Factory of the month: Speedibake

Posted on 8 Apr 2013

Tom Moore visits muffin maker Speedibake to find out how its products are more popular than ever and how engaging the workforce has slashed absence levels while driving performance improvements.

If you live in the UK there is a high probability you will have eaten a Speedibake product. Never heard of them? That’s because its millions of muffins, mince pies, doughnuts and frozen baguettes of garlic bread don’t have the Speedibake name on it, they are sold as own-brand products by supermarkets.

In a small industrial estate just outside Bradford, Speedibake produces 30,000 tonnes of bakery products per year. It is a major supplier to the UK retail service and the company has experienced a surge in demand over the last five years as muffins, a perfectly sized single serving treat, grow in popularity in our fast-paced world.

Cake’s answer to the chocolate bar

“Muffins have become an everyday item with people eating them at breakfast, tea breaks and as a dessert. But they were a novelty ten years ago,” says factory manager Tushar Damle. The UK has warmed to the muffin and volumes have risen sharply with Speedibake producing 200 million muffins in the last 12 months.

The factory runs for seven days a week, with staff working day and night shifts. Maximum productivity is essential, but a year ago, a multi-cultural workforce in which English wasn’t the first language for a lot of operators and high absence levels highlighted that there was scope for improvement and Speedibake embarked on an engagement programme aimed at allowing people to fulfil their potential. At a time when many companies wouldn’t have had the money or the will to improve facilities for staff Speedibake spent £1 million doing just that.

£500,000 went on new flooring throughout the factory, upgraded canteen facilities and a new IT workspace for staff. ‘Our people told us what improvements were most important to them. We listened and acted on the feedback. It showed that we will invest in our people,’ says Damle.

Speedibake has invested in management training to take advantage of the high skill backgrounds of many of its staff
Speedibake has invested in management training to take advantage of the high skill backgrounds of many of its staff

The factory uses high tech automation to produce mouth-watering products that all the supermarkets want – such as the automated rolling pins that shape the garlic bread. But despite having just one complaint per million units sold, the managerial team looked hard at the business to find room for improvement and found that traditional approaches has been missing a key element.

“We used to spend money, managerial time and engineers time looking at plant reliability, waste levels and labour control. But we didn’t engage the guys running the kit,” says Mick Swann, site engineering manager.

I think therefore I am

“There was an attitude that it is Speedibake’s equipment, you’re the managers we just do as we’re told. Now we’ve drilled down below management and released the people at the frontline of the operation to let ideas bubble up,” adds Swann. “We used to expect people to come in and pack muffins for 12 hours a day now we encourage people to come up with ideas.”

The improvements and the cost savings that have come from employee ideas are evidence that the culture has changed for the better. In the bread baking section of the factory, the company spent £1,200 on sensors to accurately measure the amount of dough mixed and the levels of oil that enters the mix to stop it sticking to the sides of the hopper.

The automated line now prevents an overload of dough entering the mix at one time as it slows down delivery and measures the exact amount of oil needed. Too much oil creates holes in the bread, creating wasted product. The idea came from a team of operatives running the line and Amir Shah, production chargehand, says that the reduction in oil will save £10,000 a year while increasing throughput.

Mr Swann believes that a key success criteria of the company ideas scheme is that suggestions are acted upon quickly so that the workforce doesn’t become disengaged. Speedibake has provided a series of training initiatives with 47 of its 350-strong workforce completing NVQs or entering apprenticeship training in the last two years. On top of the food manufacturing and business apprenticeships, the company has paid for 32 English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses for team members where English is not their first language.

Using a lean 'dashboard'
Using a lean 'dashboard'

Goodwill hunting

“Absence is a good gauge of morale,” says Damle and absence rates have dropped from a high of 10% three years ago to 5% today. It is a decrease that Damle puts down to the improved facilities, engagement and the developmental training on offer.

Speedibake used to have a problem with long-term absence, but it is now inundated with people offering to work outside their normal hours. “Goodwill is a result of all of this,” comments Neil White, labour manager. “Our garlic slices line shut down for three weeks as part of a major overhaul so we have had to build our stock up by running extra shifts. We’ve have no problem getting people to volunteer to work Saturdays and Sunday nights.”

