The Process Industry Award went to Kimberly-Clark, chosen from the food, drink, tobacco, chemicals sector pharmaceutical and metal plants processing.
Process factories call for outstanding management - given that technology has to be married with a mastery of the manufacturing issues to bring about commercial success. The high standard of our two finalists in this category made it difficult to choose between the two. Detergent powder manufacturer Robert McBride's plant in Barrow-in-Furness responded superbly to the challenges of the more demanding marketplace that they operate in; while the less competitive commercial environment of Kimberly-Clark's Flint Mill, which produces industrial wipers, has undoubtedly helped it to become the manufacturing showpiece that the judges witnessed. A tiebreak had to be introduced: this involved a detailed examination of comparable areas including packaging. Following this, Kimberly-Clark was declared the category winner.
Set in a 90-acre site outside Flint, the plant - or mill as it is called by the company - performs a neat trick. "Plastics aren't absorbent, right? Wrong," says technical supremo Mike Kebbell, as he pours a can of Coke over an industrial wiping cloth made from 100% polypropylene. "The secret is in making the hydrophobic hydrophillic," he says.
But this is not the only key to the plants success. Both finalists emphasised that their process technology provided only a portion of their competitive edge. A high-quality workforce was important too. Robert McBride's general manager Ken Haselden happily admitted to "paying over the odds" to attract and retain the best. This commitment was echoed by Kimberly-Clark's factory manager Andy Wilson.
However, their approaches differ from that point. The McBride culture is stolidly traditional, whereas Kimberly-Clark's attitude is the most informal of all our 11 finalists. At Flint Mill, titles and protocol are out, although Andy Wilson will don a suit and refer to himself as a manager on visits to suppliers or customers. Like the two others in their thirties running this £25-million business - and indeed the rest of the workforce - he was dressed in casual slacks and a T-shirt with his name embroidered on it.
The team ethos that has been established over the last few years underscores everything at the plant. According to Wilson, it has made his life much easier. "Before, people wanted to be told everything," he says. Shift handovers - a critical moment in any continuous process business - now run like clockwork. "The outgoing shift don't go home until the incoming one accepts the mill," he says. As with some other finalists, the plant found that its original payment scheme, incorporating overtime, impeded productivity rather than enhanced it. Typically, Flint Mill has gone further than most in revising its system - to the extent that paid overtime has been eliminated completely. Should overtime work be necessary - if there is a hold-up somewhere - employees are expected to do the work with no extra payment. According to Wilson, around 2% of the hours worked in the plant are unpaid overtime. "Previously," says Mike Kebbell, "we never got more than 1,000 rolls a shift off a winder. Now the norm is 1,600 and we regularly get 2,000." Waste levels are also down sharply, cutting costs and boosting the bottom line with more good output from the same level of input.
Pipes snake here and there from vast silos, control panels flicker and product churns inexorably from the end of the process. This is where another of the plant's skills lies: the stop-go often permissible elsewhere in manufacturing industry is not possible in process industry factories. When something goes wrong, output halts and idle operatives can not be moved onto something else. Statistical process control is everywhere: engineers constantly watch over plant and machinery with conditioning monitoring and computer-linked vibration analysis equipment. It's a constant tightrope act that calls for skill and concentration.
The skills are finely honed and emphasise again the importance placed on people. The training scheme in operation at the mill was the best seen among the 11 finalists. There's a formal training plan for every employee, with clear progress paths identified. Learning by rote is an anathema here: even the mundane tasks have a properly thought-through syllabus - well written and clearly illustrated - that takes the initiate through the learning process. Once they are trained, employees are empowered to take on more responsibility and broaden their roles.
Ken Malpas - in the warehouse - is a good example of this. He loads and unloads vehicles, monitors the stock position and handles all the in-and-out paperwork. Is he a forklift truck driver with a management role, or a manager who happens to spend time in a forklift truck? He isn't sure, but he's happy so what does it matter.
AWARD SPONSOR: KPMG Peat Marwick
KPMG Peat Marwick is the UK practice of the international accountancy and management consultancy firm, KPMG.
It is the largest auditor of the Times 1000 companies in the UK. The practice consists of KPMG's Manufacturing and Technology Business Unit and the KPMG International Centre for Manufacturing and Logistics Consultancy. The consultants' experience stretches from strategic planning to shopfloor productivity as well as suppliers and distributors. They implement computer systems and advise on Activity Based Management and Total Quality Management.