An 'A+' for effort

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An 'A+' for effort
If you could design your processes again from scratch, asks Glen Annison at Creative Foods, what would they look like?

Glen Annison, operations manager, Creative Foods, Flint

I've always pushed myself hard; it probably came from my parents particularly my father. It didn't really matter to him what grades I got, though; what he cared about was whether I get an A+ for effort, and this is an ethos I've carried with me throughout my life. I look for it in myself and in others. I'm also a bit of a perfectionist: like most operations people, nothing's ever good enough. We're always looking for improvements. Aim, pull the trigger and make it happen. That's my philosophy.

I started my career as a microbiologist in the soft drinks industry after studying microbiology and microbial technology at university. But fairly soon I realised I was being drawn to the production side of the business the dark side of the force as one of my colleagues called it at the time.

My first production role was at a salad factory, which was a bit of an eye-opener. The pressure and the hours were just immense and it was a real culture shock having been in ambient slower-moving groceries, but after a while, I was hooked.

Over the next few years, I moved around a fair bit to get experience I did everything from bagged to wet salads, sandwiches, soups, snacks, desserts, chilled ready meals and meat, which meant moving all over the place. I worked out at one point that we had moved into our third house in three counties in four years. Luckily, I have a very supportive wife!

When I took on the operations manager role in 2007 here at Creative Foods, my remit was to give the site some edge, if you like. There were and still are some great people here, and unlike some of the places I've worked where it sometimes felt like we were lurching from one crisis to the next, it certainly wasn't a place where everyone was constantly firefighting. But there were loads of things I wanted to improve.

Creative Foods is part of Brakes, and produces frozen meals for the catering sector. While we originally focused on products on the 'Brakes list', today we have our own NPD [new product development] and sales team and supply a lot of external customers such as Pizza Hut. By the end of the year, about 50% of the business should be external.

Everything is dual-purpose cook: we cook it and the customer re-heats it whether it's foil, pouches, ovenable board (a cardboard tray with a laminate) or products in a plastic snap-on lid tray, which we're launching soon.

The key to catering is flexibility; we're handling 368 stock keeping units, which means planning has to be exceptional to make sure we operate as efficiently as possible, while still ensuring that allergens are properly controlled and manning levels are right. It also means that there is very little specific automation because we don't want to nail ourselves down. All of our kit is multipurpose: blue belts, chain link belts, depositors, sealers, hand scales, tables, cooking vessels that can cook just about anything. We don't, for example, have a multi-head weigher, as we have so many changeovers that using it, washing it, and moving it around would not be cost-effective.

You get used to coping with the huge amount of NPD. You can't see it as something to resist because it will cause disruption and downtime, innovation is what drives this business.

It has also made us think more creatively. Recently, for example, we were asked if we could do something by a customer that involved a completely new process for us, and we took a blue-sky approach, ran a successful trial and now hope to launch. Five years ago, we probably would have just said no. Likewise, we've also been looking at our processes along the lines of, if we could design this from scratch, what would it look like? Some of it was harebrained, but even if only a couple of ideas come good, it could deliver a big improvement.

The recession has put pricing pressure on everyone, and costs are being challenged across the supply chain, but we have been growing throughout the downturn and we're on course to deliver 910% growth this year.

Since 2007, we've also invested a lot of capital in upgrading our equipment, the biggest single investment being in a continuous process pasta cooker. We've also invested in new ways to apply mash to cottage pies, which took 40% of the labour out of the process.

I was particularly lucky to have a new engineering manager start on the same day as me, one of the best I've ever worked with, and as we were both new, there was no defending of the patch. And between the two of us, working with the team, we rapidly begin to turn some things around.

For example, in 2007, OEE [overall equipment effectiveness] was running at 72%, and since then it's improved by 25%. We've also reduced downtime by 20%. As for labour, when I joined there was no standard model for working out what we should have on any given day. Get this wrong in a business with as many products and changeovers as we have and you are in trouble. We can go from a chilli con carne, which requires one person on the line to a chicken pasta alfredo needing 17 people. If your planning's wrong you can have a large amount of people standing idle at great cost.

Will not skill?

To me, in any factory, the first question I ask is: can we simplify the process, engineer out complexity and train staff so that just about anybody can perform any task? After that, I want to make sure every process is repeatable, either through engineering (by metering in a set amount of water every time we make a certain dish), or though training, so procedures are consistent. The other thing is measuring. If things are being measured so you can put the results in a filing cabinet, why bother?

As for downtime, the sheet pasta making kit used to be a bit of an Achilles heel we'd have a bearing failure and it would be out for 816 hours. But we've addressed that now through preventative maintenance, or hands-on condition monitoring, where the guys are listening and feeling for changes all the time, in addition to scheduling in preventative maintenance.

The lidders for our ovenable board products were probably causing the biggest problems when I joined, though. We had people just sitting there watching them, which was crazy. So instead, we asked them to record all the downtime they were causing and analyse it. We were then able to implement a variety of measures, from looking at the blades, to line speeds and the cleaning regime. We also put in more product-specific programming. Now lidders are not even in the top three when it comes to downtime.

The guys here will tell you that I'm always banging on about recruiting for 'will not skill', which I still firmly believe, but once you've got people who are willing, you have to train them to ensure that everyone has an understanding of the nuts and bolts of production, setting up machines, manning levels, line speeds, weight and giveaway control. Once you accept that 75% of downtime is set-up or operator-induced, you can do something about it.

At this site, our operatives work for the operations team, and they do their own set ups and preventative maintenance. I don't want them to rely on engineers to get them out of a mess. No one knows the kit better than the people who use it. There should be enough strength and depth in the operations team to cope with anything that's thrown at them.

INTERVIEW BY ELAINE WATSON

FACTORY FACTS

Location​: Creative Foods, Unit 19, Aber Park Industrial Estate, Flint, Flintshire, Wales CH6 5EX. Tel: 01352 897616
Staff​: 180 full-time staff plus agency workers
Operating hours:​ 6am10pm Mon to Fri
Customers​: Foodservice: pubs, restaurant chains, Pizza Hut etc. A large percentage of the output is currently for parent company Brakes, but that percentage is reducing.
Products​: 368 stock keeping units, including prepared meals, soups and sauces
Output​: Average monthly throughput: 522.3t
Turnover​: c£20M (at factory gate prices)
Packaging​: Foil trays, ovenable and microwaveable trays, pouches, plus a plastic snap-on lid tray soon.

PERSONAL

Name​: Glen Annison
Age​: 39
Career highlights​: "One of the biggest challenges I had was being part of a team that launched wraps into Tesco from a factory that was not really geared up to produce something like this at all. I still see wraps in Tesco and think: I had something to do with that!"
Domestic​: Married with three daughters
Outside work​: "I've got into carpentry and making liqueurs."

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