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03 October 2012

Aimia Foods

In this Olympic year, here's proof that the race doesn't always go to the swift. For three years, this company has consistently been a silver medallist in the Best Factory Awards. But today the gold medal goes to Aimia Foods

Winner: Toyota Material Handling Factory of the Year 2012
Winner: 2012 Best Household & General Products Plant
Winner: 2012 Best SME
Winner: 2012 People Management Award (joint)

Obviously, any Factory of the Year winner has to excel in all the fundamentals of manufacturing: first-rate technical skills, sound management, good marketing, clear innovation and superb deployment of both strategy and resources.

But this Haydock company has something extra that is very difficult to chart or quantify, but very easy to spot when you stand on the shopfloor. People LIKE working here; they are proud of what they do and – so welcome in these uncertain times – there is clear trust in their management and confidence that, together, they will achieve even more. Aimia is this year's outstanding winner in four categories for a rare combination of business excellence, customer service and its ability to inspire its people to give their best at all times.

This £60 million family business started in 1981. Last year it employed 250; this year it's 265 over three sites – a sure sign, since there is no fat in this operation, that business is growing strongly. In fact, sales are up, profitability is up and stock is down from £6 million to £4 million.

It has a complex but brilliantly well-conceived business model: a broad-based business, supplying 548 customers in retail, foodservice, cash and carry, and vending markets, as well as partnering major brand holders with outsourced manufacture and co-packing. It has built a separate, allergen-free facility for one of these. Working closely with manufacturing, its R&D; team has also developed many of its own brands including Café Nueva, Milfresh, Juicebreak and Milkbreak, all market leaders. In total, it handles 461 SKUs.

Its business is based on three key attributes: good, talented and hard-working people; unrelentingly high quality standards; and an obsessively high level of customer service. And it succeeds because it is also very, very good at manufacturing. It takes mastery of a wide range of processes to offer Aimia's comprehensive packaging services including blending, bagging, pouch and sachet filling, stick packs, opercule cups and variety packs.

So let's have a closer look at the factors that put Aimia on the winner's podium. First of all, its ability to combine market acumen, innovation and manufacturing excellence for its customers' benefit. It looks for every opportunity to add value. For example, it worked with a coffee company to redesign a pack that had no shelf presence and, in so doing, made it a lot easier to manufacture. It is a measure of the credibility it has built up with its customers that it was able to persuade the company – a household name – to jettison its old design and trust the new version. The innovation brought the customer £4 million market growth.

Aimia is also exploiting Six Sigma to bring competitive edge in so many areas. For example, it played a vital role in winning new business against competition from a South American plant. To win, it had to demonstrate it could make it equally well but cheaper. Where competitors for the work had simply bought the production equipment off the shelf, Aimia worked with its own machinery supplier to trial and optimise the production process. Then it used Six Sigma to home right into its process control capability, proving statistically that it could do a better job by cutting production wastage of coffee, thereby reducing the total price.

Aimia shows real flair as well as innovation in designing more efficient packaging. For example, it has scored a world first in opercule cups for airline use. An opercule cup is the way you get coffee if you are travelling economy class.

The drink powder is sealed in the bottom by foil which is removed before hot water is added – and one of the distractions of long-haul flying is watching the cabin crew struggling to get that foil out. Now, thanks to Aimia, flights will be more boring. A unique new double-walled design makes the whole process easy without compromising quality. And – even more typical of this enterprising company – it modified and extended an existing redundant production line to do it.

Secondly, the adoption of Hoshin Kanri has brought a step change in its ability to turn strategy into clearly understood, day-to-day activity. "We always had good KPIs but they were deployed with too much paper," reflects operations director Patrick Mroczak. "The Hoshin matrix is easier for staff to follow, they can see the future state more clearly and it helps them understand their own responsibilities and the part they must play to meet strategic goals." Overall objectives are cascaded down into a clear set of individual tasks and targets, and Aimia uses regular personal development reviews to drive the strategy through the business. Production is stopped every three months for cascade briefings where managers explain the company's performance and its strategy in greater detail.

Aimia has fine-tuned its clear, visual management to near perfection. The Hoshin matrix and KPIs are mounted massively along an 'Information Corridor' with goals and values clearly displayed. On the shopfloor, every working day begins with an assessment of the previous day's performance around production line activity boards which show conformance to plan, flag up any outstanding issues and set priorities for the current shift. Information screens for all 30 production lines are updated every 20 minutes with accurate data in a shopfloor implementation of Qlikview, a web-based business intelligence tool. This technology is also the platform for a new and very effective application in Aimia's finance and marketing department where it can now look at its profitability across brands with pinpoint accuracy. There is no doubt that Aimia knows how to use IT to serve manufacturing rather than – as in so many companies – becoming its slave.

On the shopfloor, in addition to the electronically captured performance data, operators also maintain their own performance graphs by every production line and warehouse area. They manually enter information about events like minor stoppages. These explanations are prompted by a Poke Yoke alert triggered by delays. A weekly review meeting explores issues in greater depth and pinpoints potential areas for improvement.

The whole process is based on accurate data provided on an electronic Andon-style dashboard which shows the OEE and average speed of every area on every line and variance against target. It allows engineering and production jointly to drill down to explore the causes of irregularities in greater detail. They can explore the causes of downtime – jams, washdowns, changeovers – and initiate investigations and improvements for a permanent fix. It provides the foundation for improvement activity that is now part of Aimia's DNA.

Aimia adds the People Development Award to its trophy bag because of the huge strides it has made in CI. Kaizen and 5S activities have increased across the plant and Aimia has invested heavily in training in specific technical disciplines like food hygiene (HACCP) and lean manufacturing practice. But it has also focused on the much more difficult task of developing self-belief and empowerment. The goal is a plant run by self-starting, high-performance teams with the knowledge to take the lead and the self-confidence to enjoy it. Lean Six Sigma is the bedrock of this capability so – recognising that its current number of Six Sigma facilitators was not enough – Aimia is part-way through a major education programme to grow its own. It has worked with Reaseheath College to develop a programme designed specifically to combine lean skills with an appetite for improvement, using real projects on its own factory floor. It has sponsored many of its long-term workers through college courses to give them the qualifications for promotion. And, as well as recruiting new operators, it is also taking on apprentices – in this economic climate, a sure sign of success.

As a result, there is a clear sense of ownership on the shopfloor. Current improvement projects are shown in clear, graphic detail across all production areas, showing exactly what is wanted, the reason for the improvement, who is responsible and how it will be achieved. CI has already taken £250,000 out of its cost base.

Autonomous maintenance is also well established. Clear communication, constant encouragement and a supportive focus on skills development has clearly engendered a strong sense of shared purpose and team spirit across the business. Individual and team recognition schemes play an important part in fostering a culture of achievement.

As a result, the winners' podium would need to be as big as a ballroom to accommodate everyone who has played a part in this success. The whole Aimia team deserves to share this gold medal triumph.

Top 3 Points

  • A business-wide passion for customer service coupled to market innovation
  • Superb, clear deployment of strategy and resources through Hoshin Kanri
  • Skilled, self-starting, high-performance teams with a strong sense of shared purpose


Aimia Foods Ltd

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