Edward Machin speaks to Tamar Food’s Anil Ahir about his company’s recent growth — with lean manufacturing, considerable investment in automation and company-wide training programmes all playing their part.
Increasing turnover while operating in a sector only now emerging from a brutal recession: an unlikely story? Not so for Tamar Foods, a subsidiary of Cornwall-based Samworth Brothers, which has realised precisely such success.
Indeed, the producer of own-label pastry products including pies, sausage rolls and hot, cold and crimped pasties for the UK’s largest food retailers has seen the accolades rolling in of late. Recognised as the UK’s leading manufacturer of prepared foods at the Food Manufacturing Excellence Awards 2010, the industry’s equivalent of the Oscars, it also scooped the Best Household and General Products Plant Award at Cranfield University’s Best Factory Awards in September, among others.
“The growth Tamar has experienced over the last three year means that we’ve had to create more capacity on the site, be that through technological advancements such as automation or increasing the utilisation of the bakery over a 24/7 basis,” says Anil Ahir, the company’s operations director. Behind this, though, the business has been developing and supporting core skills around bakery, pastry knowledge, meat technology and procurement — the two very much go hand-in-glove.
Given that Tamar’s business plans revolve around longterm, sustainable growth, “We strive to be competitive not only in terms of low-cost manufacturing, but by ensuring that our customers are offered the widest range of product flexibility — be it in terms of packaging design, shape or format, to name three,” says Ahir. And with investment in a range of robotic automation tools last year, Tamar now offers improved performance that simply would not have been possible with human interface. “So, while we have focused on the business development side of things, the company has simultaneously taken the opportunity to upskill our people in this new technology,” he explains.
“Historically the skill base might have been lower down the technology food chain; now, a range of highly-focused training programmes mean that our staff are competent to operate the gamut of high-technology packing machinery.
Coupled with the benefits to the business, therefore, we are developing employees’ careers and further reinforcing job security.”
With labour retention touching a shade under 90%, it seems to be working, too.
Ahir explains how such enviable levels of staff satisfaction play out in practice: “We spend a considerable amount of management time ensuring that not only are communication channels clear and transparent, but that our business objectives are communicated at every team level.” Tamar has, he says, a disarmingly simple, non-hierarchical, management structure which has come into being during the last twenty four months. This restructuring programme has seen healthy internal promotion numbers, as well as creating defined lines of accountability, authority and responsibility. “From a macro point of view, the senior directors deliver a quarterly brief to all staff, whereby we shut the bakery for a few hours and communicate our business plan, performance year to date and answer any and all questions from the floor.
More than anything, it’s a practical example of how, even at a senior level, we have to be both approachable and seen to be walking and talking the organisation’s objectives.”
One such objective has, and continues to be, a focus on company-wide training. Ahir takes up the story: “Tamar’s approach to the NVQ in Business Improvement Techniques was to undertake a gap analysis of our training and skills, which clearly identified the need to bring in external support.
We engaged with a local education provider, part of Cornwall College, to establish a Tamar-specific programme of introducing those Lean tools applicable to our business environment. With lectures and workshops conducted onsite, the ‘Tamarised’ curriculum meant that all work undertaken concerned real, ‘live’ issues the people would encounter during their day-today work.” Tamar identified, for example, that it was experiencing weight control issues on a particular depositor — and sought to identify the variability’s root cause. As well as maintenance issues that arose when stripping down the technology, “Each operator was setting the line up differently,” says Ahir, “so we didn’t have clear and precise operating procedures. One of the NVQ teams took it upon themselves to identify what levels of variability we were getting; after having undertaken a Fishbone analysis on its root causes, they presented their solutions to the senior team and board of directors.
Some of that meant re-educating and re-teaching; some was rewriting procedures; and some of it actually meant capital expenditure and upgrading technology that was no longer fit for purpose. Most importantly, the process was real-time, and for the NVQ team to be leading such an endeavour created a wave of momentum which was felt throughout the company.” This is but one instance of how Tamar’s recent success is founded on its adoption of an integrated, businesswide culture of lean manufacturing.
By establishing what Ahir calls ‘small, multi-functional, action teams’, local units in local work patterns resolve local issues. “At its essence, we’ve been able to pull together these teams and identify their bottlenecks, whether that be productivity, quality or waste reduction,” he says. “By giving them both time and training, including the NVQ, staff enjoy a comprehensive knowledge of Lean tools: 5S, Fishbone and root cause analysis, among many others. With a toolbox bulging with such knowledge, our people are able to pick the most appropriate tools to combat particular problems they may encounter in each local area.”
According to Ahir, such an approach means that staff truly own their solutions: whatever they recommend will translate over a 24/7 operation, having taken responsibility for communicating the solution to their peers. “Take the example of improving output on a manufacturing line,” he says. “The action team will take ownership of understanding its current state, thereafter taking the required Lean principles to the area.
Having analysed and produced a critique of the issue, and achieved an acceptable target, the team will communicate and train it out across the other shift patterns.” With a significant reduction in changeover times as a result, lost time is rapidly being eliminated across Tamar’s operations.
While Ahir says that having the right tools at the right time and right place can be directly traced to the company’s Lean culture, the work is far from done. “Can we go further? Absolutely! We’re very much at the tip of the iceberg; the plan is to (i) introduce action teams around the clock and (ii) identify more root/cause/analysis work across the floor, the result being that an ever increasing number of staff become involved in the drive towards continuous improvement. In fact, that’s our primary motivation this year: getting more people involved in making our business fitter for the future.” “People often ask me what Tamar’s secret ingredient is and, for me, it remains the commitment and passion of our people — it’s a simple as that. Our people — and their passion, skill and dedication in meeting flexible customer demand. The growth success over the last three year can be directly traced, in one form or another, to staff from all parts of our company, which makes our success taste all the sweeter!”