For paint giants AkzoNobel, whose brands include Dulux, Hammerite and Cuprinol, the mission seemed simple, if ambitious: create the best paint factory in the world, on a new site in Ashington, Northumberland. Starting from a blank slate, the company wanted to see what was possible. The result is a £100 million, 100,000m2 factory that is capable of producing 100 million litres of paint – enough, according to AkzoNobel, to redecorate every living room, bathroom and kitchen in the country – every year.

On top of that, the plant is the world’s most energy-efficient and technologically advanced site of its kind. A biomass boiler, photovoltaic cells and an end-to-end automated manufacturing process that has been specifically designed to save water, energy and waste combine to reduce the carbon footprint of each litre of paint produced by 50%.

The plant is fully automated – in theory, the whole paint-making process could be undertaken without human intervention, bar loading the finished product onto lorries. The technology in the factory is certainly impressive: AkzoNobel worked with 35 different design houses, including Siemens UK (for whom it was the largest project ever undertaken from their site in Manchester), to create fully bespoke machinery that fit the company’s needs.

People power

But it’s not the technology that’s the real story here. This is a plant whose success is more down to its people than its technology – an idea that AkzoNobel were keen to push home from the start, explains Jeff Hope, Ashington’s head of manufacturing. “We needed to ensure that when our technology isn’t the most advanced, we don’t just fall down the rankings. Think of a football league – Manchester City might have the most expensive squad and are expected to perform as a result, but without any more investment those expectations will start to fall. As a result, we had to deliver a culture where that wouldn’t be the case – where our people, not the amount of money we could throw at technology, provided the advantage.”

Again, having a blank slate to work from proved to be a blessing. Hope, who was employee number one at the site, was able to build his own team as he saw fit. For an area steeped in self-improvement (see box on p20), it was clear from the start that they should try something a bit different. The company hired, based not on their competency at the job, but on their attitude and how well they would fit in with the culture of the site.

“We had to think about how we could open people’s eyes to the idea of a job in a factory before we even got to the stage where we could pick and choose who would work there,” explains Brian Chapman, AkzoNobel’s HR director for the UK & Ireland. “This led to us looking at some of the skills we might need in the future, and in an automated plant like Ashington, it’s less about people who have specific manufacturing experience or even the ability to do manual work, and more about coordinating various processes.”

As a result, over 50% of the staff at Ashington have previously never worked in manufacturing. “However, what they do all have is the right attitude to deal with what we need them to do on the site,” adds Hope. “By looking predominately at culture and attitude when you’re hiring, you can be sure that the people you get on board are here for the right reasons.”

Avoiding a ‘them and us’ culture
Those ‘right reasons’ are enshrined in a set of cultural principles, which were developed by the site’s senior management. They cover the key attitudes that people working on the site need to display, and what the hiring team looked for in new recruits.
“The important thing was to avoid a ‘them and us’ culture from arising,” says Hope. “Manufacturing is often a disjointed industry, where staff can find themselves doing a number of different tasks. We wanted people to talk about ‘their business’ and ‘their decisions’. Having one team with a shared vision meant everyone was bought into common aims.”

This has influenced the layout of the factory itself. Traditionally, back offices and the shopfloor are disparate worlds, and the two rarely meet.

At Ashington, however, the building has been designed to encourage operators and technicans to walk past the offices and interact with every department on their way to the production areas.

Leading on from this is the site’s core principle, around which the entire site revolves: the need for a diverse environment, and one that encourages people to continuously develop themselves. This extends to an understanding of not just how to make the paint, but how to use it as well.

This, explains Chapman, creates an affinity for the company and the products that they are making. “If people know how to use the paint, it makes it easier for them to spot any defects during the manufacturing process. Even in a heavily automated plant, a knowledgeable workforce is vital to make sure it all runs smoothly. Technology will always age over time, so equipping the staff from the outset with a mind-set of personal improvement will give us a unique advantage that will last in the years to come.”

Another principle revolves around clarity of communication. For such a technologically advanced factory, it’s quite a surprise to see large boards and pieces of A3 paper pinned to the wall. Hope explains that this is all deliberate. “We’re obviously not allergic to computers,” he jokes. “They play a very important role in the site, but they also have pitfalls that an organisation can blindly fall into. Here, you can find all of the site’s objectives, strategy documents, work schedules and improvement ideas displayed clearly for everyone to see. This helps build trust, but also keeps things simple. We can all see the current state of play as quickly as possible.”

This also adds to the site’s overall push for continuous improvement. “You can have a great, lean system, but the real value-add comes in how quickly you can turn an improvement around,” continues Hope. “We focus on a cycle of improvement – if you can get that right, everything else will follow.”

A standardised approach to management
Once the majority of staff had been recruited, a small task force was established to come up with the ground rules for the site. “We put together a team of representatives from across the business, who became essentially a works council,” explains Hope. “Because we hired based on our cultural principles, it meant everyone is here wanting to make a difference. As a result, they’ve ended up making some really interesting decisions.”

