, Cash Bases might win that, too.
Oliver Wight offers coaching for clients striving to achieve business excellence through sustainable behaviour change. It provides knowledge-transfer of best-practice methodology; process-design workshops to develop unique applications; and coaching, support and critique during and after the life of the implementation. Having worked for more than 30 years with international blue chips and medium-sized businesses, Oliver Wight is renowned for its implementation methodology.