Magazine article Management Today

Van Den Bergh Foods

Magazine article Management Today

Van Den Bergh Foods

Article excerpt

Van den Bergh's margarine factory at Purfleet, Essex, brings to mind words like 'considered' and 'thoughtful'. Some factory managements are apt to engage in a great number of supposedly beneficial initiatives almost willy-nilly, without seriously considering their suitability: TQM - or some other ideology - is the current fashion, so it is adopted. This is not the case at Van den Bergh Foods where, as manager Neil Hufton is quick to point out, programmes have been selected after careful analysis of the gap between the factory's position at the time, and where it needed to be. In the judges' view, Hufton and his team deserve credit for not adopting a variety of initiatives but for choosing their solutions with care and intelligence.

The commercial imperatives are easily summarised. The Purfleet factory ('the largest margarine factory in the world,' according to Hufton) produces 250,000 tonnes of emulsified fats per year including a number of Unilever's best known brands, such as Flora, Stork, I Can't Believe It's Not Butter and Blue Band. However Purfleet is one of eight margarine plants which Unilever owns in Europe. Taking a view that the group might not always want as many as eight production units, Hufton and his colleagues set about turning their factory into a low-cost, high-quality showcase.

Their success in bringing this about is all the more remarkable given some of the constraints under which they operated. The factory has been on the site since 1918 - allowing ample time for inefficiencies based on custom and practice to become embedded. Changing people's mind-sets in an environment where labour turnover is close to zero - thanks to annual pay packages of some [pounds]25,000 - was a feat in itself. That Hufton and his team have gone on to generate such evident enthusiasm, and commitment to change at all levels of this workforce, is genuinely impressive. The price has been heavy investment in education, but - as these pages have noted in previous years - education is in the long run cheaper than ignorance.

The judges were struck by many aspects of the Purfleet factory - too many to describe in detail here. For one thing, it is exceptionally well equipped and laid out. 'That has not happened by accident,' insists Hufton. But rather it is the result of extensive research and benchmarking of competitors. It would be quite wrong, though, to assume that 'well equipped' means newly equipped. Much of the machinery on the packing lines is clearly old but is nevertheless very well-maintained.

That, too, is no accident. 'We were two years ahead of the rest of Unilever in deciding that Total Productive Maintenance was the way to go,' says Hufton. Purfleet's implementation of TPM is highly visible: for example, 'spyholes' cut into the oil sumps of machines indicate the exact oil level without need for dipsticks or instrumentation. Perspex panels, in place of metal ones, reveal any build-up of dust. Care of assets is excellent throughout, standing comparison with the best that the judges have found anywhere. The factory has adopted an anglicised 4S code of practice (inspired by the Japanese 5S model) which is specifically linked to housekeeping: 1 Sort though, sort out; 2 Simplify; 3 Shine and sweep your area; 4 Set standards. …

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