Techniques that are factory fresh

Malcolm Wheatley looks at the winners of a competition for progressive manufacturers

Van den Bergh's margarine plant in Purfleet, Essex is the 1996 Management Today Factory of the Year.

The largest margarine factory in the world, according to factory manager Neil Hufton, it produces 250,000 tons of margarine a year, including brands such as Flora, Stork, I Can't Believe it's Not Butter and Blue Band. In addition to impressing the judges with an outstanding manufacturing performance, the factory won plaudits for a wide variety of improvement initiatives.

The annual award, presented at London's Savoy Hotel last week, is organised in association with Cranfield School of Management. Previous winners have ranged from world-class factories owned by the likes of Kodak, ICL and Unipart, to last year's winner the Bonas Machine Company, a textile equipment manufacturer in Gateshead.

The competition is based on computer analysis of a 120-question entry form that probes the characteristics of each entrant's manufacturing performance. These include lead times and change-over performance, cost structures, inventory management, innovation and employee performance.

A team of judges then audits shortlisted factories to assess less quantifiable characteristics, such as their workplace and management culture, and the link between the factory's manufacturing strategy and the overall business strategy.

Such visits allow factories to showcase their core strenghts - an opportunity fully seized by this year's winning engineering industry plant, Pilkington Optronics of St Asaph, North Wales. The factory takes a startling number of technologies to their limit, operating at the boundary of what is technically possible. In the world of military programmes it is usually the case that sole suppliers, particularly foreign ones, are an anathema. Despite this, the factory is the single sole supplier of pilot's "head up" instrument displays for the US F16 fighter programme. "No one else can do what we do," says Denis Welch, the general manager.

Another of this year's impressive factories is Walkers Bradgate Bakery, a pre-prepared sandwich plant in Leicester that won the household products category.

Sandwich making on this scale, for customers such as Tesco, is deceptively complex: widely diverging components (no two lettuce leaves or tomato slices are exactly the same) need to be assembled, by hand, under conditions of impeccable hygiene. Once manufactured, the finished product has a limited shelf life and needs to be on supermarket shelves around the country by 8am the following day.

The award once again highlights characteristics shared by world-class factories. Thanks to the detailed benchmarking information produced by the assessment procedure, it is possible to pinpoint these with precision. Occasionally, even the judges have been surprised. In a report published earlier this year aimed at distilling some of these lessons, the judges confess that the chapter on human resource issues was far more important and much longer than had originally been anticipated when they started work on the awards.

The report suggests that companies which have "good" factory cultures are likely to benefit from low absenteeism rates, long lengths of service and low labour turnover. They also demonstrate a high investment in training, a relatively low number of personnel engaged in non-value added processes, and a clear focus on team working.

The report also uncovered low rates of labour turnover in winning sites. Average lengths of service were unexpectedly high, varying from seven years for electronics factories to 10.8 years for process industry factories.

Management's own role in the factory was important. There was a clear correlation between a factory's management culture and the degree of excellence that the factory exhibited - and virtually every winning factory had taken steps towards the establishment of an "open" management culture.

A collegiate style of management seems to correlate far more closely with manufacturing excellence than a style based on fear, divide-and-conquer leadership, and autocracy.

Just as intriguing was the observation that factory size matters more than might be thought.

Smaller units tend to operate more efficiently, and are more effective at implementing improvement initiatives. Factories that are part of a larger group, it was felt, would do well to adopt a "small business" mentality - a transformation in corporate culture that needs to be directed from the top.

q 'The Making of Britain's Best Factories' is available from Business Intelligence, Forum House, 1 Graham Road, London SW19 3SW (0181 544 1830).

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
News
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
people
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
News
i100
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Ashdown Group: Graduate Application Support Analyst

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Reach Volunteering: External Finance Trustee Needed!

Voluntary post, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Would you ...

Christine McCleave: FP&A Analyst

£36,000 - £40,000: Christine McCleave: Are you looking for a new opportunity a...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £40,000

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot