The shopfloor at the Abingdon factory of gas sensor manufacturer, Crowcon, needed reworking. On the line making the company’s Gas-Pro range, two operators worked independently of each other, both individually building, calibrating and packing each unit. There was no logical flow to the way the products were made, and a focus on batch-building led to fragile sensors being stacked roughly in a corner and breaking – in turn leading to costly re-working.

On the neighbouring Gasman line, operators often found themselves without the necessary parts or tools to hand, and were spending long periods of time searching for the right bits. Work-In-Progress was out of control across three separate build stations, three calibration stations and a packing area.

The T3 production line was being hamstrung by a perceived need to constantly check the product at every stage of the production process. Once again, there was no product flow, and one person made each product.

Something clearly needed to happen, and fast. However, this was a company mired in a particular way of working, and in dire need of a major shake-up…

“The people had spoken”

The necessary changes could only be achieved thanks to a site-wide focus on lean manufacturing. That was the vision of operations director, Frazer Mackay. When he joined Crowcon in May 2017, he inherited a workforce that was living on its past glories.

“About 30 years ago, Crowcon was the market leader, and was especially known for its innovation,” he says. “The company was probably guilty of riding off the back of that previous success. You see it so often – companies stagnate and assume that they’re still number one at what they do.”

Before settling into the hot seat, Mackay needed to take stock of where the company was positioned. What he found was alarming. “We run a regular engagement survey to assess the employees’ thoughts on the way the company is run,” he explains. “I looked at the most recent results and they were, frankly, horrendous. There are various aspects measured, such as leadership, engagement and empowerment. They averaged just 28% favourable. We clearly had to change that as a matter of urgency. Without a happy workforce, you’ll never get to where you want to be. The survey told me everything I needed to know – the people had spoken!”

Armed with this knowledge, Mackay and the rest of the senior management team set about changing the way the company operated. This began with the company’s internal KPIs. Again, Mackay discovered a bloated, unmanageable system. “The company had 85 individual KPIs, which meant people were often spending their entire day just filling out these largely irrelevant forms,” he says.

These have been refined down to 15 KPIs, relating to everything the company is looking to achieve, from health & safety to quality. “Within a year we’re already onto version 1.3, as we’re constantly tweaking the KPIs to make them more relevant,” explains Mackay. “We looked to set targets that stretch the shopfloor – I’d rather people come up short on a few of their KPIs than everyone easily hits them all.”

Working towards the greater good

Mackay also realised that the shopfloor and senior management were acting as two separate entities, with no communication between the two. This led to the introduction of a company-wide ‘roadmap’, which outlines the work being done in all areas of the business. “I wanted people on the shopfloor to be able to link everything they do back to the wider strategy,” explains Mackay. “The roadmap allows a line of sight back to the management team. It’s very important that every single person at Crowcon knows that what they’re doing is for the greater good of the company. The roadmap outlines our current state, where we want to get to in three years’ time and how we will get there. It gives us a vision of the projects and any changes we’ll be looking to implement in the future.”

The content of the roadmap is based on what, according to Mackay and the management team, constitutes a successful manufacturing company. Top of the list is a focus on uncompromised quality. This, admits Mackay, was something that was often neglected previously. “There used to be a culture of reticence around admitting mistakes,” he says. “We’ve now introduced things like andon lights and other visual management techniques to help tackle any quality issues as they arise.

“We want to encourage a no-fear culture, where there’s nothing wrong with putting your hand up to ask for help or to point out where something has gone wrong. The message I want to get across is that we want to resolve issues, and not just fix them. If we fix them, they’ll come back.”

This new desire for openness also extends to the research & development department. The latest product developments are displayed on the shopfloor, and operators are encouraged to examine them and give their feedback. This was previously invisible to the shopfloor staff, but, as Mackay explains, he felt it was important to get everyone involved in the design process. “These are the people making the products every day, so they often have the best ideas on how to develop them and improve the design,” he says.

Engaging the workforce

None of Mackay’s vision would be possible, however, without getting the workforce on board. The first step towards this is a series of A3 sheets of paper, which are displayed around the site. These provide all the information relating to specific roadmap-based projects, and are ‘owned’ by a team or individual member of staff. The owner is tasked with presenting the project in regular, short meetings with senior management. This, says Mackay, gives shopfloor operators the chance to directly influence the direction of the company.

The employee feedback survey had thrown up a score of just 26% for communication between the shopfloor and management. As a result, regular meetings are now a crucial element at all levels of Crowcon. The day starts with a shift start-up meeting at 8am, where each cell meets to discuss all the challenges they’re facing. This is followed by senior management following up any issues that arise from the start-up meetings. On a monthly basis, the entire operations management team meet for a full review of the manufacturing operations. This meeting is unique, in that it is the only one that takes place sat down around a table.

“All of our meetings, aside from the monthly operations review, are conducted standing up,” explains Mackay. “As soon as you sit down, you lose energy and momentum. It’s all about keeping the energy high and the staff engaged. In a structured manufacturing process it’s important that you have peer reviews and give operators the chance to presentat ideas to the senior team. It keeps people on their toes and focused.”

