I believe I can speak for the class when I state that today’s tour was among the best we’ve had so far, not that any of them have been anything short of great. We made our way to Unilever to learn about their business and to have a factory tour and upon arrival the first thing I noticed was their focus on safety. They’re a factory, of course, so they MUST have a focus on safety, but this was long before we had our factory tour. As our first business presentation began, the first couple of slides prepared us for the factory tour and explained how to get out in case of an emergency. Unilever believes, strongly, that accidents can be prevented and they have a reason to believe so, since they’ve been running for a long time accident-free. Weeks?Months you ask? No…. years.
Unilever has businesses in several industries, and this Lipton plant focuses on various lines of Lipton’s black teas. Unilever also makes the Magnum brand of ice cream, apparently, which made us very happy later on when they gave each of us an ice cream bar of some kind before we left (considering the heat, you can imagine how appreciated this was). Unilever also creates various types of “lotions and potions” which we received as parting gifts, and most of them were brands we’d recognize. Vaseline? Yes, that’s them. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unilever#Products
The factory tour required that we get prepared to be as safe as possible. We wore white coats, and then yellow reflective coats over those. We had hair nets, though probably not for our safety as much as customers’, earplugs (the machines were loud), and finally steel-toed shoes. Yes, we changed our shoes to have some that were safer. As we walked around the factory floor we were required to stay within the yellow lines that designated where people should be for safety reasons. We did not wear hard hats, this time, though they had a supply on hand for us in case they were needed.
Branching out from safety, Unilever’s factory has been working on increasing productivity over the past few years. They already make a billion packages of tea per day, and another billion servings of non-packaged tea in that same day, all from this one factory. While they work on increasing speed and productivity, they still focus on maintaining quality. We were able to see a taste tester and learn how they objectively rate tea based on a few qualities so that when the factory requests tea that feels, tastes, etc. a certain way then the tea that is sent from the farms is exactly what was requested. Teas need to be consistent since consumers like their tea to be a certain way, regardless of what kind they purchase. The taste tester who showed us her trace said she had been an apprentice taste tester for about four years before being good enough to not be an apprentice, so apparently this takes some time to build up the skill sufficiently.
In order to increase productivity, aside from turning up the speed on the machines after verifying they can handle the increase, Unilever is constantly working to automate more processes. Machines take the flattened boxes and expand them, then fold them, tape them, and fill them. To see how the machines were made to handle every nuance of the process was handled automatically by the machines was interesting.
They are working on automating the “end of line” activities currently, meaning the things which happen when the product is almost ready to leave the factory.
From a traditional operations management point of view, we saw that the machines had their own kanban setup so that when a filling machine needed more boxes it communicated back to the machines which were the source of the boxes and told that machine to send more along the way.
They also had a large board on the wall with ‘Kaizen’ written on it, so their desire for continuous improvement was manifest. Inside the conference room they had KPIs for safety and other measures that showed how they rated themselves from quarter to quarter.
Overall this factory seemed both modern in terms of their technology as well as their practices within the factory. Unilever seemed like the kind of company for which one would want to work because of the potential to make a difference while working in an exciting set of businesses at the same time.