Despite increased complexity across its supply chain and production processes, Accolade Wines has improved productivity per employee year-on-year for the past decade.
How? By leveraging the power of technology to ensure its workers are empowered to discover new solutions and fully understand the business’ market position.
The wine industry annually contributes almost £10bn to the UK economy through duty, VAT, corporation and income tax, and represents a cork-popping £20bn in economic activity overall.
The UK wine market is the world’s sixth largest and is the second largest trader by volume (behind Germany) and by value (behind the US).
Some 600 million bottles of wine are bottled in the UK every year*, a fair proportion of which originate out of Accolade Park – located in the Bristol suburb of Avonmouth.
There were several reasons why I was so eager to make the trip. At an impressive 82,000 sqm, Accolade Park is Europe’s largest wine warehouse and distribution centre, and in less than a decade has become renowned for setting new standards in wine production and packaging.
Accolade Wines is also a past winner of not one, but two The Manufacturer MX Awards – for ‘World Class Manufacturing’ and ‘Leadership & Strategy’ – and is shortlisted in no less than six categories this year.
And, yes, truth be told, as one of the 31 million people in the UK who regularly opens a bottle of wine to accompany dinner, I was hoping for at least a glass or two before heading home!
This article first appeared in the November issue of The Manufacturer magazine. To subscribe, please click here.
UPDATE: Accolade Wines’ Accolade Park has been crowned the ‘Manufacturer of the Year 2018’!
Alongside winning the coveted title, Accolade Wines also picked up two other categories at The Manufacturer MX Awards 2018 – ‘Achieving Customer Value’, and ‘Sustainable Manufacturing’.
The production floor is a breath-taking orchestra of high-speed filling lines with seemingly endless ranks of bottles being inverted, rinsed, flipped the right way up, filled, capped, labelled and boxed. The six lines (split equally between glass bottles and bag-in box) incorporate a dazzling array of automation, from de-palletisers and optical scanners, to OEE monitoring and collaborative robots (or ‘cobots’).
From reading that, you might get the impression that Accolade’s primary focus is on technology, but you would be entirely wrong. You need only spend five minutes with Richard Lloyd, the company’s general manager for European operations and supply chain to understand that the secret to Accolade’s continued success is its unwavering commitment to its employees.
Richard joined Accolade Wines a decade ago to set up and design Accolade Park and is steadfast in his belief that the path to success doesn’t lie in having 10 outstanding managers to run the site, but in engaging every one of the 450-strong workforce who work it.
“I can say with absolutely honesty that we have an excellent culture here. When we built Accolade Park 10 years ago, every single person had to reapply for their role, even though we had a facility located less than 12 miles away,” he explained.
“Why did we do that? Because we wanted to hire people based 50% on their technical capability and 50% on their behavioural and leadership style. Over the past decade, for example, our most successful managers have been the ones capable of leading from the front and drawing the talent out of their teams.”
Freedom to think
Accolade’s aim is to empower every one of its employees with the freedom to own their process, to question the norm and suggest improvements to arrive at the optimum way of working, and then have the autonomy to deliver that by putting it into practice.
That’s all very well in theory, but how does such an ambitious target manifest itself day-to-day? Paradoxically, Accolade has achieved freedom by establishing very prescribed, rigorous structures to support its way of working.
“From the outset, we have absolute clarity on who has the responsibility and accountability for decision-making across various time-periods and at different levels of authority,” Richard added.
“Decision-making on an hourly basis is done by the team working on the line and their leader. Decision-making on a six-hourly review is where a manager gets involved for the first time. A departmental manager won’t get involved until a 24-hour review, which takes place every morning.
“Myself, I won’t get involved unless it’s on a monthly time-bucket. Though, obviously, we do have escalation processes within our review and direction setting in the event of an exception or urgent issue.”
The site’s continuous improvement manager, Alison Beard-Gunter, added that having the correct structure, people, experience and processes in place also helps create the headspace and time to focus on improvement.
“Adding technology, or more specifically the data being collected, on top of that foundation allows our teams to make smarter, more timely decisions and Accolade becomes more agile and responsive to market changes as a result,” Alison explained.
Humans before technology
The world is never far from a doom-laden article wringing its hands over the rampant job losses technology will likely cause. Richard has a far more positive perspective.
“Our people-focused approach correlates with the Industry 4.0, big data picture which has materialised of late. Some people seem to think they clash, that technology signals a death knell for the industrial workforce. We see it as absolutely complimentary in terms of giving workers the right insights at the right time in the easiest and most accessible way so that they can take the most appropriate action.”
Alison is equally enthusiastic about the possibilities technology creates, “It allows people to move from what I call ‘transactional’ i.e. laborious and mundane tasks, to focus on ‘transformative’, i.e. more fulfilling, tasks.
“Value doesn’t lie in collating information and logging it in a system, it lies in using the insights generated from analysing and reviewing that data.”
This shift from transactional to transformational can be similarly seen in Accolade’s attitude towards hardware. The business has an established track record of introducing automation which has enabled the workforce to undertake more fulfilling tasks.
Off-loading pallets, for example, is a relatively low-skilled, physical task. Automating that end-of-line process saw workers upskilled and redeployed in more value-added roles on a new production line.
“It ticked every box,” explained Alison. “The business retained experienced staff, individuals gained new skills, the workforce exhibited greater job satisfaction and engagement, all while introducing something that drove up efficiency and productivity.”
Management’s open and inclusive approach to technology has created a workforce that not only accepts new solutions but is hungry for them and actively seeks them out.
“Our employees are very inquisitive and that’s something we’ve worked hard to cultivate,” Richard said. “Every element of our profitability is shared with our employees; we have a rigorous communication programme so that they understand the trading of our business and the competitive industry that we operate in.
“By fully appreciating every facet of Accolade’s environment, our workers are far more open to embracing advancements in technology. Therefore, they understand completely that we must have automation, we have to become more productive year-on-year per labour hour.”
Given Accolade’s progressive approach to technology, I was surprised to see a large amount of visual management boards, flipchart pads and whiteboards in use across the entire site. I asked Alison whether the business had any plans to replace the paper and markers with tablets.
“There’s a lot of research that shows that doing something by hand makes you actively engage with what you’re doing. We want people to think about what they’re putting on the boards, what they’re discussing during team huddles and other such interactions.
“We don’t want people sat apart from each just looking at things on a screen. No matter how good the information is, we still want people to stand and talk things through face-to-face and interrogate the data.”
So, what does the future hold for Accolade Wines?
“I’ve got no idea!” said Richard. “It won’t be the result of mine or Alison’s idea of what the next big thing is or what’s going to take us to the next level; it’ll be the collective power of 450 minds.
“However, the way that we will continue to differentiate ourselves is by optimising technology better than anyone else and bringing the best out of our people.”
*All figures courtesy of The Wine and Spirit Association.