The Miracle of Ebbw Vale

Of course, Ebbw Vale Works has been closed since 2002, but I was there for the last 3-and-a-bit years, and especially the last year proved to be quite exhilarating, especially considering that this was a plant about to shut forever.

If I remember the chronology correctly, the first cut in manpower was announced in October 2000, followed by the announcement of closure in February the next year. For a while I was trying to find employment in Trostre, Ebbw Vale’s sister plant, but no dice. So I contacted Ian Hobson who is now Director, Mills in Strip Products UK, but at the time was the Operations Manager in Ebbw Vale.

This led to a meeting where Ian, Malcolm Davies, Matt Stait and myself hammered out the principles of what later would become known as “Traffic Lights”. This system arose from the fact that we would have to do the data gathering without the assistance of an office of 15 clerks, so that at least we would have some control over what went on in the plant.

The Traffic Lights system basically looks at a small set of key parameters with which to evaluate the status of various pieces of kit, as well as the quality of the products that were produced by them. Updates on how the plant was doing were sent out twice a week and discussed in a weekly steering group meeting. Even though this is nowhere near as advanced and sophisticated as the later web-based versions, it was amazing how having information at the tips of your fingers could change the way you can manage the plant.

Clearly this was only one tool that made Ebbw Vale in its last year the best performing plant in Corus Packaging Plus (the name for Corus’s tinplate business). As a matter of fact, having only a skeleton staff to work with turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It meant that there was no dead weight, no special projects, no self-promoters or hangers-on, only a small number of middle-aged men who knew how to do their job and were dedicated enough to show the world that even in their last year they were not yet past their best.

Add to this that Team Leaders all of a sudden were given real responsibility and were linking directly with the management of the plant without the intervening layer of middle management. It’s easy to understand how a middle management layer could make them feel cut off from where the action really happened. It could also mean that the message gets lost or changed, either accidentally because of the filtering in the middle management layer, or on purpose because the latter have their own concerns and priorities.

It’s something I have seen happen in Port Talbot with events like the white collar review, where people who I deemed to be hangers-on and non-achievers actually managed to worm themselves into the selection process as selectors, thereby safeguarding their own positions. Fortunately, no such thing happened in Ebbw Vale, either because these same people would not want to remain with what was clearly a lost cause, or because the selection process was carried out more ruthlessly.

The result ? Ebbw Vale still closed, but when Marjan Oudeman visited the plant a few months before closure, and seeing how what should have felt like a dying place actually outperformed the rest, she is said to have exclaimed “Oh my god, we’ve shut down the wrong plant!”

You couldn’t ask for a nicer epitaph – they should erect a stone memorial with that message on it somewhere where the plant has been.


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