Vaillant Group is the second-largest heating, ventilation and air conditioning company in Europe with 13,000 employees worldwide and a turnover of over £2 billion. Headquartered in Germany, its UK manufacturing plant in Belper, Derbyshire makes around 400,000 boilers annually. Each boiler comprises in excess of 150 separate parts, some made specially on site, and boilers are made to individual order rather than on a stock basis.
This boils down to one mammoth task in terms of people management. Operators making the boilers, and procurement and logistics staff involved in the purchase and delivery of parts to the shop floor must all be available when required. The site employs a mix of contract and permanent employees, and they all have to fit around regular maintenance of machinery by specialist maintenance staff.
As with any manufacturing site, any hold-ups or bottlenecks in the supply chain have a direct effect on output and profit suffers, so the coordination of floor staff is central to the business. And in an industry where training a temporary employee to cover holidays can take two weeks and it takes three months to train someone on the required level to work across all assembly tracks, unplanned employee absence is a major issue.
In 2003 the company decided it needed a system that could monitor employee working time, and began implementing time-tracking software from Kronos, which had over 35 years’ experience with workforce management solutions for large manufacturing companies. At that time, the Vaillant plant had a number of different systems in place for recording employee attendance.
‘Supervisors spent a lot of time doing data entry and files were always being misplaced,’ says Jason Griffiths, operations manager at Vaillant’s Belper plant. ‘If one supervisor was off then another couldn’t get access to their records. We had errors that meant records didn’t reflect what operators had actually done, and were getting underpaid or having to work excess hours, which obviously causes a lot of upset and bad publicity with employees. So in the beginning we took on Kronos mainly for payroll purposes.
Line supervisors are the first line in logging real-time attendance into Kronos on the fifty or sixty people on a typical shift. With the new system in place, real-time attendance information, as well as shift patterns and holidays, is more readily accessible to them.
‘In manufacturing we have a very limited amount of flexibility because of the amount of people involved,’ says Griffiths. ‘Having Kronos allows us to address potential challenges ahead of time and bring in appropriate resources, while meeting the flexible needs of our workers. There’s no point in having a system where you need to change someone’s shift mid-week and it might take two or three days to get the system change in place. Historically a plant would have one shift pattern, but nowadays we’re able to run two or three different shift patterns at any one time. We have a system that keeps track of those changes very accurately and quickly.’
However as recession times hit, managing and controlling productivity became key, and the software took on a more strategic role around the plant’s core efficiency drive.
The figures from Kronos were able to provide a real-time measure of the plant’s productivity overall.
Attendance information logged through the Kronos system is layered with production capacity figures already stored on SAP that show how long each part of the boiler assembly process is taking in minutes and hours, from manufacturing parts to painting panels. These figures can be used to assess how employees are meeting production demand on a minute-by-minute daily, weekly or monthly basis.
By tracking not just absences but non-productive time on site such as training time and down time due to supplier problems, Kronos effectively eliminated the guesswork around ‘lost time’ for the company.
And as well as organising shifts more efficiently and keeping track holiday requests and sickness, managers have gained a high-level overview into HR trends and absentee issues. It is this combination of real time, historical and overview information that allows for short-term, medium-term and long-term planning.
‘A few interesting trends emerged that we could then plan around, such as spikes in holiday time,’ says Griffiths. ‘Due to our slightly older workforce demographic perhaps with older children, we’ve not got the spikes in holiday during the typical school holiday period. Instead we get the most holiday requests around the second or third week of September. Now that we know this we can plan resources a month earlier, build additional products or bring in additional workforce.’
The company counts the Kronos tool and the improved efficiences that result from it as one of the pillars of its success over the last five years – in 2009, when the overall market for domestic heating was down by 5%, Vaillant Group actually grew its UK sales volumes and market share levels, counting the system as one of the pillars of its success. Current absence levels for the plant are falling year-on-year. While the national average for the sector is 3.7%, the Belper plant’s absences currently stand at 2.8% – a figure which Griffiths puts down to better employee engagement and satisfaction.
‘The vast majority of employees like being monitored through the system,’ he says. ‘It allows us to focus our attention on those who might need conselling or improving their performance levels, and those who are attending and performing well are getting recognised as such.’