Breadth of vision together with a rounded approach to improvement distinguishes the winners from the mass of entrants in this year's Best Factory Awards.
Competition for the title of Britain's Best Factory has once again provided some revealing insights into the management methods and styles that lie behind success in manufacturing. Which are the characteristics that really help a plant to succeed? Which tend to hinder it? What do the managements of Best Factories do that distinguishes them from their rivals? This year, after looking at a further 240-plus corporate entrants, we have a clearer view than ever before.
Once again, the competition has thrown up some surprises. At least two of this year's winners will be unfamiliar names to many managers. These companies are both privately-owned, intensely entrepreneurial and dedicated to manufacturing excellence. Few people outside the textile or textile machinery industries will have heard of 1995's Factory of the Year, the Gateshead-based Bonas Machine Company, whose addiction to self-improvement enables it to sell more than 90% of its output overseas and which has captured half the world market for its own kind of product. And while the name WH Smith & Sons may have a familiar ring to it, the factory in question has no connection with the high street retailer but is an entirely unconnected business in the Midlands. Smith not only came top in the Household & General category, it has also been named Best Small Company.
These factories serve to reinforce a point that was forcibly made by the judges last year - that some of the best known names in British manufacturing failed to make it onto the shortlist. Others, whose performance was good enough to win a place on the shortlist, did less well than smaller, nimbler factories at the final hurdle.
So does a powerful brand or a strong market position make a factory management complacent? Perhaps that would be putting it too harshly. But all too frequently it seems that big factories develop a culture and a mentality that are obstacles to excellence. Progress becomes impeded by administrative tangles or by complicated decision-making processes. Past winners, by contrast, like Premier Exhaust Systems, Kitchen Range Foods or Ryobi Aluminium Casting, have demonstrated big-company disciplines with small-company fleetness of foot.
In two of this year's shortlisted factories (both excellent from a manufacturing point of view) senior sales and marketing people told the judges they were unaware of the present level of their finished goods inventories, and had no responsibility for this aspect of the business. In other factories, we noticed - as in previous years - an unhealthy separation of marketing and manufacturing, with both functions being disinclined to play the other's game.
In 1995 this simply won't do. If the organisation structure does not assist the factory's commercial performance then it should be changed. The factory must reflect the overall strategy of the business, not operate in isolation from it. Cranfield School of Management's 14-page questionnaire and the judges' day-long audit visits are intended to probe such matters as well as revealing excellence on the factory floor.
One or two of the larger plants visited this year displayed less attention to detail than might have been expected in relation to continuous improvement, preventive maintenance and even, surprisingly, safety. In some factories we queried the amount of management attention, even obsession, devoted to reducing labour costs while overlooking potential gains in other areas such as continuous improvement.
A more rounded approach appears very clearly among some of this year's winners. Bonas Machine Co, WH Smith, Toshiba Consumer Products and Shell Lubricants have each tackled the process of improvement with gusto, identifying areas of weakness, working out sensible strategies and intelligently harnessing the skills of employees. The Highly Commended entrants and the recipient of this year's Judges' Special Award are also fine examples of their kind. What generally separates them from the winners is breadth of vision.
There is much to be learned in this year's roll call of Britain's Best Factories. Toshiba Consumer Products and WH Smith display continuous improvement. Merck Sharp & Dohme and Shell Lubricants, also Honeywell, reveal a lot about the intelligent application of automation. And there's nothing to beat a good turnround story - Courtaulds Films is this year's Most Improved Factory, while Bonas Machine Co is the Factory of the Year.