A virtuous circle

Posted on 18 Apr 2008 by The Manufacturer

Cultural change and continuous improvement techniques are having a very positive impact at print and mail company Paragon, as Steve Pollard explained to Anne Edwards

As part of Paragon Group – the pan-European document solution, print management, identification products and added-value supplier – Sunderland-based Paragon turns over £22 million from its print and mail solutions.

The APACS accredited security printers’ 120 staff work 24 hours a day, five days a week, producing paper goods with a lead time of three to four weeks, such as blank bank statements for all the major banks, cheques and insurance documents. Other customers include the Government and utilities suppliers, automotive and retail clients, plus the post and transportation sector, which includes business critical labels and operational items for DHL and Parceline. Paragon also has the capability to print short-run items with an average turn-around of less than two days.

The company already holds ISO 9001 and 27001, and, by March 2008 will add standards 14001 and 18001. It also boasts ‘fairly advanced’ environmental credentials, offering its pressure-seal products on recycled paper, and is increasing recycling rates for bailed paper and cardboard throughout the plant. The amount of alcohol used in its printing processes is being reduced, together with the introduction of filtration systems to the printing presses so that their fluids last longer.

With a history of more than 100 years on the same site, Paragon was facing some significant challenges when its former warehouse manager Steve Pollard became operations manager in November 2005. “There were improvement measures in place but our plant was facing challenges that needed cultural change to help make the necessary improvements,” said Pollard. His team identified quality, cost and on-time delivery as the first main improvement areas, and had to push hard to change traditional practices that had been popular for 30 years or more with longstanding members of the company’s workforce.

Acknowledging that “there’s lots of competition, including much from eastern Europe”, Pollard noted that Paragon was – and remains – very competitive on basic products that don’t involve the all-important cost element of labour. “It’s not the end of the world if Poland has a printing press,” he said, reflecting the importance the company now places on added value services, continuous improvement and training.

Pollard’s approach has been a non-traditional one for the industry: training. It initially met with some resistance but is now fully supported by heavy investment to the extent that every person on the shopfloor is nearing the end of NVQ level 2 in business improvement techniques. “The training provider comes here and has spent at least a week with each person in the past 12 months. Our fundamental approach is one of continuous improvement, focusing on 5S and standard operational procedures, with a lot of focus on reducing change-over times,” he said, adding that this approach has worked well and is now being introduced to other areas of the business.

The shopfloor shift managers are also developing their own management practices. These will be enhanced with “probably some bespoke training to help to sustain, identify and drive further improvements”, which Pollard considers vital. “It’s easy to bring someone in to do training but it’s hard to sustain improvements and increase the ‘standard’ of expectation – this is a management responsibility: buy-in from the top is very important.” These needs are now being addressed with the help of the findings from a two-day snapshot survey by the British Printing Industries Federation’s Vision In Print consultancy service.

Paragon has also introduced a planned preventative maintenance program, adding to this investment more recently with the introduction of a total preventative maintenance (TPM) team. “This has helped enormously with the reliability of our equipment,” said Pollard, citing an increase in on-time delivery to 94 to 95 per cent and mentioning that there’s room for further progress. “Previously we didn’t stop machinery, but having invested in a computer system to help control maintenance, there’s now a ‘weekly operator service’ of a four to eight hour detailed check on each machine. The operator does the bulk of the checks and calls on an in-house maintenance expert where necessary.”

Interestingly, positions in the TPM team roles were advertised internally at no extra pay and one-third of the shopfloor applied. The successful applicants are now trained in the basics of electrical and mechanical engineering.

In Pollard’s three years as operations manager, the average run length has reduced by 37 per cent, further highlighting the need to reduce changeover times, which have come down by 28 per cent in those three years.

Last year Pollard reviewed Paragon’s quality, cost and on-time delivery achievements, making direct comparisons with the previous year, which showed improvements all around, extolling the merits of a virtuous circle. “It was nice to be able to say thank you and publicly recognise and praise the workforce,” he said, emphasising the need for staff to be behind their employer’s practices. “We’ll never change individual mindsets but there’s now more of a buzz at the plant and this is so important if a company is going to be successful.

“Making cultural change is horrendously difficult – it is slow and it needs to be reviewed monthly, and you’ll question if it’s worth it. But it can be done; it’s very hard but all the pushing is worth it.