Insights into Excellence: A visit to Princes Foods

6 (2)Achieving best practice is not a quick fix or short-term measure to improve public or employer perception. Achieving excellence and developing practices that are robust and stand the test of time requires commitment and dedication.  Last week we visited the Princes Foods manufacturing site in Belvedere, East London and saw a company that has a constancy of purpose, long range vision and a dedication to achieving excellence in all areas.  They have also achieved a very high level of Lean deployment and more importantly employee engagement.

Princes isn’t unique in that they manufacture their own brands which includes household names such as Napolina alongside supermarket own brand products.  As such, they have had to meet the stringent standards of the major supermarkets such as Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Aldi, and have a continual focus on adding value and reducing costs.

Their lean journey, which began in 2012, and was spearheaded by Princes Manufacturing Director and Continuous Improvement (‘CI’) Manager.  The programme has been constant in its pursuit of engagement of hearts and minds and a focus on people. Their CI Manager summed it up nicely for us:

At Princes we seem to constantly return to our “Change Commitment “Curve illustration (see diagram below). What we want is everyone following the “Green Route”, to ownership, not the “Red Route”, to compliance. The trouble is the “Green Route” takes longer and requires patience, letting people experiment, and lots of coaching and support.

Shigehiro Nakamura, my old Lean Sensei, always stressed “people own what they create”. You have to avoid imposing highly defined solutions but rather communicate the key principles and then let the teams develop their own solutions within that framework. This way, in my view,  leads towards ownership and a truly “indestructible” C.I. system.  In essence – Continuous Improvement rather than delayed perfection.

Change curve princes

A great example of how they have applied this was how they encouraged their employees to think differently about their product.  Some of the products they manage are very high value, but not all, Tuite and his team started referring to the product as ‘Liquid Gold’ to instill in operators the need to minimize spills and manage waste. This simple act created a sense of ownership and triggered some great changes in behavior that have reduced costs and improved the work environment.

Visual management is of a very high standard on site, they have excellent lean training tracker boards ensuring all the tools are trained (in-house) and updated regularly.  The cell boards are clear and consistent across the site and the mobile problem-solving board can be taken to wherever a challenge or production issue arises.  Strategy deployment is clear and they utilize the Hoshin (X-Type) Matrix to ensure it is drilled down to all operating levels. This is supported through structured daily, weekly and monthly meetings – the heart of which is the daily Gemba walk led by the site operational team.

The site demonstrates a thorough application of all of the common lean principles (Five S, Visual Management, Kanban, Autonomous Maintenance and Poke Yoke) what struck me was how thorough it was and how well these work practices and only those they needed had been applied.  They acknowledged they had tried many others but are now just using what adds value to them as an organisation.  Note the use of ‘work practices’ and not tools – the Princes Manufacturing System deliberately avoids the word ‘tools’ as they believe it conjures to mind the things you keep in the shed and fetch out and use when needed then put them away again – which I think is a totally valid point and I will be adjusting my personal dictionary forthwith!

Recently, there has been a particular focus on asset management and machine reliability.  Much of the general maintenance is now undertaken by line operators freeing the engineering team to focus on supporting the operators and adhering to their planned and scheduled maintenance activities.

Every employee we spoke too talked of pride in the company and pride in the product they were manufacturing.  This is one of the goals of any employee engagement strategy, to have employees who are proud of the company they work for and the products they are manufacturing.  This is I believe a result of their genuine desire to engage and nurture their employees.  There is a structured training programme and commitment to 100 hours of training per person per year. They have also established the Princes Learning Academy based at their Bradford site which focuses on training in lean tools and techniques.  Each 12 person cohort through the academy are challenged to a deliver a minimum £10,000 cost saving project within 100 days. The results speak for themselves – last year various projects led by just the four Belvedere cohorts saved the site over £400k.  They also employ some of the usual soft tools such as an attendance raffle, a monthly all staff briefing and they celebrate birthdays with a bit of fun.

The honesty, humility openness and desire to share with others was so refreshing. The site is one of the best I have visited in the UK for some time for all of the reasons I have highlighted, and their willingness to share with other organisations what has worked and why was a great reminder of why the programme adds value to those that participate.

Our thanks go to the Management Team and Continuous Improvement Team at Princes Foods for their support of this visit.

If you would like to see first hand how Princes Foods have approached their continuous improvement and Lean journey and see how well the engage with their teams the next visit is to their Eden Valley site in Cumbria on 6 June 2017.  Please do contact me for more information.


