In the search for manufacturing excellence the judges found an unexpected diversity of approach among the finalists in this year's Best Factory Awards.
Winners of the 1996 Best Factory Awards present something of a contrast to those of earlier years. Previous recipients have often been enthusiastic exponents of techniques such as cellular manufacturing, continuous improvement and just-in-time materials replenishment. Although this year's winners are not a jot less committed to manufacturing excellence, they certainly demonstrate rather greater diversity in their manner of seeking it.
Take Amtico, winner in the small business category. Although the company possesses more than a nodding acquaintance with the intricacies of kaizen and other Japanese-inspired methodologies, Amtico's strengths lie elsewhere.
Its manufacturing operations all reflect a single clear strategy: to exploit a highly developed process capability in order to provide customers with what they want.
Pilkington PE, which carried off the award in the engineering category, is another case in point. This factory takes a remarkable number of technologies almost to their limit. In the world of military programmes, sole suppliers are unusual, particularly when they are foreign sole suppliers.
Nevertheless it appears that Pilkington PE is the only sole supplier on the American F16 fighter programme. This must be because, in the words of general manager Denis Welch, 'No one else can do what we do'. In a world in which factories win applause for being fast and focused, Pilkington PE - which is neither fast nor focused - capitalises on an abundance of abilities.
Again, in the household products category, Walkers' Leicester sandwich factory takes a slightly unconventional route to manufacturing excellence.
But, then, the task which it is required to fulfil - assembling a huge variety of products and delivering these to widely scattered customers by 8am - is itself slightly unusual. The solution - involving a custom designed and built factory equipped with fast-changeover assembly lines and a flexible workforce, and stuffed with impressive engineering systems - is admirably effective.
These three factories - along with Sun Microsystems in the electronics and electrical sector and Van den Bergh Foods' margarine factory (the overall winner) in the process industry category - came in at the head of a field of 230-odd entrants for this year's competition. But in the final stage, during the judges' day-long visits to each of the shortlisted sites, it became clear that the errors which have weighed against entrants in the past are still recurring.
The aim of the judges is to identify manufacturing excellence. It is not to assess inspection and quality procedures. Every year factories fail to understand this distinction, and view the exercise as yet another quality audit. One of this year's shortlist might have done better had management chosen to place more emphasis on other aspects of its operations.
Another plant, no doubt eager to demonstrate the extent of empowerment, laid on interminable factory floor presentations - which thereby detracted from its case. However articulate operators may be, they can provide only limited insight into a factory's manufacturing strategy.
The judges' views about what makes manufacturing excellence are contained in the Management Today special report, The Making of Britain's Best Factories, published earlier this year. Able and motivated people, ideally working in teams, appear to be a vital constituent of success. Management matters too: intelligent, motivated managers can transform a plant's performance.
Most crucially, as several of this year's winners demonstrate, the factory's manufacturing strategy must be firmly aligned with the overall strategy of the business.
However, some other more tentative conclusions may have to be revised in the light of this year's awards. In the past, the judges have noticed that process plants seemed to be generally weaker than those in other industries. The judges have also found that smaller factories frequently performed well - being free of the group pressures that weigh upon larger counterparts. In previous years, too, it has been suggested that possession of a powerful brand could tend to make a factory's management complacent.
In winning the title Factory of the Year, Van den Bergh Foods could be said to rebut all of these findings. Nevertheless, close inspection reveals that the process side of the factory is a relatively insignificant aspect of its overall operation. Further, parent Unilever's current reorganisation has given this management team every incentive not to be complacent. As to the effect of big brands, the jury is still out. The judges look forward to probing this hypothesis next year - and to applauding manufacturing excellence in yet more of Britain's Best Factories.