Can you tell us more about Tomrods Ltd?

Tomrods Ltd is a leading steel service centre. The products include an extensive range of steel sections, from merchant bars to heavy structural sections. Most of the factory’s steel output receives a range of value-adding processes, including cutting and drilling, shot blasting and painting. The company employs 60 people across a nine-acre site; the market segments include engineering, construction, infrastructure, storage, and power generation.

Customers are supported by an experienced technical sales team, and an in-house fleet of heavy goods vehicles for direct deliveries. Tomrods’ long-standing reputation of expertise and trustworthiness is sustained by a focus on premium customer service, consistent quality, and on-time deliveries.

Simon Cave, Tomrods KTP Asssociate

Simon Cave

What was the KTP project and how did it come about?

Following Tomrods completion of the Help to Grow programme at Leeds Beckett University, the company were keen to extend the collaboration through a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP). The project aimed to drive a business transformation to deliver improvements in productivity and operational processes, underpinned by cultural and organisational change practices.

The Tomrods Kanban production board

What happens in your typical day?

The 24-month project plan was comprehensive and purposeful. I have picked out some of the interesting highlights from my time spent working within the business:

Understanding the business and the works operation - My initial focus was to understand the business, by joining in with teams across all departments and pursuing discussion. This allowed me to gain an overview of the entire business but also to map the operational processes in detail. As I built relationships, I was able to understand the challenges of planning and accomplishing around 100 customer orders each day.  The steel bars are large and heavy – their journey through the factory requires time, space, proficient team members, and specialist handling equipment. I began to map the disruptive issues and workflow bottlenecks.

Data analysis was a key part to understand and to objectively verify how the work flows through the factory. Information from the company’s ERP system combined with manual data recording by team members at their individual work-centres, enabled analysis of job flow times, waiting times, flow efficiency and the factory’s performance against the daily schedules. Later data sets visualised the variation of flow and unmasked in more detail, the reasons for delay, identifying common and unusual causes.

Company culture – It was important to understand and report on the culture, behaviour, and mood across the business ahead of designing improvement changes around productivity. I collaborated with my Support Academic to build a questionnaire, and I used workshops to present the results. This milestone helped to foster ongoing communication about the KTP project, but moreover, to orientate the culture for flow-improvement plans.

Implementation – The project highlight was the design and installation of a Kanban production control system across the planning and manufacturing operation. The wider KTP team endorsed the proposal, as Kanban provides immediate visualisation of current work and controls workflow. It also respects current roles, responsibilities, and works with the existing ERP and paper job card systems. The physical boards were constructed in-house, and I redesigned the job cards to include infographics and colour coding – all to assist with visual management and flow. Further workshops delivered training and clarity around the new system. Initially, a soft-launch was trialled with a small team of volunteers, before proving and scaling across the whole site.

Marketing framework – Towards the end of the project, I collaborated with a university marketing academic and Tomrods’ sales team to review the commercial landscape and current marketing activities. The aim was to build a detailed internal and external analytical framework to generate a marketing plan. This was an engaging opportunity to research the business’ supply chain, competitors, digital capabilities, and market segments.

A view of the inside of the Tomrods factory

What are the outcomes of the KTP?

Visual production control - Tomrods experienced a step-change improvement in production control. The Kanban boards are central informational hubs. Everyone is on the same page, ensuring increased but simple control. This brings transparency to the whole work process as we now “see the whole value stream”. All current tasks are visible, and job cards never get lost (a previous issue). The visual overview provokes sharper communication and understanding across the factory floor. Problems, such as stock picking errors or growing bottlenecks are exposed earlier and can be fixed quickly. Operationally, we have moved away from ‘managing people’ to allowing the team to self-organise around the work. Supervisors now look for where work is not flowing rather than trying to keep people busy. The planning function now aims to optimise factory flow rather than individual machine efficiency.

Improved predictability and delivery speed – We are seeing improvements in workflow as team members ‘pull’ work through the value-adding steps when there is capacity, rather than the previous system of working by fixed date/time schedules. Once the Kanban system had been adopted by the work team, I moved on to driving incremental efficiency improvements by identifying the barriers to flow and facilitating permanent solutions. Together, we developed regular feedback loops and simple action plans to systematically remove interruptions, improve and standardise workspace organisation, machine maintenance as well as establishing some basic productivity KPIs. An underlying foundation has been to promote a culture of trust, opportunity to challenge and collaborate, as well as attracting support from the senior leadership team.

Strategy – During the closing stages of the project, I was able to draw from a range of academic knowledge and international conferences to develop some strategy models which align with Tomrods’ future. An ‘Operational excellence’ model – which outlines a change management tool including accountabilities and responsibilities, feedback loops, skills and production capabilities, review frequencies, data enabling, operational fitness (KPIs), addressing variation and disruption, and fostering collaborative improvement and innovation; A ‘SOSTAC’ marketing framework – a comprehensive review system to sign post future markets and establish detailed marketing tactics and activities.

Post-KTP – The Kanban system is a convincing KTP deliverable. It will encompass ongoing productivity improvements and will allow scalability as the business grows. A digital transformation to a smart factory will allow automatic and accurate data around workflow. This will improve the operations’ predictability through a better understanding of work delivery rate consistency and will make planning more accurate, based on historical data. Kanban will transform from physical to digital. Dashboards will continue to visualise the work and the team can further optimise and reduce work-in-progress levels across the factory, as it’s easier to juggle with three balls than 10.

Tomrods branded trucks outside the company premises

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