Sponsor - LK Global Manufacturing Systems (UK).
Marks & Spencer's insistence on products of the highest quality is renowned - an insistence that does much to explain the devotion to excellence encountered at R F Brookes' factory in Rogerstone, Gwent. Much of the factory is given over to the production of half a million meat-and potato-based convenience meals for the high-street retailer each week: shepherd's pie, cottage pie, roast potatoes, potato croquettes and so forth.
The factory's record of achievement is impressive: sales have grown at a steady 18% per year since 1980, and sales-per-employee are 21% higher than five years ago. An absolute focus on customer requirements plays an obvious part in this, as does a carefully-considered investment programme that has resulted in as high a degree of automation as is consistent with the demanding quality standards required. Ian Mayo, manager of B1 unit, is rightly proud of a recently-installed line that optically sorts diced potatoes, with rejects (those containing 'eyes' or other blemishes) being spat out by tightly focused directed air jets.
Yet only a few feet away, some six million roast potatoes are cut by hand every year: so far only humans are able to quarter each potato into the correct, aesthetically pleasing proportions. And mashed potato-topped dishes continue to have the potato topping extruded by hand: the wicked grin that accompanies the operatives' innocent-sounding invitation to the judges to 'have a go - it's very easy' gives a clue to the real skill that is required to produce flawless topping to the same exacting standard hundreds of times each day.
Thoughtful management policies have also played a part. Each of the six business units into which the factory is divided are required to compile a weekly profit-and-loss account - a focus on finance which is perhaps not entirely unconnected with the fact that the factory is owned by Greg Hutchings' Tomkins conglomerate. A heavy focus on training has sought to enhance multi-skilling and reinforce the strong customer focus. The factory won Investors in People status in 1993 and last year invested 2,600 days in training.
But the bald statistics don't tell the full story, stresses Fiona Skinner, whose formal title of business development manager is supplemented by a strong audit and benchmarking role designed to reinforce the factory's pursuit of excellence. When the entire workforce was taken off-site for a two-day training course - held on a Friday and Saturday to avoid disrupting production - only eight employees refused to give up their Saturday. Another employee has taken down some family photographs from the wall of her home to make room for some of the certificates she has received - 'the first she had ever been given for anything', says Skinner.
R F Brookes
Activity: Manufacture of convenience foods
Task: Cost-efficient production of high-quality food products for a demanding customer
Size: 600 employees
Outstanding Features: People management and motivation, attention to detail, linking manufacturing strategy to business strategy, commitment to excellence.