The Rags to Riches Story of Yorkshire Brick Company

Author: Luca Willington

This year (2019), the American Society for Quality (ASQ) is awarding the prestigious Deming Medal to Alan Winlow, former CEO of Yorkshire Brick Company and Continuous Improvement Director at Marshalls PLC. This news has prompted us to take a step back in time and look at the remarkable success story that has persuaded the ASQ to select Alan as the winner of the Deming Medal.

The story turns out to be a perfect illustration of what Deming’s continual improvement methods can achieve. Their consistent application, under Alan’s leadership, propelled Yorkshire Brick Company from a struggling manufacturing business, as it was in the 1980s, to an astounding commercial success. In 1994, having become the envy of the top players in its industry, Yorkshire Brick Company (YBC) was purchased by Marshalls PLC, which then began to learn continual improvement practices from the business it had acquired - a game changer for the building products industry as we know it today.

By the 1980s, Yorkshire Brick Company Ltd had been trading for many decades, with middling performance. It had managed to grow to 100 employees but, by the 1980s, when our story begins, it was struggling with outdated machinery and low employee morale.

It was the time when Deming’s successes with the Japanese economy came into view in Western businesses. One of the converts to the continual improvement ideas was Alan Winlow, then YBC's CEO.

What makes the story even more remarkable, is that the brick industry as a whole was going through a very difficult time. "The late 1980’s and early 1990’s were a time of crisis for the UK brick industry and for Yorkshire Brick Company" say Alan. The market for our products dropped dramatically and the number of people employed in the industry fell from 14,000 to 8,000 within a short space of time. Luckily for Yorkshire Brick Company I did not rely on previous knowledge to tackle the problem of the Company’s survival but introduced Dr Deming’s ‘Fourth Generation Management’ concepts into the organisation. The result of introducing systems thinking, understanding variation, the theory of knowledge and people principles – psychology was profound and the business outperformed the rest of the industry by a wide margin."

Starting in the late 1980s, Alan got YBC to focus on improving its work processes. The management tossed aside adherence to the minimal British Standard. By implementing Deming’s continual improvement methodology, within a few short years, YBC rose from the bottom of the national league table to well ahead of what had previously been the leading brick producer in the UK.

Inspired by Deming’s theory, Alan initiated a company-wide improvement programme. The entire management team, and afterwards all the YBC employees, learnt the new philosophy of management. Process behaviour charts were used to monitor and improve work processes. Incentives and targets were abolished. The piecework schemes were scrapped and all the hourly paid workers were placed on salaries, with annual leave and sick pay. Engineers and quality personnel began to work together at solving problems and the previous inspection regime was replaced by cooperative efforts to improve work processes across the business.

The very same aged equipment, now handled by a motivated workforce, using efficient work processes for a change, began to generate spectacular results. Product rejects went from 20% to 0.5%. Production of top quality product increased from 85% to over 99%. Equipment efficiency went from 60% to 97%. Manufacturing and associated costs went down. The product range was widened with more attractive consumer-led designs. Service excellence awards were pouring in and sales increased to their highest ever levels. Market share grew, as product quality rose high above the industry standards.

Quality increased as operating costs decreased - a typical outcome of continual improvement initiatives. From a struggling brickworks company, YBC became a market leader of international fame, contracted to export facing bricks all the way to Japan.

YBC’s environmental impact improved dramatically too. The mains water consumption went down by a massive 95%. Electricity consumption was also reduced. By 1992, the failing mid-sized Yorkshire brick factory with a disastrous environmental record had become a business success and a leader in the adoption of environment-friendly work processes.

The competition was not happy. How could such a tiny business command such customer loyalty? Back in 1992, Marshalls PLC was also becoming acutely aware of the transformation that Alan Winlow had led at YBC. With 3,000 employees across 30 manufacturing sites and associated sales offices across the UK, Marshalls was a much bigger business. And yet, they were constantly coming up against YBC on building specifications and consistently losing to them. They realised that Yorkshire Brick were doing something fundamentally different, leading to exceptional customer service, product quality and customer loyalty. Marshalls’ management knew that they had to step up their own performance to remain competitive, so in 1994 Marshalls PLC procured Yorkshire Brick and asked Alan Winlow to “do the same” for them, in a new role of Continual Improvement Director, a role that he held till his retirement in 2000.

Alan instituted a programme of education for leaders and shop floor staff at Marshalls PLC. The changes he initiated were experienced as radical by Marshalls’ employees. Damian Duxbury, who was one the the quality control staff at Marshalls at that time, relates:

“At this time I was a quality control inspector at one of Marshalls Brick sites based in Accrington. I had found myself engaged in the traditional ‘war’ with the production management team of quality vs. quantity. I saw myself as the quality police fighting to ensure the organisation didn’t just send anything off site (whether the quality was good or not). This had affected my relationships with the management team to such an extent that the only way they could ‘control’ me was to keep me on a final written warning for a period of 3 years. Then Alan arranged some training on Continual Improvement with TetraMain (a management consulting firm) and my world changed. In 1995, my world changed yet again when I became part of small team under Alan’s direct control. Me, Alex Ross and later a couple of others took on the role of Continual Improvement advisors with the remit of working across the whole organisation, training and then following up and applying Continual Improvement in whatever area we could. This would be my role for the next 7 years.”

With Alan as one of Marshalls’ directors, his team of continual improvement ambassadors were pushing on open doors and continual improvement practices were spreading throughout the business. The leading UK producer of concrete products was now adopting effective management practices and environmentally friendly production processes. As a result, the building materials industry witnessed a dramatic change in manufacturing standards to what is considered mainstream practice in terms of environmental impact today.

Alan continued to put a lot of his efforts into environmental projects. in 2001, he received an MBE for the environmental work he carried out at Marshalls.

With thanks to Alex Ross, Paul Hollingworth and Damian Duxbury, who have contributed to this story.

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