The advantages of having a personal touch in a large and somewhat corporate organisation like AkzoNobel have been numerous, continues Hope. “It’s given us a real agility when it comes to management-level decision-making, which is worth a fortune to us. It can often be quite cumbersome for an organisation of our size to make changes, but it’s been made so much easier by having people with the right attitude for change. Until 2008, we were part of Imperial Chemical Industries, and a lot of that legacy culture is still embedded into many of our other sites in the UK – and it’s proving hard to shake off. Having the freedom to do what we wanted in terms of technology, culture, recruitment and leadership has been a massive opportunity.”

As an added benefit, explains Chapman, a close-knit team has mitigated any worries amongst the staff regarding automation and the perceived risk to jobs. “We made a conscious decision to employ the staff at an early stage so they were heavily involved in the installation of the technology,” he says. “Bringing a team on board early means they understand the elements that make the site work. That’s been our route to engaging people and, so far, we think it’s worked. At our other plants, the skill-set was more about technical skills and historical knowledge. At Ashington, we were more interested in how they run processes and proactively predict problems before they arise.”

This drive for a site-wide, employee-driven standard has also made its way to the management level. For Hope, a strong management structure is vital for a successful site. “Whatever you’re trying to achieve, it’s all about having the right working culture, which is why the site’s principles and vision have also been built into our management system,” he says. “The site’s management ‘bible’ is open for anyone on site to see, and has very little written content – it’s mostly just process flows. This is part of what we do, not just a management system for the sake of it.

“The way we look at it, our operators and technicians need a standardised operating procedure. Management are the same: they need a standard method of reaching decisions, and that’s what this is. Once you become consistent in your decision-making, it allows you to have a whole different level of performance management. What we don’t want is a situation where each leader uses a different method. For the shopfloor staff, this means they don’t have to worry about what kind of boss they’ll have – if your management and standards are consistent, the whole site’s performance will be as well.”

When presented with a blank slate and a huge budget, it would have been tempting for Hope and the team to have invested heavily in technology, assuming that would solve everything. By taking a more proactive approach, focusing on their staff, the site has met the brief to become a world-leading manufacturing site. Mission accomplished.

Community spirit:
The Ashington factory has been keen to forge strong links with the local community. Employees from the plant have been involved in nearly 40 community projects in the past three years, ranging from school open days to painting murals on local buildings. They have also raised over £25,000 for charity in that time. For Hope, it’s vital that companies become closely aligned with local residents. “For a lot of us, this area is our home,” he says. “We want to have a positive impact, and give something back. Not only do the local residents appreciate that, but cash-strapped local authorities do too.”

The site has also collaborated with other local employers to develop an apprenticeship scheme. The area used to be home to the Lynemouth aluminium smelter, which employed about 2,000 people and closed in 2012. “The smelter would bring in a significant number of apprentices a year, which kept the skill levels in the area high,” says Hope. “All that has gone now, and we’re at risk of losing the skills. We may only may only need a handful of apprentices ourselves, but if we combine forces with 20 or so other companies, we make a difference to the skills of the whole area. We don’t want to leave people behind. Just to get the plant running, we had to bring in people from all over the world, because the skills weren’t here – that’s something we’re actively looking to change.”

A history of self-improvement
Throughout the early 20th century, the area of South Northumberland, which includes Ashington, was home to an enterprising group of miners who took up weekly evening classes as a way to develop themselves. The group were adamant that they specifically wanted to learn how to appreciate art. However, they quickly became disillusioned with the course, which focused mainly on art theory. Their tutor, a respected artist called Robert Lyon, suggested that they should try learning to paint, and as a result would learn to appreciate and understand art in a more practical way. Over time, the group, who became known as the Pitmen Painters, developed into critically acclaimed artists, and some of their artworks have since sold for thousands of pounds. “We wanted that same culture of wanting to learn and grow to be present in the new factory,” explains Chapman. “The spirit of the local area will live on in the ethics of the site.”

What can you learn from Ashington?
Not every company will be lucky enough to enjoy the freedom to build an
entirely new factory. Chapman is adamant, however, that there are a number of key ideas that all manufacturers can learn from Ashington and apply to their own site:

Culture – “Define a culture early on. For an established site, there may have
to be an element of experimentation, where you have to find the restrictions
and limitations to work out the best ways to phase any cultural change.”

Measurement – “Find a handful of proof points that demonstrate progress with your cultural change – have you seen an improvement in output, or a decrease in errors? Finding evidence will help motivate and encourage your
staff that they’re on the right track.”

Leadership – “Any site has to start with good leadership. Technology, your shopfloor staff, a lean approach – all are important, but the leadership is the catalyst for getting things done. They have to believe 100% in the purpose of
the plant.”

Self-improvement – “Encourage your staff to develop themselves. A
culture of self-improvement means people will come to work not just because they need to pay the bills, but because they feel like they will develop as a person by being there.”