Waste busters: Kimberly-Clark

Posted on 31 Aug 2012

Tom Moore discusses how Kimberly-Clark’s Huggies site in Barton-upon-Humber has slashed waste levels with plant manager Graham Tongue.

On arriving at Kimberly-Clark’s site, it would be easy to mistake it for a clean HQ where nothing is made and people sit at ordered desks without getting their hands dirty. There’s no noise, no smoke, no steam – yet the volume of Huggies nappies produced at the site is astonishing. Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the facility continues to dispel the myth that high volume production means waste.

The site is the polar opposite to the smokestack image associated with the heavy mining industry that existed in the local area. The McLaren Formula 1 team have a widespread reputation for production floors you could eat your dinner off but Kimberly-Clark shows that you don’t have to be making flash sports cars to be clean and green.

Kimberly-Clark’s £160m investment in the 174 acre site at Barton-upon-Humber in 1992 represented its biggest single outlay in a manufacturing facility. Plant manager Graham Tongue explains: “This was Kimberly-Clark’s first nappy-making site in Europe, with all operations based in North America before this. Although there was competition, the European market for disposable nappies was underpenetrated.”

Mr Tongue goes on to say: “Kimberly-Clark was not exporting into Europe at the time so the inauguration of Barton-upon-Humber was part of a full-brand product launch. We envisaged growth in new users of disposable nappies, had a strong global brand in Huggies and a great product, which has shown through our growth since then.”

Safety first

The UK has often benefitted from being the first step across ‘the pond’. The cultural similarities and the historical closeness between the USA and Britain make a good starting point for US brands wanting to expand into Europe.

Kimberly-Clark’s investment didn’t stop at building the Barton-upon-Humber site. Today the site employs over 480 people, attracting over 6,000 applicants during a mass recruitment drive in 1992. Those recruited were sent to existing Huggies sites in America for three months to learn the company values. This oft-used sentence can sound fluffy due to its constant regurgitation, but the hefty costs associated with sending hundreds of people to the USA suggests otherwise.

Stumping up the cash to constantly add to the capability of the workforce has remained a core part of the site’s strategy ever since. Over the last two years, the focus on investing in people has earned the facility 7% more business and led to a 24% reduction in manufacturing costs. What’s more, the plant has not had a lost time injury since 2007 and has delivered over two million safe hours.

Tongue makes it immediately clear that these improvements haven’t come from throwing lavish sums of money around and hoping that new equipment makes the improvements. The remarkable improvements at the Huggies factory in Barton-upon-Humber did not coincide with a rise in capital expenditure but with skills upgrades, operational improvements and creative thinking to cut waste.

Soaking up the skills

It is a cliché for a business to say ‘we invest in our people’. It sounds fanciful and PR teams love to shout about peoplebased initiatives, but investing in people is not an altruistic act – it is something that can deliver a return on investment, which has been proven by the amount of new business Barton-upon-Humber is winning.

There has been an infectious spread of skills at the site, which flow from person to person as each individual’s ability is judged by what they are capable of teaching someone else in a Trivial Pursuit style system. For a multinational firm, this exchange of knowledge is unique and replicates learning carried out in small communities. It facilitates successful small scale one-to-one teaching and creates a culture in which it can multiply.

Employees accumulate symbols of recognition of their competency in the form of ‘pies’ which are rewarded under the following headings:

  • I know the words
  • I can do it with help
  • I can complete the task on my own
  • I can teach others

Over the last five months, 1576 new ‘pies’ have been awarded to staff and there are plans to add another 3,500 to the total within the next year. Although Tongue would like ‘each person to teach up to two new things’, there is a certain amount of freedom for staff to choose what skills they want to do.

“We all hear that around 15% of workforce capability is not tapped into by employers,” he says. “It’s about uncapping potential by finding out what someone has an interest in. For example, I will put in 110% effort into a game of rugby, but I couldn’t care less about football, so you would not get the best out of me by putting me in a football team. You need to enable people to take on the challenges that interest them and tap into that drive.”

