From our Manufacturing.Support session 25 November 2021 

Sometimes an issue isn’t a tangible “thing”, but is more of a concept or mindset, which is what this week’s panel focused on. 
 

Culture and Attitude 

Business “Culture” is a difficult thing to identify. 
 
Some may say it’s the values that a company shares with its employees, some may say it’s down to behaviour, others see it as a mindset and a series of beliefs. 
 
All of these contribute to what we see, feel and experience as the “culture”, and it is sometimes positive, sometimes negative. 
 
As discussed with the panel, the strongest businesses – in terms of being robust, not just financial strength – are those who actively engage with their people. 
 
Training is an important part of this, but such training isn’t necessarily only what the company thinks the employee needs to fulfil their job, but what the employee actually needs to fulfil their position in the company. 
 
Many smaller companies rely on the knowledge of their people to ensure operations are smooth and trouble-free. Sometimes something happens that Jim in the maintenance department remembers how to resolve from 5 years ago; it isn’t about documenting everything into a database that someone can go and search, but having that organic access to knowledge in an intuitive way, that jumps to a suitable response, which makes the difference. And people love to be able to contribute. 
 
Some (too many) businesses develop rigid structures and hierarchies in the name of efficiency, and this has the effect of demoralising and desensitising their people. Being in business is not just functional, but a social effort, so the more that people are enabled to interact, the more enjoyable it is for them and the greater effort they will put in.  
Those same rigid hierarchies often only celebrate “promotion” by managerial responsibility, whereas many people would be happier if their abilities were celebrated and encouraged. 
 
The panel also looked at how to measure the contribution that each person in a team might make to the output. In terms of raw profit, each person’s effort is very subjective, and depends on opinion, whether they’ve had a bad/good day, spent time on overcoming a quality issue generated from elsewhere, and a whole host of other intangible variables. It would be useful for a measurement process if someone’s role could be calculated as a proportion of the final output so everyone’s performance is based on the same benchmark, but that’s something maybe for future! 
 
In the meantime, let’s stick with a positive “culture” of a supportive, engaged and happy workforce. 

Business Process or Process of a Business? 

“A business is just an open-ended project” 
A fairly broad statement, and on the face of it, too simplistic? 
 
Maybe not. 
 
A finite project consists of an intent, a plan, a series of activities, tasks or actions, verification and deliverables. A process of its own. 
 
However, a business is ongoing and undertakes multiple projects – either as part of the sales/manufacturing/service offering, or in order to complete the necessary business functions, such as accounting, recruitment, purchasing. 
 
Each of these processes will usually cycle, but with changing deadlines, outcomes, intent. When taken as a collective, as the operation of the business, it’s probably not far off to say that a business is a project, with adapting goals, and therefore “open ended”. 

Competing with Mass Manufacturing 

You have to ask the question: is it realistic for UK small manufacturers to compete with the global-scale, mass manufacturers? 
 
And of course, it’s not. 
 
However, whilst the customers of mass manufacturing have already decided that they want to buy the product that has been defined for them, at the lowest possible price, smaller and low-volume manufacturers are aiming at a very different marketplace. 
 
Mass manufacturing relies on large quantities being produced reliably and consistently, to at least an acceptable quality at the least possible cost and to satisfy the demand in the market (although there is a view that if you don’t quite satisfy that demand occasionally, that scarcity can make the products even more desirable). 
 
However, low volume manufacturing still leaves the opportunity for the customer to make some decisions about what they want. The buyer is still only part way through their buyer’s journey. That level of uniqueness or customisation adds a value to the product, which goes towards justifying an increase in the cost. 
 
The key differentiator is that mass manufacturing is pre-programmed and therefore limits individual choice and individuality. It almost always relies heavily on automated equipment with minimal human intervention. It also requires a considerable amount of planning time before production, although with modern methods and advanced manufacturing techniques, this time is shrinking. 
Low volume and bespoke manufacturing relies predominantly on human intervention throughout the process. Planning is frequently dynamic and adaptive during the process itself. However, while the cost of the product may be greater, there is less need to adapt to a catalogue format or rigid standardisation. 
 
Both mass and low-volume manufacturing have their place, and each relies on the other to survive. The innovation shown by UK manufacturing over the centuries and continuing now means that we should be celebrating low volume and skill-based manufacturing on a par with each other and be proud.! 
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