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Abacus Lighting: Case Study

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Abacus Lighting Ltd enrolled on the Productivity Through Innovation programme to work with experienced manufacturing experts from NTU, led by Dr Roy Stratton and Dr Aquila Yeong, to improve their operational processes and make efficiency savings (cost/time) through flow management.

Shining a light on how NTU’s support has improved efficiency across the business

Abacus Lighting Ltd designs, manufactures, installs and maintains bespoke, innovative, sustainable lighting solutions for UK and global customers including sports stadiums, airports, and schools. The company is based in Sutton-in-Ashfield and has had a celebrated heritage in British engineering for over 65 years.

Through the PTI project, which is part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), Abacus has been working with experienced manufacturing experts from NTU, led by Dr Roy Stratton and Dr Aquila Yeong, to improve their operational processes and make efficiency savings (cost/time) through flow management. The support on offer also included a series of practical workshops focusing on flow management, and site visits to peer companies.

We spoke to Dean Walker, Abacus’s Operation Manager, and Stacey Kokuciak, HR and Processes Manager, to find out how the business has benefited from working with NTU.

Dean explained:

We joined the PTI project to see if it could help us with the capacity issues we were facing in our factory, accentuated by an increase in orders over the last 12 months. Some of our challenges were external, such as global supply chain issues which are now easing, but others were internal. From inaccurate production times leading to bottlenecks and projects not being delivered on time, to the impact of the pandemic and Brexit on recruitment, which means we’ve continually had to train new starters.

I’ve been at Abacus for over 12 years, so the PTI project was a great chance to listen to other businesses who are facing similar challenges to us, and learn from experts who have studied flow management and know the processes behind manufacturing across different businesses.

Stacey, who’s been with Abacus for over 39 years, agrees:

As managers, we’re always focused on looking after our business day-to-day and don’t always have time to think more strategically when we’re in the thick of it. The PTI project gave us the opportunity to take a step back and see the bigger picture, including a visit to another manufacturing business. We also hosted a visit which gave us the chance to take a fresh look at how we do things through the eyes of our peers and question ourselves.

Dr Aquila Yeong added:

We have proposed an alternative paradigm, which focused on value throughput (instead of cost), thus challenging the relevance of the businesses existing employee performance measurement and reward policy. This approach/solution underpins the business’ digital platform design, which manages, plans, and controls its production and wider supply chain

It is the first time we have run the workshop in such format: a mixture of on-site and off-site approach, creating additional opportunities for knowledge exchange, adding the peer-to-peer learning dimension into the traditional academic-practice dynamic.

In one of the sessions, the topic was around performance and reward, the participants were open and shared how they have moved away from the individual based 'time and motion', to a throughput/team-based performance reward policy. This offered opportunities for peer-to-peer learning.


Dean continued:

One of the biggest takeaways for me was understanding the importance of flow management for our business as a whole, not just the manufacturing side of things. We offer our clients a turnkey solution to lighting, not just manufacturing, so if the process slows at any point then we’re behind, especially during the early stages such as consultancy and design, or because of issues like recruitment. Ultimately, it’s about mapping out how our processes flow through the business to make sure we’re as productive as we can be.

The PTI project helped us identify the areas where we need to improve. It’s given me a lot of food for thought and has given us a catalyst to make sustainable, long-lasting changes. We’re currently in the process of developing a strategy to drive improvement across the business going into 2024 and beyond.

Stacey explained:

One of the things we’ve done is to bring in more team leaders, and it’s already made a huge difference. Before the team leaders came onboard, Dean had 30 or more operational colleagues coming to him every day, now the team leaders are dealing with much of the day-to-day workload, leaving Dean free to focus on capacity improvements.

For instance, we’re currently looking at how outsourcing and bringing in extra stock from abroad could give us the flexibility and responsiveness we need to balance capacity with forecasting from sales, and respond to the rise in orders we’ve had this year. A couple of businesses we met on the PTI project already do that, and it’s working well for them.

Dean concluded:

Having team leaders in place has increased our effectiveness and efficiency from around 73%-78%, to 80%-82%, which is a significant boost from just one change. It’s also helped me to share learning from the PTI programme across the business. Now, people are more willing to come forward with ideas and improvements, and are more open to doing things differently.

Flow management is about far more than just production, it’s about getting information through systems efficiently and effectively and always being customer driven.

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