Tongue talks about high staff morale and believes the proof lies in the staff support of the site’s lean transformation decision to close the midday canteen service. Although the £38,000 a year saving was relatively small, the closure suggests that a culture of cutting waste is now deeply embedded within the site and its staff.

Looking around, something appears to be missing. These highly-motivated staff members seem to be hidden out of sight. “There are 363 Kimberly-Clark employees on site at this moment in time,” Tongue assures me, “The only human interface with our product takes place during the acceptance and loading of materials. Despite the machines being guarded, they are all operated remotely.”

The machine packaging hall in Barton is highly clean and super lean

He adds: “It is technically advanced and it costs more but it is vital to maximise product quality and employee safety. We have been here for 20 years and over 90% of the workforce will never have had an injury as small as a paper cut. We class a paper cut as a minor incident, so the goal is for nobody to even have that.”

Goals vs targets

In practice, targets are put in place to maximise production but have become entwined with both personal targets and business budgets, resulting in a cautious approach to avoid failure. Tongue sees this as counterproductive and says that it is important to remove the stigma of failure and set ambitious targets to create real improvements.

This ambitious goal-setting approach transfers to the site’s setting of internal targets and not just focusing on the ‘budget’.

“Manufacturers historically set targets linked to budgets that they can achieve,” states Tongue before posing the question: “But isn’t it better to set a goal of 7% and achieve 5% rather than a 2% target and get 3%?”

Man of measure

Taking time out of Kimberly-Clark 16 years ago to join up with his step-father’s small manufacturing business, Tongue explains that £2,000 to £3,000 to them could have meant the difference between a good and a bad month. Here, he quickly learnt about the immediacy of business and the need to closely manage cash flow and the surrounding KPIs.

Returning to Kimberly-Clark, Tongue saw this entrepreneurial need mirrored in Kimberly-Clark’s approach to lean. The site started its lean transition in 2006 and Tongue admits that it suffered from a rocky start with no immediate payback. After all, the site wasn’t doing something new – it was aiming to think in a new way.

By building the team’s capability, the knowledge gained from his time at a smaller business has been applied at the Barton-upon-Humber site, with all key business processes being monitored closely and frequently. Whereas this was the difference between going bust or not during his time at the smaller business, the lean savings have cut floor space and sped up production to increase business by 7%. Behaviour is seen by some companies as invisible, but the team at Barton-upon-Humber quantifies certain activities such as measuring the attendance of team safety meetings to indicate and support safety improvements.

Welcome to paradise. The entrance to the Barton mill banishes the smokestack image of manufacturing

The bigger evidence of ‘cashing in on lean’ is demonstrated by the impressive 24% savings in manufacturing costs made over the past two years. Tongue notes that the company’s continuous improvement vision across the globe is to transfer best-known standards between different areas and facilities.

To this end, the site is able to track performance measures for any of the corporation’s global sites on a fully integrated ERP system. This allows it to locate improvements by finding the strongest performing factories for each KPI. Essentially, it’s a goldmine of real-time data, enabling the management team at the site to SWIPE (steal with integrity and pride) processes and procedures that have enabled success elsewhere and implement them back in Barton-upon-Humber.

Tongue is confident that this slashing of manufacturing costs over the last two years has allowed the site to become more competitive. This extends the reach of the product by mitigating the challenges of high fuel prices and lower disposable incomes in European markets. The facility, which supplies over 95% of the Huggies sold within the UK, also sells 60% of its products into Western Europe with demand growing in Eastern Europe.

So, what is the stand-out KPI for the Barton- Upon-Humber site within Kimberly-Clark? “This site has a history of excellent safety performance having delivered over two million safe man hours, so we have had people come round and benchmark those processes. Today we are leading the way in our business sector, North Atlantic Consumer Products, with our manufacturing yield figures.”

Waste is not just about yield

Kimberly-Clark is committed to building sustainability into every part of its business. This commitment began at the Barton-upon-Humber site with an investment into a manufacturing waste reclaim facility in 1992.

