Commitment to quality and a spirit of co-operation with customers and suppliers - these are just two recurring themes among previous Best Factory winners. This year's are no exception but they have a few ingredients of their own.
What makes for excellence in a manufacturing plant? Every factory on this year's short list has its own ways of excelling, and it's to be hoped that different lessons will emerge from the profiles of the award-winners that appear in the following pages. Some of the winners seek excellence through empowerment or dedication to continuous improvement, others apply rigorous quality control and ruthlessly exploit their mastery over particular manufacturing technologies. But it's inevitable that many factors which contribute significantly to manufacturing excellence should recur from year to year: a first-rate management team, demanding customers, a commitment to quality, a spirit of co-operation with customers and suppliers, a willingness to benchmark, the avoidance of 'initiative overload'.
All these qualities emerged from the analysis of previous years' winners. Several of the 1994 winners have added a further ingredient to the recipe: process control. The importance of good process control has been remarked upon before, of course, notably in the cases of the two Kimberly-Clark plants which won the Process Industry awards in 1992 and 1993. This year, it was encouraging to see more instances of excellent performance under this heading: Dexter Nonwovens, the 1994 Best Process Industry Factory, Ryobi Aluminium Casting, the Engineering Industry winner, and Kitchen Range Foods, the Best Small Company, are three splendid examples.
Somebody at one of this year's factories, obviously keen to offer up a top-scoring selection of techniques, asked 'How do the judges score empowerment versus, say, bench-marking?' In fact, they don't try to. What they do is measure excellence the only way it can be measured - by results. Every plant entering the competition (and this year saw a record 283 entrants, 6% up on 1993) completes a 14-page questionnaire. This contains a total of 188 questions on aspects of performance such as lead times, machine changeovers, inventory control, labour productivity, delivery reliability. The answers to these questions are then analysed by computer. Up to this point the procedure has been entirely anonymous, so there has been no chance of anyone influencing the outcome. Only when the individual scores have been calculated - when the cream has risen to the top - do the judges know the names of the companies concerned.
The highest scoring plants provide the short list of finalists to be visited and audited. Factory visits enable the panel of judges - which includes representatives of Management Today, Cranfield School of Management, the Confederation of British Industry and the Department of Trade and Industry - to assess relative degrees of complexity. A plant that excels at doing something really difficult is likely to be more highly rated than one which is extremely competent at doing something simpler.
Once again, the judges extend thanks to all the managements who gave their time so generously - sometimes at serious inconvenience - while allowing their factories and themselves to be put under the microscope. Thanks go, too, to all those employees who took time out to explain to the judges precisely what they were doing - and why. Particular appreciation is due to the valiant managements at Ericsson, Ford Motor Company's Electronics Division, Komatsu UK, Kawasaki Precision Machinery, Northern Telecom and Playtex UK who all won through to the final stages but in the end failed to pick up one of the awards.
Plaudits have been offered in previous years. This time - in a break with tradition - brickbats are being handed out as well. Three facts struck the judges very forcefully as they considered the entries. First, the overall standard is lower this year, although the standard of the winners remains as high as before. (They therefore had an easier field against which to compete.) It's hard to say why this should be so. Manufacturing output is picking up, and recently released official data show that investment in manufacturing industry has risen for the first time in two years. Can it be that the good factories are just too busy to enter?
It is certainly to be hoped not. There's an incentive to enter, quite apart from the possibility of being listed among the winners. Every plant, winner or not, receives a free bench-marking report from Cranfield School of Management. This compares the entrant's performance with that of other plants in the same industry category, on all the criteria used in the assessment. Once again, complete anonymity is preserved in all cases.
Second, whatever happened to production control? Management gurus, ranging from Oliver Wight to Eli Goldratt, have long been preaching the virtues of particular production control methodologies. Yet none of these seem to have had any particular relevance for the winning factories, in this or any previous year. Only rarely, as in the case of Dexter Nonwovens - this year's Process Industry winner - has production control in any form been mentioned as a factor tending to promote excellence.
Are the gurus wrong? Should we infer that first-class production control doesn't really matter? Has 'hard wired' production control, such as kanban squares and dedicated cells, killed off yesterday's software and techniques-based approaches - master scheduling, inventory management and Materials Requirements Planning? The judges don't know - but they would be glad to hear, next year, from any factory that believes itself to be slick at production control.
The final criticism is a painful one to make. It has repeatedly been observed that tough, demanding customers - such as the car-makers, and the big supermarket chains - have a major influence in promoting manufacturing excellence among their suppliers. Look at every motor industry company that has been featured in these pages in previous years, or at HD Plastics, the superb Household Products winner of two years ago. But where are the big manufacturers of branded goods?
Do powerful brands or a strong market position make factories lazy?
It is strange that some of the best known names have not made it on to the short list. It is even more curious that, of those which have, so few went on to be named Best Factory in their category. They are good factories, certainly - otherwise they would not be on the short list. They deserve the Commendation that they are frequently awarded. But they are all too often surpassed by a relative unknown that has had to struggle to survive and prosper without the clout of a big brand. Out of that struggle, the judges suspect, comes the urge to excel that marks the winners. Next year, the judges would be delighted to hear from someone who will prove them wrong.
And so to this year's winners. Anyone who appreciates good engineering will enjoy learning about Ryobi Aluminium Casting, Speedboard, and the European Components Company. British Aerospace Defence's Dynamics Division and Glaxo Manufacturing Services all have valuable tips for those embarked on improvement programmes. If pace is what you're striving for, look at TRW Steering Systems, Dexter Nonwovens - and, of course, the Factory of the Year: Design to Distribution.