A passion for continuous improvement has been the foundation stone of Icon Polymer says Mick Tolliday, perations director. Louise Hoffman reports
Rubber fabrication specialist Icon Polymer Group has a history thick with profitable and complementary acquisitions. Founded in 1999, the company began a consolidation process of the extremely fragmented market in which it operates. In 2000, it made its initial acquisition – William Warne of Barking in London, which was a business that had been operating since 1843. The following year, Northern Rubber, founded in 1873, was acquired and both companies were integrated into the Retford based facility. Then in December 2004 Silvertown UK, based in Burton upon Trent, was purchased. “There followed a complex integration process of the two businesses – the one in Retford and the one in Burton upon Trent,” began operations director Mick Tolliday. “The majority of product ranges were relocated from Burton to the Retford facility, while a dedicated facility was opened in Burton for the Silentbloc branded product range. The Burton site is a much smaller site compared to its former old rambling site.” How did the Retford site cope with such a rapid expansion? “Well, we performed a significant amount of 5S activity, disposed of several non-core product lines and discontinued some space-hungry, low-margin products. As a result we only integrated the products that helped us build our core markets – aerospace and defence and transport,” Tolliday explained. Indeed, Tolliday believes that lean methodologies have been central to the success of the company, and have certainly been an essential tool to Icon’s buy and build strategy. “Through an acquisition one always gains some product ranges that are not performing adequately and yet with the right management can become major value creators. It comes down to understanding all the inefficiencies attached to the product,” he said. “And the devil really is in the detail. You have to start delving down, understanding what the processes are and how processes are built up. “There’s more to lean than a set of tools and a tool box. All the tools are there to be used, but you have to coach people so that they can understand [how to use them].” The firm studied one piece flow to reduce inventory levels, used root cause analysis to isolate inefficiencies, including levels of scrap and then, having built up a standard operational procedure, it adopted kaizen and continuous improvement. “Just because it’s always been done that way doesn’t mean to say it always has to be done that way,” Tolliday remarked. This is where the organisation’s culture really becomes evident. Team working and communication are at the top of Icon’s lean agenda, with every member of staff involved. “We have to drive home the idea that we cannot be satisfied with what we’ve got – drive that through so everyone has got that same understanding and want to succeed… The more we can get people to have attention to detail, and a passion for turning things into standards so we can build from them, the stronger we become. “We, as managers, must be passionate about continuous improvement. If we don’t lead from the front, they’re never going to pull from the back, are they? Unless you have leadership from the front then it’s never going to happen. Ever.” And, with over 90 per cent of staff holding an NVQ level one or two, it is clear that the Icon workforce is on side. “We’ve had over 80 per cent involved with continuous improvement activities. Could you really say 80 per cent? I would say 100 per cent. Everyone has done something to make it better, no matter how small. If it was as easy as saying ‘that’s the one thing we have changed’ or ‘that’s the one thing that’s made a difference’ then everyone would be doing it. It’s not one thing, it’s not 10 things – it must be a thousand things we have changed. But without the desire to do it [it would never have happened],” Tolliday enthused. Taking a look at the wider picture, it is clear the Icon approach has not only resulted in internal operational and cultural successes, but has also translated into impressive market achievements. Following 18 months of growth, leading to its current turnover of just under £20 million, the firm has gone from strength to strength. It now boasts TS16949 (automotive), AS9100 (aerospace application) and, most recently, GMRT2450 (rail) standard approval, as well as approvals from individual customers such as Rolls-Royce, Airbus and Honeywell. But one of its main claims to fame is undoubtedly its export deal with China: “Can you believe we sell vacuum cleaner belts to the Far East?” asked Tolliday. “We sell vacuum cleaner belts to the Far East because they’re not able to make them effectively. And that’s all down to compound design and process capability. The way we mix the compound, the design of the compound, the testing facilities – we really go to town on all of this. “If you want a lot of something then that’s fine, but if you want something more bespoke, that’s not really what [China] is geared up for at the moment. But clearly they will be at some point in time so we have to recognise that and make sure we keep in front.” Customers continue to be at the forefront of Icon Polymer’s operations going ahead into the future. “The thing we are really working on now is getting closer and closer to customers. We are passionate about our business and we’re passionate about our customers’ businesses,” said Tolliday. The firm is now focusing closely on enhancing its service offering, looking especially for product crossovers which may open up opportunities for package deals. “It’s about getting customers to understand the capabilities of both of our sites rather than just the one product they have been traditionally buying from us, and we do find that once they start looking at what we are able to offer, it is often surprising to them just how much we can do,” Tolliday explained. “It’s better for us too, because if we can start selling more to an existing customer, it’s a lot easier than finding new customers.” A final word of advice for those embarking on business improvement? “It’s all about the Deming PDCA Cycle – making sure you close the loop. Too many people start these programmes, plan to do something and then do it, then plan to do something else. Well, how do you close the loop? Instead of doing half a job, check that what you did was what you planned, and then act on the results, and then re-plan. So you’re going all the way around. You can’t leave things open else how do you know if you’ve improved or not?” he concluded.