UK: Factory of the Year - Household & General Products - Best Factory.

UK: Factory of the Year - Household & General Products - Best Factory. - Colmans of Norwich,

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Colmans of Norwich,

Norfolk

Sponsor: AremisSoft (LK Global)

ACTIVITY: food and condiment manufacture

TASK: combining low-cost production with flexibility and fast new product introduction

COMPLEXITY: medium to high

SIZE: 170 employees

OUTSTANDING FEATURES: effective team-based manufacturing organisation, flexibility, successful adoption of a wide range of manufacturing initiatives over a wide variety of production processes, all-round excellence

If the 1995 sell-off of Colmans mustard, condiment and sauce business by Reckitt & Colman created a feeling of abandonment at the venerable Norwich factory (mustard since 1862) the reaction of the new owner, Unilever, to a plant happily using milling, rolling and sifting machinery some 40 to 50 years old can only be guessed at. Particularly so when close inspection revealed that these machines were still being driven by Industrial Revolution-style line shafts and rotating belts - and that the suspension on the sifting machines that grade of the mustard flour was made of bamboo canes.

Yet it's a contrast that somehow sums up 1998's Factory of the Year: old and new happily co-existing in the furtherance of manufacturing excellence.

Ian Rainford, manufacturing manager, balks at the thought of scrapping equipment that works so well, and upon which so much careful preventative maintenance work has been lavished. Investment, he points out, has been focused on areas where it can achieve the greatest return - such as the hi-tech mimic-board control panel that monitors the operation and the modern blending and wet-milling equipment in which the flour is transformed into mustard paste.

Evidence of modern-day manufacturing excellence is, in any case, all too abundant. On examining the mustard filling line, for example, the reaction of the Best Factory judges was unanimous: lines running as smoothly as this are rarely encountered.

(The Colmans line kept running, period. In another of this year's short-listed factories, an equivalent line spent more time down than operating.) The Colmans factory simply does most things right, and to a high standard. What's more, it manages to do them right across an exceptionally wide spectrum of process technologies and manufacturing environments. In addition to mustard, the factory produces a wide range of sachet-packed dry foods such as stir-fry mixes and sauces, as well as a ready-mixed variety of products such as apple, mint, tartare and horseradish sauces.

Throughout, lineside process documentation is excellent, clearly detailing the required operating procedures and associated 'care points' and 'improvement points'. Preventative maintenance folders are posted by each production line, carefully itemising the tasks that need to be carried out, and at what intervals. Signage and labelling is uniformly clear, with tools very visibly displayed on shadow boards located close to the point where they will be used.

Equally visible are skill matrices and training plans for the factory's team-based operatives, who work on an annualised hours basis to maximise capacity flexibility. The move to annualised hours, notes Rainford, has seen the factory move 'from a high overtime operation to a no-overtime operation'. 'It switches people's focus from underachieving and getting £100 overtime to overachieving and leaving an hour early,' he says. Just as powerfully, an intelligently-designed bonus system incentivises not crude output levels, but 'locked-in' manufacturing improvements: a quarterly bonus equivalent to 5% of gross pay rewards the successful achievement of specific improvement projects.

Teams meet weekly to work towards these, says Rainford, explaining that it is not unknown for team members to come into work to attend the meetings even when the annualised hours system has them 'rostered off'. Teams are usually divided up, he adds, so that everybody has to achieve something: this not only reinforces the mutual reliance principle of teamworking itself, but prevents 'coasters' earning a bonus on the basis of other people's efforts.

A recent initiative has supplemented this by redefining the roles of team members and team leaders, explains Mike Rennison, Dry Foods manufacturing manager. 'Increasingly, we're now seen as coaches rather than managers: guiding teams towards maximising their overall contribution, rather than minutely managing their hour-by-hour activities,' he says - adding that it's not always easy 'letting go, and not knowing everything that's going on.'

In the immediate aftermath of the Unilever acquisition, attention focused on the factory's relatively high cost-per-tonne - high at least by the standards of Unilever's high-volume mass market plants. While the factory has had to direct many of its post-acquisition improvement initiatives towards rectifying this, there has been a growing acceptance within Unilever of the Norwich factory's other abilities. 'We have expertise, flexibility and skills that a high-volume plant simply might not be able to offer,' observes Vince Lachowycz, works director, and a 25-year veteran of the plant: 'Speed to market, low wastage, quick changeovers, the ability to handle high levels of variety: these are characteristics of the successful factory of the future'.

HOUSEHOLD & GENERAL

SPONSOR: AREMISSOFT (LK GLOBAL)

AremisSoft Corporation is a leading provider of business solutions products for open architecture systems. It provides industry with the means to manage the flow of information across entire enterprises. The core of its business is the MTMS product set. This client server-based management system brings fully integrated Enterprise Resource Planning, addressing the needs of make-to-order, batch and repetitive flow production.

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