All aboard!

7 min read

Knorr-Bremse Rail Systems' Strip & Clean Optimisation Team used 5S, visual management and relentless teamwork to transform a bottleneck into a £2m revenue boon. Chris Beck meets the Manufacturing Champions award-winners.

Chris King, product line manager of Knorr-Bremse’s Strip & Clean Optimisation Team, lets out a laugh. “I come up with an idea, only for the guys to pull it to shreds,” he grins. “It’s become all about them.”

King has every reason to be cheerful. His team have just beaten off competition from five other companies to be named Manufacturing Team award winners at Works Management’s Manufacturing Champions Awards (see p30).

Mind the gap

As part of the UK’s complex and extremely busy rail network, the Knorr-Bremse site in Melksham, near Bath, is responsible for servicing the brakes on the trains that pound up and down some of the country’s busiest rail networks. With the increased investment into – and demand for – the railways, Knorr’s workload has also intensified. Brake callipers, control systems and ancillary parts come into the site, where King’s team clean them and restore them to an ‘as new’ condition. “When we send parts back to the customer, each component must look as good as new, and its level of performance and safety must be back to its original levels,” King explains.

It’s a high-pressure environment, says Adie Webb, the site’s operations director. “The products we are dealing with have come off a train. That means they’re not on it, and that train isn’t in service. It’s crucial therefore that our processes are as efficient as they possibly can be.”

And therein lies the problem. The Strip & Clean team’s processes were holding them back, and limiting their throughput. Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE – a measure of how efficiently a manufacturing process is being undertaken) was down at 50%, and turnaround time was sat at around 40 days. With the company aiming for a 20% increase in capacity by 2020, pressure was mounting from senior management about the processes employed – something had to change.

“We were also feeling the pinch from our customers,” adds Webb. “When something goes wrong with your car, you take it into the garage, a mechanic looks at it, tells you what’s wrong and how much it’ll cost to fix, then he repairs it. It’s similar for us. In the past, though, we were going back to the customer two or three times after we had found something wrong. You wouldn’t expect to have to take your car back to the mechanic because things keep breaking.”

Sensing the need for a complete strip and clean of their own, King and the team looked to lean for inspiration. “For us, lean techniques are crucial,” he says. Knorr-Bremse employs its own version of the Toyota Production System, called KPS, which is designed to work across the entire company. It embraces techniques such as visual management and just-in-time manufacturing to, in King’s words, “create a process that sets a standard.” Eliminating waste is another major target for the company, says King. “Get your foundations, such as 5S, right and build from there. People often see 5S as just having a good tidy up, but it’s actually about having only what you require, and removing waste. It may seem basic, but it’s the best way of doing it.”

All change, please

Getting those foundations right, though, was only part of the challenge. King had to convince the shopfloor staff, plus senior management, that the changes he was proposing were the best way forward. “When you approach someone and ask them to change their way of working, they often look at you like you’re mad,” King explains. “If you’ve always done it that way, what’s the incentive to change it?”

That incentive came through communicating with the team and running a trial on the shopfloor. “We wanted to gain feedback and ideas from the operators that would improve the process and working environment,” explains King. “We created a trial cell based on the operators’ views and held weekly meetings to discuss various options. Once the plans were signed off by both the operators and senior management the workforce began the implementation.”

From here, a kaizen event was arranged. It had to be held at a weekend – something that had the potential to cause friction amongst a workforce used to working Monday to Friday. However, as King discovered, if an idea is strong and sold well enough, people are willing to muck in and help. “We essentially had to gut the area and start again,” he explains. “We cleaned the whole place from top to bottom. Getting the team in for a weekend wasn’t much of a challenge in reality because everyone had seen how it would benefit them and wanted to make the improvements. Senior management came in, as well; even people who work in other areas offered to help. There was a real team spirit and camaraderie – something that has carried on to this day.”

King also set about getting the team on board with his way of thinking by making it as simple to understand as possible. “People tend to walk away from something that they don’t understand,” he says. “Take jidoka as an example, or the individual elements of 5S. They’re Japanese words, but are quite simple in reality, so why complicate it? Instead, we stripped back the buzzwords and just said ‘why don’t we try doing this’. We made sure we put it into simple terms and in a way they could understand – and it didn’t scare them in the slightest.”

And, two years down the line, this is still the case. “Even if you asked them now about the components of the KPS House, they probably wouldn’t be able to tell you that much,” he admits. “However, they understand why they’re doing it, and describe what they’re doing, without necessarily giving you the ‘correct’ word for it – and that’s the important thing.”

