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14 September 2011

Making quality pay

David Fox, chairman of multi-award winning company PP Electrical Systems, explains why every manufacturing business must strive for excellence to compete successfully on the global stage

When your business has carried off a total of seven Best Factory Awards, it's fair to say that it has more than a little experience of how to strive for, and achieve, the levels of excellence those awards promote and encourage. Clearly, the company in question, PP Electrical Systems (PP) – an acknowledged world leader in the provision of added value manufacturing solutions to world-class OEMs – belongs to a highly elite club.

With such a pedigree and top-level BFA recognition, it is no great surprise to discover that PP's revenues (and profits) have more than trebled in the past decade – and the trend remains upwards. Not bad, in such testing times. But where does this success stem from?

Ask its chairman and CEO David Fox (right), and he will tell you that striving for excellence is buried deep in the company's psyche and informs everything it does. Fundamental to that goal has been a phased implementation of automated production machines – along with an all-encompassing culture change programme that is coupled with continuous improvement initiatives – which collectively has seen quality levels increase from 98% in 2007 to 99.97% in 2010.

"Some might feel that 98% isn't bad in itself, but we wanted more," Fox adds. "We looked at the automotive industry, where quality levels of 99% plus were to be found, and that became our goal, too." The introduction of automation to the factory aside, Fox has always been a great believer in people as being the factor that underpins success. That is why PP now invests, on average, 200 hours of training every year in each of its 250 employees. Initially, this involved the setting up of PP's own excellence school of training (now a separate division, known as PP Business Improvement), providing learning facilities for all members of staff via a bespoke continuous improvement roadmap, developed to provide a structured framework for training.

"We are often asked how we can afford to do that and my response is: 'How can we afford not to?' It's a self-fulfilling argument, really: training our people means we are better at what we do, which means we are able to meet our customers' highest expectations and, as a result, we make double digit profits, which means we can continue to invest in our people. Everyone is happy."

Fox has little time for those who feel 'profit' is somehow a word that should be whispered, rather than openly celebrated. "There is a tendency in this country to feel ashamed of making money, but I think this is a part of being successful. Winning the BFAs made us appreciate just how good we were as a business, and how we could improve even more through the introduction of lean and Six Sigma principles, for example.

"The exposure that resulted from us winning at the BFAs has put us on a much bigger platform. People know who we are now, what we do and who we do it for." That last point is a telling one, as PP ranks among its customers 12 companies that are world leaders in their particular fields, including Yamazaki Mazak (the world's largest producer of computer-controlled metal cutting machine tools); Ishida (food packaging and weighing); Aixtron (semi conductor plant equipment); and DTG (Dover Technologies Group – electronic screen printing).

Yamazaki was instrumental in opening up PP's eyes to the benefits of lean manufacturing, states Fox, and he is convinced other businesses can be just as successful in their own right – which is why his company is sponsoring the 2011 awards.

"Companies need to believe what can be achieved and entering the BFAs is a great way to demonstrate that. We thought Six Sigma was beyond us at first, but setting up our own training school persuaded us that we had to deliver as close to 100% quality as possible, if we wanted to be world class. I feel frustrated by businesses which think competition is in the next town or county. It's all over the world.

We all need to be more innovative and skilful in our industry now and to make everyone in education aware that this is not a dirty job any more, but one where people need to be highly capable, intelligent and ambitious.

"We need to find the best, recruiting for attitude and then growing those people from within the organisation. Get that right and you will be a business to be reckoned with."

Max Gosney


PP Electrical Systems Ltd

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