Under the crumb

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Andy Brammer, United Biscuits
Andy Brammer, United Biscuits
Meet the smart cookie in charge of bringing leaner, meaner McVitie's Hob Nob biscuits to your tea table

Andy Brammer, factory general manager, United Biscuits, Harlesden

I'm a Yorkshireman originally, but I seem to have been working my way around the country so if I keep going, I could end up back there! My first move was down to Manchester to study material science which was all about metallurgy, thermodynamics, ceramics and so on and, after, that I went to North Wales to join British Steel now Corus which was a bit of a baptism of fire.

I did a number of technical roles there before working as a shift manager running a couple of big lines. But the most interesting bit was being seconded into a business improvement programme working with consultants trying to identify ways to save money. I got to lead a stream in that project, which was nice, getting away from the day-to-day and learning theory from external consultants and trying to apply it. Then I moved into a process type role.

After a while I'd had enough of steel and I got a job as a shift manager at Bacardi down in Southampton. Fairly soon I was looking after all the manufacture of Bacardi and Martini in a departmental manager role before moving to Bacardi Breezers, which were going absolutely crazy in the late '90s. After that, I took responsibility for all manufacturing and supply chain, but when the site closed I took the position of general manager here at McVitie's in Harlesden in London, so I guess I've already started making my way back up the country!

As for career progression, I've never been one of those people that says I've got to be somewhere by a certain time, but I think I've progressed through having the right skills and being in the right place at the right time. A lot of people can end up staying in a function and then become reliant on developing in that function, whereas if you have broader experience, it's easier to step up more quickly.

As for the future, my next move would ideally be a multi-site role. After that, who knows? Would I like to go into more general management? I don't see why not, but to get there you've got to have a broad range of experience, so that's what I'm trying to get.

KPI overload

When I arrived at McVitie's in January 2008, there was a lot of really positive stuff going on, and a lot of experience and commitment in the team, but there were challenges around better customer service and other issues I wanted to address.

The key products made here are Rich Teas, Chocolate Hob Nobs, Digestives, Chocolate Digestives and Mini Cheddars. Digestives are made through moulding where you force the dough into a mould for a more crumbly texture whereas Rich Teas and Mini Cheddars are made by lamination, where dough is rolled out into sheets that are layered on top of each other and then compressed. After they are cooked they are cooled and packed.

Production is relatively high speed and automated, and we've got some robots for palletising. In terms of future investment, we are looking at a range of packing solutions for our main range of biscuits, but I don't want to give the impression that robotics is the only thing we're looking at. It's a bit of buzzword, but you have to use it appropriately.

The site opened in 1902, and the equipment has been refreshed periodically. But some things, such as the tube format for Chocolate Hob Nobs and Digestives, are more recent and Mini Cheddars only arrived in 2004. We've also seen a big increase in volumes. When I arrived, we were doing 90,000t a year; today we are doing 100,000t, so I've had to find more capacity. We've also cut water use by 70% over the same period, massively increased recycling rates and reduced our energy use by replacing all of the oven burners, which cost £1M.

But I've never been one to change things for the sake of it, you should only change things because they don't work, so initially I took a step back to try and assess where we were. One thing that was immediately clear was that there was a KPI (key performance indicator) overload. There were KPIs for everything, but we were not necessarily measuring the things that link to how we deliver business performance. I've got this thing about notice boards. If you can't walk up to one and see what it's telling you in two or three seconds, then what's the point of it? It was a case of going back to basics: focusing on customer service, efficiency and engaging people. What does the guy working on chocolate Hob Nobs have to do to make sure we meet these overall performance targets?

As for lean manufacturing, I'm trying to apply the tools and techniques more fundamentally, looking at the whole value chain rather than just focusing on 5S and other techniques in the factory. For example, in chocolate digestives we've looked at everything from procurement of raw materials to the product arriving with the end customer, so that's meant being more flexible, cycling more quickly and reducing stock levels.

A classic case of early issues wreaking havoc further up the supply chain is stacking heights: the stoppage will be in the packing area because the stack is too high, but the issue is caused in manufacturing. In a stack of 30 biscuits, you could get a 34mm variation in heights because of natural differences, oven profiles, moisture levels, recipe control and so on. The only way to reduce this variation is to be consistent in controlling the early stages of the process.

Faster cycling

Cycling more quickly so that we can offer better customer service and reduce stock levels has also been a key part of our approach to lean. But it's been quite a tough sell, as traditionally ambient factories have been conditioned towards making everything in one go and then switching to the next thing rather than wasting time on changeovers. Today, however, things we used to make weekly, we'll make and deliver every day, which means we're only holding a day's worth of stock.

The other big thing we've been working on is speeding up changeovers, which is essential for faster cycling. On one of our chocolate lines, we were taking four hours to do a changeover and now it's two. We've also made improvements on our Rich Tea line. Some of this has been helped by having a very clear visual system for handling change parts, so that you can see what's needed for the next production run and what parts to put away where. But it's also because we have standardised our approach and our operators are taking far more responsibility.

When I arrived, there was still a bit of the 'operators produce and engineers fix' approach. We've moved away from that but there is still more work to do in terms of getting operators to do basic maintenance and their own changeovers. We also need to bring the responsibilities and reporting structures closer together so that the team manager on shift has control over what the priorities are for the engineers on that shift.

In terms of managing my time, people always complain about having too many meetings and emails, but you need meetings to discuss issues and make decisions. The important thing is that the time spent in meetings is effective and you have clear goals and action points. We also hold more meetings down on the shopfloor now so there is more visibility.

Is it stressful job? Yes it is, but I don't let it keep me awake at night. You have to have a level of detachment in a job like this or you wouldn't last very long.

As for working with biscuits everyday, I definitely started to see a bit of a barrel developing around my middle in the first couple of months so I had to lay off them for a while!

INTERVIEW BY ELAINE WATSON

FACTORY FACTS

Location​: United Biscuits UK, McVitie's Group, Harlesden Factory, Waxlow Road, London, NW10 7NY. Tel: 020 8965 5787
Staff​: 550 full time staff plus agency workers at busy times
Operating hours​: Varies. 24 hours, five to seven days a week
Products​: Rich Teas, Chocolate Hob Nobs, Digestives, Chocolate Digestives, Mini Cheddars, plus very small amount of own-label product for some customers. Owing to the huge range of different packaging formats, there are about 200 stock keeping units
Output​: 100,000t a year
Packaging​: Roll-wrapped biscuits, cardboard tubes with seals and plastic lids, 255, 50g, multipacks etc of bags for Mini Cheddars and a huge variety of multipacks and shelf-ready packs.

PERSONAL

Name​: Andy Brammer
Age​: 36
Career highlights​: "I've enjoyed it all. Corus was a baptism of fire; Bacardi was great, but then so is UB."
Domestic​: "Just married!"
Outside work​: "I play a bit of golf, squash and I like walking. I also play snooker. I used to play at county level​."

Related topics: Bakery

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