Back on track

Ray Miller, a manufacturing operator at the site who has worked at Melksham for eight years, certainly doesn’t seem to be at a disadvantage for not having had a Japanese lesson. As far as he’s concerned, the changed have made a real difference to his day-to-day work. “Since we rearranged the shopfloor and put in the shadow boards, we have become so much more efficient. You don’t have to go hunting for tools any more, they’re right there in front of you,” he says.

The bigger challenge came when trying to convince senior management to stump up the cash needed (about £385,000) to make the changes and investment into new machinery needed. “We had to build a case,” King explains. “It was about collecting data. At the beginning, the data we had wasn’t great. You could see that the Strip & Clean area was a bottleneck for the whole operation. Once we had trialled that new area, however, we collected data live for a month. The change we saw was so huge that presenting it to the board was very persuasive.”

The results of Knorr-Bremse’s investment are clear to see: the initial £385,000 investment has been turned around and transformed into profit; sales in overhaul and repair have increased from £1.6m to £2m per month; and overtime has decreased by 10% – all thanks to the extra capacity opened up by the lean techniques. Most impressively, turnaround time on standard overhaul contracts has been reduced to just five days. “We have about 40 live overhaul contracts at any one time,” says Webb. “They are jobs we pick up and take back to the customer within five days. For example, we were able to service 52 of the West Coast Main Line Pendolino trains in a year – one a week. That involved a complete overhaul of the braking system – 94 callipers, which take five hours each, as well as dozens of brake control systems, rubbers, gaskets and so on.”

From a process point-of-view, the change has been radical. In the past, a part for repair would come into the area, where a member of the team would inspect it for damage, which was logged on a missing and damaged (M&D) form, before the product was stripped. “This is waste,” says King. “It’s not the cell guys’ job to be inspecting products. We introduced a separate inspection step before it gets to us to stop my team wasting time looking at products. Previously, as a part was stripped and problems found, several separate M&D forms had to be logged and sent to the customer individually – which not only wasted our time and theirs, but didn’t give off a professional image. Now, the customer gets all the queries on one M&D form.”

King is under no illusions as to where this success has come from. “We now have not just an empowered workforce, but a knowledgeable one,” he says. “Employees need to be listened to – they know the secrets better than anyone else. We’re at the point now where the team feel empowered to make their own decisions for themselves. We run a PDCA approach, and it’s the guys who have come up with each checkpoint. Instead of me having to go in and tell them what to do, I ask them to come up with a solution to a problem, and they will work something out between themselves.

“We currently run one-shift, Monday to Friday. We now have the capacity to add extra shifts and become a 24/7 operation. We have actually been able to reduce numbers in certain areas, which we never thought possible, and reassign them elsewhere. People are now multi-skilled, rather than just being good at one thing. It’s allowed us to be more flexible, but has also allowed staff to get into other areas of the business.”

It’s this sense of teamwork and empowerment that has got the Strip & Clean team to where they are today – as Miller summarises: “Everyone is taking responsibility for their own environment now,” he says. “In the past, the area was very dirty, and when it’s like that, you think ‘what’s the point in tidying up?’ Now, though, we clean each cell every day. Change is always hard to swallow – when Chris mentioned all these ideas for change at first, we were all a bit uncertain. I even told him as much. But now, people can see the difference it has made and are engaging with it. They’re all taking pride and ownership of it.”

King is remaining humble, even as he clutches the award to his chest. “The whole team have been high as a kite ever since [we won the award]. The satisfaction I got from seeing the team win that award was the biggest thing for me. It’s about those guys as a collective; I hate it when someone says ‘well done’ to me – it’s not me who did this. No, it’s the team who won it.”

The secrets of Knorr-Bremse’s success

Honesty – Be aware of your shortcomings: King and the Strip & Clean Optimisation Team were honest about where they needed to improve, and identified what they had to do to make it happen

Planning – Knorr-Bremse had regular morning meetings to talk through the issues raised and get feedback and ideas from operators that would improve both the process and working environment

Commitment – Making the changes needed required a weekend kaizen event; King and senior management volunteered to come in and help out – something that encouraged the rest of the team to get behind the idea

Investment – Making the changes needed didn’t come cheap, and convincing the senior management didn’t come easy. Real-life examples of the benefits helped secure the £385,000 needed

Empowerment – Don’t be afraid of giving power to the people; they often have the best ideas, and will appreciate being trusted enough to be able to make a difference on their own

What does it take to be a winner?

Knorr-Bremse are the latest entrants to the Works Management Manufacturing Champions Awards Hall of Fame. The Manufacturing Team Award is one of the highlights of the ceremony, and embodies the teamwork and ingenuity that has made British manufacturing famous the world over. Knorr-Bremse beat off competition from companies including British Steel, Coca-Cola and Sony thanks to what the judges called ‘a huge transformation for the industry they are in’.