Through the looking glass

Posted on 18 Aug 2008 by The Manufacturer

Identifying and investing in the fundamentals is key to continuous improvement as Saint-Gobain Glass UK MD Dr Alan McLenaghan explains to Louise Hoffman

The last time we spoke with Dr Alan McLenaghan, managing director of Saint-Gobain Glass UK (SGGUK), the company’s Eggborough manufacturing site was still bubbling with excitement having won the highly coveted Cranfield Factory of the Year award for 2005.

Catching up now, in 2008, it becomes immediately obvious that SGGUK in no way rested on its laurels following the success; instead it put that winning energy to good use.

“We looked at many companies that did not win the Best Factory award and thought, actually, they are better than us!” said McLenaghan. “Sometimes you compare yourself internally to other plants and think you’re great, but then you see other people’s performance and think, wow, we can do so much better.”

In this way, SGGUK used the feedback from the Best Factory awards, and indeed The Manufacturer awards, to improve its operations yet further. “It took until the end of 2006 for all the plans to begin to come to fruition, and 2007, as a result, saw us deliver our best year ever on all KPIs,” he explained.

SGGUK’s recent improvement strategies have come as a result of a different type of investment. “Between 2005 and 2007, and for the next three years, we don’t see a lot of capital investment,” said McLenaghan. Instead, the company has focused its attention on four key areas: process capability upgrading, energy efficiency, launching of new products and, perhaps most importantly, the development of its people.

Energy saving is, of course, high on the manufacturing agenda these days. But Saint- Gobain has viewed it as of paramount concern for several years, and is now way ahead of Government legislation. Its recycling programmes have gone from strength to strength – recycled glass now forms 30 per cent of SGGUK’s raw material feedstock, and over 300,000 tonnes of glass are being recycled across Europe by the wider group each year. By buying back its customers’ unwanted or broken glass, Saint-Gobain Glass UK is able to transport it to the plant using the same vehicle that delivered the new glass, thus avoiding excess pollution. In fact, this system saved over one million road haulage miles last year alone by reducing raw material deliveries.

“I call it the Holy Grail of glass-making – if you don’t need as much raw material, you consume less energy. If you consume less energy, you emit less CO2. A large proportion of the raw material is now coming from your customer, so you’re paying your customer to sell you back their broken glass, and it really works as a nice symbiotic relationship,” McLenaghan explained.

Energy saving is also central to SGGUK’s products. Its Planitherm low-emissivity glass has a series of microscopically thin and transparent metallic layers of coating, which reflect heat back into the room, reducing the need for internal heating. Conversely, the Cool-Lite product range is able to reduce the amount of solar heat entering a room so that air conditioning use can be lessened. And of course, dual effects can be achieved by combining more than one of the products in a double glazed unit.

“The energy consumed to make the glass is now more than compensated for in the energy saving the glass achieves once it is installed,” said McLenaghan.

SGGUK’s production process improvements have involved a certain amount of word-eating for Dr McLenaghan, who has taken a second look at the world class methodologies he had previously described as “overcomplicating things”. The Eggborough site now implements lean, six sigma and 6S, with all staff having been trained in the concepts of the latter. Indeed, McLenaghan’s own PA is now a leading 6S champion, and has “revolutionised” her office.

Saint-Gobain UK has also proudly led the group in a new world class initiative it humorously calls ‘World Glass Manufacturing’, for which McLenaghan is responsible. The initiative provides a framework to align the company’s global operations and continuous improvement programmes through standardised methodology. “I’m still not what you might call a disciple, but I have to take my hat off to the Dan Joneses of the world – if you practice these principles, you will see value,” he admitted.

Why did he not stick to his cynical guns? “Because this isn’t a one-man show – it’s a team. And many of our people see value in these methodologies – they help to push change.”

The people who make up SGGUK have been and continue to be a pivotal factor in the company’s improvement, as McLenaghan explained: “The results of last year’s employee opinion survey dictated that we focus in a different way in what we were doing. Whether that be in how people were being treated by their managers, the canteen facilities, how the changing rooms looked, temperature control in the building – all of those kinds of things have been addressed as a result of what people told us could be better. And it’s nice to see from our 2008 survey feedback that we have pushed all those factors in the right direction – our people are saying that what we are doing is working for them.”

The statistics are certainly testament to the company’s efforts – the level of commitment of employees has risen from 47 per cent to 60 per cent in the space of 18 months, “and it’s an ongoing process. We’ve got to keep looking to see why those less committed people are falling away. Will we make all of the people happy all of the time? No! Does that stop us from trying? No! At least we are showing our people that we do want to listen to what they’re saying, and I think if we can keep doing that then that in itself is a new type of continuous improvement or investment for us.”

The proof, as the saying goes, is always in the pudding, and SGGUK is able to boast an extremely low staff turnover rate. Vacancies are rare, and when one does come up, it is usually filled through a recommendation from a “proud” employee of the company.

“Absence rates are also very low – we’ve reached a low of less than 1.5 per cent,” said McLenaghan. “I don’t think you get to that unless people care about a company. I’m a real believer that if you’re sick, you’re sick! But when you’re not quite feeling 100 per cent, that’s where the difference lies. If you believe in the company and believe in what you’re doing, you’ll make that little extra bit of effort to be there.”

When the company recruits, it recruits attitude above skills, since skills can easily be gained through training. It uses MKT2, which is a computer-based simulation system allowing the user to experience the ‘what if’. S/he can experiment with changing elements of the glass-making process to see what would happen without affecting the real-life process, thus building knowledge and improving understanding using a hands-on approach. Each employee was shown to be receiving a full hour of training in every 12-hour shift, as they frequently logged into MKT2 in the quieter moments between tasks.

A core-leadership programme has also been introduced following the realisation that “we think we’re doing the right thing when we train people technically, and then we put them into positions where they know technically what to do, but they don’t know how to manage people. This programme has resulted in greater confidence in our managers by their people and prompted the tag line ‘trained and trusted managers leading trained and trusted staff’.”

And so the investment programme continues. “It was great to win the Factory of the Year award, but only two groups of people have a true right to determine that accolade: those are our customers and our employees. Since 2006, we have aimed to tackle this fundamental and make sure these two groups are constantly happy,” said McLenaghan. “No longer is it all about buying assets and acquiring equipment. It is about refining and fine tuning the tiny details that differentiate our business,” he concluded.