The muffin maker also introduced human resource changes, reducing the trigger point that results in a formal discussion from three to two periods of absence. Staff also have to call the duty manager on shift to inform them of an absence as well as leave a message on an answerphone.

“It’s not to punish people but get to the root cause of the absence,” says Damle. “If people are off work we want to make sure they are looked after socially and financially. Equally, where people are able to work then we want to make sure we are planning for that too.” A major drop in the number of accidents on site, from 37 in 2009 to five in 2012, has also contributed to improved attendance. “Long term absence was quite high,” says Mr White. “There hasn’t only been a drop in the number of accidents but the severity of accidents too, as we even register small cuts which may just need a plaster.”

The number of people involved in spotting health and safety risks has doubled in the last year and the company opened up its safety meetings so much so that it has had to order more chairs for its meeting room. Now the operators have the ear of management their voices are becoming more and more valuable and the skills they are picking up provide long-term sustainability for the business.

Cultural mixing pot

Speedibake’s workforce has traditionally included a number of agency staff, but Damle admits that there has been a “conscious effort to recruit more permanent members of staff,” in order to support flexibility with the way products are structured.

“This way we can keep trained staff in the business,” he says. “It costs more up front but we will get the returns by making better products. If we want a long-term fix in manufacturing we need a long-term fix in terms of people.”

Immigration has brought with it a number of skills sets that you wouldn’t usually expect to see on the shop floor of a food manufacturer. Attractive UK salaries, paid in sterling, have meant that there are doctors and people with aeronautical qualifications that have taken on jobs in the product packing areas of the factory.

Speedibake has used this to its advantage by promoting skilled staff quickly and preparing for the next generation of managers. But given the number of migrant workers, could the skills disappear back to other countries and stunt the success of Speedibake? “We’ve only had that scenario on a few occasions,” says Damle. “It depends on how you treat people. If you develop their skills they see an opportunity and want to stay.”

There is a great camaraderie throughout the site and the inclusive nature has brought more success in attracting female workers than many manufacturers. From having just 10 women on site five years ago, the company is investing £50,000 in female worker facilities for the in excess of 50 they have now.

The Bradford area has picked up a bad reputation over the years, enhanced by programmes such as Make Bradford British on Channel 4, which stereotyped the town as a tinderbox of racial tension. In reality, there is now a definite buzz about town with fourth division Bradford City football club completing the fairy tale by playing in their first cup final since 1911, beating Premier League teams Wigan, Arsenal and Aston Villa to get there.

The town is an architecture student’s dream, with the area built upon the riches of its world-renowned textile industry. The Wool Exchange in Bradford is symbolic of the change in the local and national economy. Built as a wool-trading centre in the 19th century today it contains a small shopping centre.

Muffin maker Speedibake, located next to a textiles factory just outside the city centre, shows that there is still manufacturing life left in the area. It supplies a new lifestyle that lives fast but wants healthier, fresher and more environmentally friendly food that has a long shelf-life.

“The last few years have been about cleaner ingredient declarations,” says Damle. “Major retailers want household ingredients in their product, which has been a challenge as shelf-life had been king. The demand for reach the supermarket. They are then either baked on site or defrosted. Business has been growing, particularly in products which are sold frozen like its garlic bread. “People have been switching more to frozen products during the recession,” explains Damle.

Stick by your Standards!

There have also been challenges around reducing salt and saturated fats while maintaining taste and costs. The next wave of initiatives focuses on allergens and replacing the vast quantities of palm oil used in 10% of all supermarket products, with sustainable alternatives as awareness of resource security and the environmental implications of overuse of palm oil grows.

With supermarkets adopting their own codes of practice and unannounced audits on suppliers, there is competition to achieve goals quickly and maintain standards. Despite recent media question marks over the quality of supermarket audits, John Simtaji, quality manager, says that they are very stringent and that “individual codes of practice have driven standards higher as manufacturers have to be audit ready at all times. Previously there was only one test a year by the BRC, which represented all supermarkets.“

“Manufacturers should be doing the right things every hour of every day not just when an audit is coming,” says Damle. The managerial team chose to attend a seminar on certified sustainable palm oils due to the destruction caused to tropical rainforest by palm oil plantations. Since oil palms need a rainforest climate – constantly high humidity and temperatures – and a lot of land, plantations are often established at the expense of rainforests.