Many manufacturers now take on sustainability projects, a reaction to the rising cost of raw materials and energy prices. In the past, no one could envision green technology actually saving money – with the focus on the volume leaving factories as finished goods rather than out the back and into the bins. Testing the common claim from businesses that concern for the environment is a value where there is a clear business case for an operational change, Tongue replies: “The value of recycled materials was nowhere near what it is today so the increase in value has driven many manufacturers to reduce their impact on the environment. But Kimberly- Clark has made sustainability improvements even when it has cost money.”

One man’s junk is another man’s treasure

Kimberly-Clark set up segregated waste streams and invested in the separation of components to make them reusable. Today the site reuses over 64% of the waste created through production and puts this back into its processes.

“We make a product and therefore waste exists,” comments Tongue. “All of that waste goes through a reclaim facility so we reclaim 100% of our manufacturing waste, with zero waste to landfill (ZWTL) since 2001.”

So what does it do with the waste that can’t be reused in order to achieve ZWTL? “The items and materials that we can’t reuse are sold to local businesses,” says Tongue. “We have a talented team who have gone out and worked with different sized businesses on the usages of our waste material. Rather than looking as a manufacturer and saying I need to get rid of that, we have a wide and varied use of our waste streams.”

“The only human interface with our product takes place during the acceptance and loading of materials. Despite all machines being guarded, they are operated remotely.” – Graham Tongue, Plant Manager, Kimberly-Clark, Barton-Upon-Humber

The reclaim facility is a core asset for the Barton-upon-Humber site, with waste being brought in from different sites to support Kimberly-Clark’s corporate sustainability goals. Despite the transportation that comes with this, Tongue maintains its cost-effectiveness.

Thinning the product

Developments in product design and materials technology over the last 20 years have enabled Kimberly- Clark to reduce the weight of its nappies significantly, whilst improving the performance and consumer experience. Through technological developments, they have reduced the amount of energy and raw materials used in production and the reduced size of the nappy, alongside compression of bag sizes, has led to fewer truck movements. This makes sense on commercial and environmental grounds, particularly with an ambition to achieve a 5% absolute reduction in greenhouse gases by 2015.

“The reduction in overall product bulk has led to nappies that have a better fit and are more comfortable for babies to wear” comments Tongue. “Over this time Huggies has been at the forefront of significant innovations in the nappy market, introducing ground-breaking features that are now firmly established as prerequisites for any nappy, such as a cloth-like outer cover for softness and comfort (1995), mechanical fasteners, Velcro, for greater security (1996) and highly-breathable materials to help with skin dryness (1999).”

The conveyor of skills

The number of people on site with a formal qualification, either NVQ level three, apprenticeship training up to HNC, or degree level stands at 50%. Unlike many places, there has been no staff turnover at Bartonupon- Humber.

The company has trained 10 apprentices there over recent years. Tongue explains that the benefit of an apprentice is that they transfer skills and knowledge that has built up in the rest of the workforce during their training. “We could go out and employ a non-apprentice tomorrow but it would take a lot of time to build the background knowledge and understanding accumulated over a 20 year period by around 363 people,” says Tongue. “An apprentice will learn all of this as they come through the facility on their training programme.”

With many people being recruited during the initial recruitment drive in 1992, Tongue compares the mass of applicants Kimberly-Clark received then to the mind-boggling numbers we see applying for big manufacturing jobs today. Linking the economic troubles in the early 1990s with the downturn that sees no improvement today, he notes how manufacturing gains greater importance during periods of economic uncertainty, as manufacturing provides stable skills-based employment.

Life comes in circles

As the site celebrates its 20th anniversary, Tongue is not content to rest on his laurels. “The key is to keep innovating and keep investing in your people to get the best out of them. Our commitment to lean means constantly checking that you’re doing things the best way you can – for the business, for your people and for the planet.”

With that settled, all that’s left to do now is follow the trail of the site’s 480 employees past the pristine lawns and ducks on the lake, and ponder how the smokestack image of manufacturing still exists.