COVER STORY SEPTEMBER 2019
A £7 million investment in new
technology, including an automated
packing line (top) has helped bring
Middlewich into the 21st century
take place at the
factory every day
This gives them the chance to form their own
relationships and engage directly with suppliers.
Then, the new equipment feels like their ‘thing’.
When they come back to the plant, we expect
them to tell everyone about what they’ve learnt
and how the factory stands to benefit.”
An end to back pressure bingo
Crabb now has an engaged team and the best
equipment available, so everything should
be looking rosy, right? Not quite, he says. In
Crabb’s words, revamping the aging assets is like
“performing open-heart surgery on a 50-year-old
as they run a marathon.”
So, then, why not just knock it down and start
again from the ground up? The trouble comes
from salt’s usefulness. “We can’t have a single day
off-line,” says Crabb. “It’s a fun problem to have,
as it encourages some creative thinking.”
One such example of creative thinking comes
when moving product off-site. The factory was
built when the railways were king – hundreds of
thousands of tonnes of salt were sent across the
UK via a regular rail service, that would call at
the plant every three days. Today, nothing is sent
by train. The lorry bay, which is now the hive of
all comings and goings, is tucked away at the rear
of the site, making it counterproductive, unless
something drastic changed. “We couldn’t change
Middlewich’s engagement secrets
Working in a salt factory can be a dirty, disengaging role.
Crabb and the team have combatted this with a number of
simple engagement techniques:
1 Link people and product: Tell your staff where the products they
are making are going. Don’t just refer to batch numbers, but tell
the stories of customers and how they are benefitting from the work
the shopfloor is doing.
2 Drive out complacency: As staff begin to understand the stories
behind the products they are making, they will also realise the
importance of getting things right. Forming that link to the customer
will help improve quality.
the layout of the factory, because of the need to
avoid downtime, so we had to look at the way
we operated,” explains Crabb. “We spent so long
trying to please the customer it meant we were
being inefficient in our order processing – we
have to bag X today, Y tomorrow and X again the
day after. This is called back pressure. The plant
was built to run at a steady state, which isn’t
customer friendly: customers want their order as
soon as possible, not when it best fits with our
production schedule. You have to be customersavvy,
but not to the detriment of efficiency.
“This meant we had to stop playing ‘back
pressure bingo’. We went away and worked
out the most optimal way of running the plant,
shifting it up and down with demand. It’s easy
to say, but the mentality shift it needed was
significant. The whole end-to-end process
needed looking at: we had to get the raw material
flow from the fields spot on – if you’re going to
peg production around that, it takes two years to
plan a brine field, so knowing it’s able to flex up
and down with demand is crucial. We also need
to know our finished goods inventory. We don’t
want loads of excess stock sitting around on
pallets tying up a load of cash.
“There’s a fine balancing act between the
long lead-time of the raw material and the justin
time approach to getting the goods out of the
door. Ironically, we always used to play too safe.
We’d have more inventory and fluctuate the rate
of production, which meant we didn’t get the
best of either world.
“The secret was to analyse the data, hold our
nerve and build up stock to a sensible level, all
the while fine-tuning the rate of production. That
paradigm shift of looking at the details was tricky,
but it means we can now confidently say ‘this is
what we’re making today, guys, and this is what
we’ll be making for the next six weeks’.”
With a balanced production flow, an engaged
and young workforce and further investment
in new assets, the future of salt production in
Middlewich looks set fair for the long-term.
3 Field trips: British Salt has seen huge success from sending
front-line operators on visits to see the new equipment being
made, as well as giving staff the chance to experience other parts
of the factory.
4 Engage with technology: Don’t just invest in new equipment
without informing your staff about what you’re doing – and why.
Explain how you’re investing in their futures as much as in the future
of the company.
5 Analyse the data: Streamline your processes by using data to
identify and remove potential bottlenecks. Doing so will boost
morale and improve working conditions.