When it comes to manufacturing excellence in the food industry, where better to look than one of the world’s leading consumer goods companies? For his part, Henk Eertink manages manufacturing initiatives across Unilever’s key European marketplace, which commands just over two fifths of the global giant’s €39.7-billion annual turnover (2005 figures). In a career spanning 24 years with Unilever Eertink has worked his way from grass-roots research and development – during which time he developed processes for synthesizing soaps from fatty acids at the Home and Personal Care Department – through the Food Division, and into manufacturing management from where he made the transition to the corporate level becoming involved in restructuring, rationalisation, cost saving exercises and, nowadays, TPM Methodology.
Most recently Eertink has been the driving force behind implementing TPM across a swathe of Unilever’s diverse European manufacturing base. TPM (Total Productive Maintenance) is an approach to equipment improvement originating from the Japanese Institute of Plant Maintenance (JIPM). Unilever pioneered the program in its Japanese branch and later exported the ideas into Europe. The company has been awarded hundreds of awards for TPM excellence, including the 2005 award for World Class Achievement. In February 2006, Eertink was invited to Japan as one of only two recipients of the Nakajima prize, awarded by JIPM to those who have contributed with the same zeal as TPM pioneer and namesake Seiichi Nakajima.
Eertink enjoys the task of driving implementation of this methodology across different countries in Europe, but what of the challenges?
“Oh, it’s like growing a garden; it depends on the type of soil which flowers you can grow,” says Eertink.
“The issue to do this successfully is to take into account what the different cultures are like and how such a program can fit in such a culture. So make it fit in the environment rather than define what it should be along a very rigid structure.”
One of Unilever’s strengths lies in its size and diversity and this plays an important role as well. “We have a multinational team, so already that gives me some insight into what the culture is like, but I also travel through all the regions on a very frequent basis.”
A core principal for TPM is workforce participation, so for Eertink getting people on-side is crucial. “What counts is a sensitivity to the person or the group of persons that you are dealing with…If a new factory needs to start with a new program we need to bring them to the same level as us, in terms of thinking and in terms of mechanisms that will make this work. Its communicating and getting them convinced and letting them participate in the process of discovering what this can bring for them.” A tried and true philosophy that saw Unilever through its acquisition of Best Foods and parallel expansion into Eastern Europe following the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“The mechanisms that work in Eastern Europe are different to the mechanisms we are used to in the West, both in terms of how you manage factories but also how you get things done in that different style of life.”
Unfamiliarity can sometimes throw up obstacles to aligning people with one way of thinking, says Eertink. “With the unknown, people don’t know how to manage. It’s just a matter of being unacquainted with the issues and therefore we must help them better understand what it is and how it needs to be done.”
Today, the idea buzzing around most boardrooms at Unilever is the concept of Vitality. At the shop floor level, according to Eertink, this is about translating practically a marketing concept, projected externally with a new range of products, into the workplace by redesigning relationships and processes.
“You have this concept of vitality which means vitality through the use of our products, but also we want to have the same vitality in our organization. That means we are in the middle of a reorganization process…to create more vitality in the work we do and to feel better at work.” Try facilitating, “a healthier workforce for example, but also, easier, less complex, methods of communication, or faster decision making.”
Apparently there is no secret to the success of Unilever in a highly competitive European market; “focus is essential, lets define where we are strong and lets use that to compete.” Oh and hiring the best graduates around doesn’t hurt either “Unilever with its reputation is in a position to attract the best good graduates.”
Henk Eertink is a Honeycomb Connect F.E.A.S.T executive member.
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