Ailsa Carson

Programme Director

Onsite Insights


Supporting Best Practice

EEF Manufacturing Conference 2017

Most of you that know me are aware I don’t really do politics, but I make an exception one day a year for the EEF Manufacturing Conference. This is always a great insight into how global economic and political trends will impact the future of Manufacturing in the UK. Some of the key themes remain the same with the Skills Shortage in manufacturing remaining one of the critical issues for growth. A bit disappointing that this has been a recurring theme for over ten years with no real evidence of a strategy to resolve it.

Brexit of course was also high on the agenda. The Rt Hon John McDonnell MP commenting that the vote for Brexit was a clear vote for change and a symptom of the dissatisfaction and alienation many feel regarding the current political and economic landscape.

The Rt Hon Greg Clark, Secretary of State for Business Energy & Industrial Strategy focused heavily on the Industrial Strategy Paper. He emphasized the need for businesses to work with his department to make the Industrial Strategy a success. The only slightly challenging question that Clark faced was regarding the ‘deals’ being discussed with the automotive manufacturers – the response was unfortunately but expectedly vague.

Alison Rose, CEO Commercial and Private Banking, Natwest noted that their had been no real decline in investment and financing following Brexit. She also commented that whilst the economic forecast is bleak those companies that will weather what is to come are those that are taking action and progressing and not remaining stagnant and paralysed by uncertainty i.e. manage what you can but keep moving forward.

As always Martin Wolf of the Financial Times brought a serious but light-hearted look at the current economic forecast and how this may impact manufacturing. This is without a doubt the most informative and useful parts of the conference so a little disappointed he was reduced to being part of a panel discussion. However his ‘six’ minutes were worth the train fare!

The key elements that came from this were:

  • A large fall in currency will lead to increased inflation
  • Real income is set to decline which will likely lead to reduced consumer confidence.
  • Productivity rates – UK continues to lag behind the world and has recently dropped further. Since 2007 all measures have shown stagnation
  • Whilst the UK is the fastest growing country in the G7 we still lag behind globally

The panel discussion on Where Next for Manufacturing in the Global Economy did raise a good point that the lack of investment in capital equipment could be due to the perception that the cost of investment is so much higher than the cost of labour. We have historically had access to low cost labour – but as this is about to change Manufacturers may invest more in automation and therefore improve productivity levels.

So what are the best companies doing? The panels response was clear – they are addressing and controlling issues that they can. Developing a good understanding of hedging and developing an awareness of the impact of currency fluctuations.

Wolf was clear that he does not believe there will be any agreement on a post-Brexit plan or strategy which will lead to further uncertainty.

There was a great discussion from the Heads of Siemens and Nissan in the session on Making Britain the Best Place to do Manufacturing. Juergen Maier of Siemens talked of their plant in Congleton as being one of the best in the world due to a culture of continuous improvement and Lean. Whilst Colin Lawther of Nissan expressed their commitment to purchasing more in the UK to rectify their currency imbalance which is excellent news for the UK Supply chain.

Changing customer demands was also raised as one of the key drivers in future growth. Lawther from Nissan noted that customers used to go to the dealer seven times before buying a car, now due to social media and available information they go once. He believes as manufacturers they need to be in a position to forecast accurately what people are going to buy. He was also quite clear that productivity whilst a useful measure is not necessarily the most important when considering future growth.

So in summary, the key points:

  • Skills shortage still a major concern for Manufacturers
  • Real income is set to decline which will further reduce consumer confidence.
  • Productivity rates remain stagnant and one of the worst globally.
  • Brexit – unlikely to be any resolution in the short term but to survive essential that companies manage what they can and have a clear growth strategy that they can control.
  • The larger manufacturers will be looking to UK supply chains to rectify currency imbalances.
  • The government is seeking engagement of manufacturers in the Industrial Strategy.
  • Politicians never disappoint in their ability to avoid answers!

For a summary of the key points of the Industrial Strategy visit

New partnership to support UK Manufacturing

The Manufacturing Institute and Onsite Insights have today announced a partnership which will benefit the UK manufacturing industry.  The organisations are committed to the expansion of the already successful national visit programme to encourage the adoption of best practice and lean in organisations across the UK & Europe.  An increase in visits will benefit UK industry as the visits provide an opportunity to see first hand how successful organisations operate, to steal with pride ideas and solutions to common business challenges.

The visit programme was founded in the 1980’s by the Government as part of the robotic grant scheme. It’s early years saw engagement primarily from the manufacturing sector but over the years this has diversified – visitors now come from the service and public sectors.  The programmes best practice sites are predominantly still manufacturers – as it is easy to see process improvement when applied to a line or production area. By encouraging the sharing of innovation and best practice between organisations, the programme aims to supports the development of world class practices in the UK.  

