Hammering home the efficiency message

Sheet metal and the meat industry? What could the two sectors possibly have in common? Chloe Smith reports

What on earth can the meat industry learn from a sheet metal company? That, according to Christine Walsh of the Red Meat Industry Forum (RMIF), is what most people ask when they find out about the open days the group is organising at Dutton Engineering (Woodside).

Fingerpainting is just one of many surprising answers given to the meat industry guests, invited by the RMIF to find out how the business practices at Dutton can help them. Ken Lewis, who founded the small but successful company in 1972 has become something of a business guru, with a cabinet full of awards for successful business practice and a book, How to Transform Your

Company and Enjoy It!

Dutton sits on an industrial estate in Sandy, Bedfordshire. Metal is cut, folded and packed to a soundtrack of grinding and welding. Above is a meeting room - two walls plastered with brightly coloured paintings of stick-men, trees, smiley suns and symbols. This is the outcome of the last managers' meeting, communication the topic.

In one picture, there is a long blue line with shorter blue lines coming off it in the same direction. It might look like a caterpillar but, according to business accounts manager Brendan Leigh who painted it, it illustrates everyone pulling in the same direction, the effect of good communication. "You can't hide your feelings in a painting," says business manager Dean Meeks.

So what use is fingerpainting? According to Meeks, it is part of the overall atmosphere of openness and trust. By drawing models of communication, people come up with ideas about how to improve it.

This is demonstrated on the factory floor where the company hierarchy is not emphasised and all workers wear black polo shirts and md Andrew Read is often found sweeping the floor. Employees do not clock in or out because, says Lewis, checking slips wastes time and erodes trust. Instead, teams monitor each other and correct errant behaviour through peer pressure.

Ideas are encouraged through the 'Kaizen' or 'small change' system. If workers have an idea about making the manufacturing process more efficient, they approach their supervisor. If it is effective, the worker is given a bonus. The crucial part is breaking down the change into time and money saved and displaying the result on the Kaizen station board for everyone to see. It is part of a culture of involvement. "We made the decision to involve the staff in the financial side," says Lewis, "and showed them how to read a profit and loss account." It means when workers ask for a pay rise, they know what's involved. If the staff don't understand the details of accountancy, there are signs on the factory floor that make it simple.

'71p a minute. Think, time in motion, how much you are costing a day,' reads one poster in big letters. The single biggest decision Lewis made was paying salaries rather than hourly rates. It was taken 10 years ago, democratically. Now, the incentive is to get the job done quickly.

So, can the Dutton business model be incorporated into the business models of meat companies? Jenny Harkness, the continuous improvement manager at Scottish meat processing company A K Stottart, seems to think so. She was clearly impressed by the culture at Dutton. "It's open, you can see the amount of trust," she says. "They don't call themselves managers. You can see they're a team." Harkness already has a version of the Kaizen system in place at the Broxburn cutting plant where she is based but, inspired by Dutton, she now wants to involve staff in the financial side even more. She thinks the 71p signs could help the workers understand the costs involved in running a business.

Father-and-son team David and Russell Williams of wholesale butcher's R E Williams and Sons, attended to see what they could learn to benefit their 36-employee business. "There has been a lot of food for thought," says David. "We want to take on a trusting, coaching attitude and look at making [the workers] part of the business. We're interested in getting them to understand the costs of running a business."

Richard and Jane Taylor of Derbyshire catering butcher's Owen Taylor & Sons came away with lots of ideas. Richard, who employs 90 people, acknowledged that while engineering is decidedly different from the meat trade, the business principles can be applied. "You can get blinkered," says Richard, who came away thinking about the "empowering" effect of the Kaizen principle and the "possibilities of annualising working hours."

The Dutton managers acknowledge that change can be difficult - sometimes ideas don't work and new solutions must be found. But the atmosphere means all workers can offer solutions says Meeks: "Nothing is impossible, nothing cannot be done, you just don't know the answer yet." And, very occasionally, finding the answer will involve fingerpainting.