The motor industry comprises perhaps the most aggressive customers in the country and the awards were duly dominated by automotive components manufacturers. Premier Exhausts was the jewel, being named Best Midlands Factory, Best Engineering Factory and the UK's overall Best Factory.
Frank Burns, the managing director, boasts that Premier has never delivered late - a fact recognised recently by Saab, when it selected Premier over a local Scandinavian rival to supply its exhausts. Premier also dispatches to Rover every two hours.
The competition, organised in association with Cranfield School of Management, included 266 factories this year,which were judged on criteria such as productivity, reliability of delivery, lead times and inventory turnover. The 23 factories on the shortlist were then visited by a team of judges from the CBI, Cranfield and Management Today. It emerged that an exceptionally high proportion of the plants were in the automotive industry.
A recently leaked EC report criticised levels of productivity in European motor component suppliers, but Professor Colin New of Cranfield school, who headed the team of judges, rebuts this. 'The UK component manufacturers that we visited were on a par with Japanese plants in terms of productivity, quality and delivery,' he said.
Premier is a good example. It was set up in 1988 in just 50,000 sq ft on a decaying 15- acre industrial site owned by Unipart, its parent company, which wanted to see whether it could achieve Japanese levels of efficiency. Mr Burns explained that he had studied Japanese practices before deciding the way forward for Premier and adapted the systems to make them work better in the UK. Despite this, the eastern influence in the factory is noticeable. Japanese-inspired production engineering techniques are prevalent, with hi- tech measuring equipment and statistical charts eschewed in favour of robust 'go/no go' gauges. The use of production 'cells' is widespread. The factory is single status; everyone is salaried, and has the same start times, sick pay and holidays. Everyone, management included, wears a uniform. Output has grown from pounds 6m four years ago to pounds 36m today - and it is still in the original building, which has meant exceptional output per square foot.
Quality is 'built in', Mr Burns said, impressing the judges with the fact that only four of Premier's 200 employees have a formal quality role.
Yet Premier is not alone. Other automotive suppliers had achieved almost as much, said the judges.
Allevard Springs, a tiny Welsh-based concern, was described as 'inspirational' by the judges. Yet such was the ferocity of the competition that it failed to receive an engineering industry award.
Nevertheless it outranked all the other factories in its area to pick up the Best Welsh Factory prize. Terry Morgan, the managing director of Land- Rover, accepting the award for the Most Improved Factory, paid tribute to the number of his suppliers at the awards - which included Allevard. Another of his suppliers, the Coventry-based windscreen manufacturer SIV, had greatly impressed the judges with its operator-led preventative maintenance system.
In Mr Morgan's own factory, divisions between management and workers have been eroded. Errol Bell, an assembly track team leader, made a point of showing the judges the offices in which managers used to sit and the open-plan trackside desks where they sit now.
The majority of the winners had moved extensively towards team-based working. Not all had gone as far as Premier, Land-Rover and SIV, where single-status uniforms are standard, and workers are 'associates', but the judges regarded team working as having played a significant part in the success of winners as diverse as GPT's telephone system factory in Liverpool, the Kimberly-Clark paper towel plant in Clwyd and Thorn Lighting in Spennymoor, County Durham.
Harnessing the power of both teams and individuals through 'continuous improvement' programmes was also cited as an important factor in the factories' success.
'With every pair of hands comes a free brain,' Terry Smith, production director at Thorn Lighting, said.