The Onsite Insights programme already includes award-winning organisations such as Siemens, Fujifilm, Vale, Mars, Toyota, Milliken, Mitsubishi and Princes Foods.  The new partnership is aimed at increasing the number and therefore availability of these visits to companies across the UK.

The Manufacturing Institute is an established presence within the Manufacturing sector providing support to a wide range of businesses and sectors through its extensive training and charitable activities.  The Make It challenge and FabLabs have driven awareness of manufacturing across communities in the North of England.  

The partnership will also see these charitable activities being extended to the South of England, where Onsite Insights has a strong presence.

Ailsa Carson the Programme Director of Onsite Insights commented: “this will bring an exciting new chapter to the visit programmes development, leading to improved access for businesses across the country, a wider selection of company visits and the continued sharing of great ideas between companies.”




Ailsa Carson

Programme Director

Onsite Insights Limited

Phone: 0783 222 3453





Onsite Insights – further information

Contact: Ailsa Carson

Phone: 023 9246 8978




The Manufacturing Institute – further information

Contact: Mark Leeson
Phone: 023 9246 8978



Mars – More than Chocolate!

Best known for its iconic Mars Bar, Mars the Company is so much more than that. It’s biggest selling products is surprisingly Pet food (they own the well-known brands of Pedigree and Whiskas). Along with other household names such as Dolmio and Uncle Ben’s and the more recent acquisition of Wrigley’s, Mars has become one of the world’s largest food manufacturers and the third largest privately owned company in the US.

I have been lucky enough this year to visit two of the Mars Manufacturing sites in the UK, as part of the Onsite Insights visit programme which these programmes support. The first was to Mars Drinks in Basingstoke and the second to Mars Chocolate in Slough. What struck me at both was how engaged and passionate about the company they work for every employee was.

Every Martian (a term they like to use about themselves) appears to have a true commitment to the company and a desire to stay for life. Whilst on the visit we met a third-generation team member and apparently, this isn’t unusual. The free chocolate and pet-friendly perks may be part of it, but I believe it’s definitely more than that. It is, I believe because they feel valued and are truly engaged in the goals and aspirations of the company. This is no mean feat in a world of constant change, transient labour and short-term careers.

The Mars Culture is underpinned by their five guiding principles – Quality, Responsibility, Mutuality, Efficiency and Freedom. It is clear to any visitors that these aren’t just words on the corporate wall, they are integrated in all key decision-making throughout the sites.

Mars is quite a private company and not just in terms of ownership. They rarely open their doors to the outside world, but that doesn’t mean they are not involved in both local communities and charities that are important to them. The company employs over 72,000 globally and with a turnover of over $33 billion is a force to be reckoned with. To the outside world, the Mars family are reclusive, however to their employees they are regular visitors to the sites. They engage and clearly nurture the family-owned environment that was created by their Grandfather Frank Mars Snr.

Career progression may be one of the reason Mars has so many lifers, the diversity of the company’s brands and business means there is opportunity for advancement and fresh challenges. They actively encourage cross-divisional talent movement. Structured peer reviews and appraisals ensure that each employee has a clear understanding of their own direction and contribution to the company. The company also funds personal development for each of its employees and has a strong mentor programme.

Engagement doesn’t stop on retirement either, one of the fabulous initiatives we saw on the visit to Mars Chocolate was a comments wall contributed to by previous site managers and employees who are periodically invited back to see how the site has developed. This struck a chord with all that visited. It demonstrates a truly inclusive culture that cares deeply about the wellbeing of its current, past and future employees.

A commitment to quality and continuous improvement is what you would expect of a food factory and the Mars sites are no exception. Both factories demonstrate excellent levels of lean and visual management. Lean tools, good work flow, Kanban systems and standard operational procedures are evident and there is clearly a commitment to review and challenge manufacturing processes. New automated packing equipment has removed much of the manual handling at Mars Slough, and whilst highly complex, has removed many of the previous health and safety hazards associated with repetitive manual handling.

Health and safety has always been an important driver in operational improvement, and a continued focus on this has seen dramatic improvements at both sites. Their approach has been to systematically review hazards and Near Miss activities, and implement corrective procedures as required. Simple and logical yet still missing in many manufacturing sites.

The suggestion scheme for improvements at Mars Drinks is a simple T-Card system in each area of the factory where employees raise suggestions, they are approved, or declined and actioned as appropriate. Again, simple but effective. This visual system is reviewed weekly by line managers and it works. No huge reward system, yet sufficient suggestions to know that this approach works.

And Mars continues to grow, they are innovative in their products, smart in their acquisitions but most importantly they genuinely care about the health, well-being and engagement of all employees.

Our next visit to Mars Drinks in Basingstoke is on 24 May 2017