The practical application of Mackay’s ideas was introduced gradually. 5S was introduced onto the shopfloor in five weeks. Each week focused on a different S, with a presentation on its benefits and practical exercises to implement it.

This hands-on learning is very important to Mackay. “There’s an old saying: if I show you, you’ll forget; if I teach you, you might learn something; if I let you do it, you’ll remember,” he says. “We have begun to slowly introduce lean terms – we even had Japanese lessons. Each week I introduce a new idea or phrase and explain what it means and how it relates to us.”

The next stage is to foster a kaizen mindset. One of the new company KPIs relates to engagement, and the percentage of the shopfloor that are contributing ideas that will improve the working environment. This, admits Mackay, has been a slow process, although the gemba walks and league table (see section at end of article) have begun to pay off. “In the early stages, only a third of the population were involved in kaizen,” he says. “That’s now risen to about 60%. It’s important to ‘sell’ the idea of kaizen, and get people thinking about utilising lean tools to make processes better.”

A focus on learning

This change in mentality has meant that the staff are now receptive to training and development. The vision, explains Mackay, is to have a workforce that is both flexible and agile. “Flexibility is what you are able to achieve in your cell – the number of products you can make per shift. Agility is whether you are able to move seamlessly to a different cell,” he says. This is important, as Crowcon’s former approach to an increase in demand was simply to hire temporary staff. “We want to move away from that and towards being able to reassign people based on demand,” he continues. “Learning other skills, of course, will also help people develop themselves.”

As well as practical skills, operators are also being taught the concepts of lean manufacturing, from 5S to process mapping, and from the Five Whys to fishbone diagrams, as well as one-day courses on problem-solving. Employees are also encouraged to visit other sites and learn from world-class manufacturers. “Before anyone goes to another site, they are given what’s called a rapid site assessment form, to tell them what to look out for and report back on any ‘golden nuggets’ they may find,” says Mackay. “Any ideas they come back with are put onto what we call the Inspiration Board, on the shopfloor, where they can be assessed by management in terms of their effectiveness for the site.”

The results

This has had quite the impact on the shopfloor. Remember the ineffectual process flow, out-of-control WIP and overly fastidious process checks? Fast-forward 12 months, and Crowcon is unrecognisable. Operators on the three key lines undertook a continuous improvement programme to assess the way they worked, and looked at what needed to change. On Gas-Pro and Gasman, the team quickly realised that movement around the cells was inefficient – people would move multiple times around the same area of the cell. Work was put into improving the flow: Gas-Pro now boasts a single-piece flow, where everyone is involved in different stages of building, calibrating and packing the product. An in-process kanban system has helped to reduce the cell’s WIP and has seen its capacity increase by nearly half: from 40 units per shift to 59.

On the Gasman line, a shadow board means operators now have the right tools available for the job at hand, and the line is primed at the end of each shift, ready for the following day, reducing the cycle time from over 10 minutes to under four. Capacity has increased by 22%: from 99 units to 126.

The problems on the T3 line largely boiled down to one particular check, which was undertaken twice for no reason. Removing this second check saved 24 seconds per product, which, along with a number of other WIP changes, has seen a 55% increase in capacity, from 60 units to 93.

The overall cost of implementing these changes came in at less than it would have cost to employ the number of staff needed to meet the growth in capacity. A reduction in WIP alone has brought about a saving of just over £18,000.

The biggest upshot of the work undertaken at Crowcon is that the pressure has shifted away from the shopfloor. “The managing director and the sales team are tasked with growing the business and looking for new opportunities,” says Mackay. “The fact we have so much extra capacity in operations means pressure is now on the sales team to sell it – which is exactly how it should be. The MD no longer needs to worry about going out and growing the firm, as we have the capacity to cope.”

On the shopfloor itself, the processes have improved and the operators have a new focus on process improvement. Words like ‘lean’, ‘productivity’, ‘efficiency’ and ‘engagement’ are now on the lips of everyone who works there – something that hasn’t always been the case.

That said, there is still a long way to go. Mackay is adamant that the journey is only just beginning, and reveals a bold vision for the future. “I want Crowcon to be synonymous with a problem-solving culture, and not one that just fixes issues,” he says. “We’re on a major journey, and change hasn’t happened overnight, but we’re moving in the right direction.”

If the past year is anything to go by, it’s fair to say that Mackay’s vision is likely to become reality, sooner rather than later.

Going to the gemba

A key component of Crowcon’s new-found focus on CI has been the weekly gemba walk, undertaken by Mackay on a Friday afternoon. During the walk, each cell on site is scored out of 40, based on performance on their KPIs, including kaizen activity. The scores are fed into a central league table, and the best-performing cells are named Cell of the Quarter and overall Cell of the Year. Mackay is convinced of the scheme’s success. “The gemba walk has provided structure on the shopfloor and focused people’s minds,” he says. “Ultimately, I want to reward their ideas. The more value they can add to the business, the more they will score on their gemba. To begin with, there was a bit of scepticism about the idea of a league table, but once people saw other cells rewarded in front of the whole company, they suddenly started looking at what they could do to win.”