My miserable year at Kerry Ultrasonics in Hitchin

My son James keeps asking me about the different jobs I’ve done over my working life and I thought I would write a post about my time at Kerry Ultrasonics to act as a memory jogger, and to give him a fuller history he can refer to.

Both looking back with the benefit of hindsight and to be honest at the time, I found my time at Kerry Ultrasonics to be the most miserable year of my working life. There was a blame culture prevalent at the factory which, although not apparent in my initial interview and first couple of weeks, became more and more obvious as the time went on. For that reason, most of this post is going to sound like a long, continuous moan – apologies for that.

It all started positive enough however.

The end of my time at Marconi Instruments

I’d been made redundant from Marconi Instruments in the early part of 2003. At the time, Marconi was going through huge structural changes brought about by the resignation of Lord Weinstock as the chairman, and the whole Marconi company had been split into 6 divisions under the new chairman.

By the time I was made redundant in 2003 there had been about 4 rounds of redundancies which started with a large number in 2002 and was gradually eating into the ability of the company to do it’s business. By the time if affected me, I couldn’t say I was surprised but it still came as a shock to find I no longer going to the factory I’d been employed at for 24 years.

It turned out I wasn’t out of work for long as I got a phone call one morning about 3 weeks after I’d left MI from Jane1, a former employee of MI who was at that time the Production Director of Kerry Ultrasonics in Hitchin. She had heard that I had left MI and wondered if I would be interested in joining Kerry as Test Manager in their factory. Obviously I said I was interested and we arranged to meet up a couple of days later.

A Typical Kerry Ultrasonics cleaning plant
Typical Kerry Ultrasonics cleaner

I went to meet Jane at the Kerry factory in Hitchin, which was quite small, with all the facilities in one building in an industrial estate in the north of Hitchin. I discovered that they constructed industrial cleaning plant, of the type in the picture here, which was quite a change from the electronics I’d been involved with at MI.

As I recall, Jane explained that there was a serious quality problem with their products and they wanted a Test Manager who could improve the testing strategy of their Test department and basically make sure every aspect of the machines they produced were tested and documented. Although I had no experience of industrial plant, this sounded like something I could do and I agreed to have a formal interview with their MD a few days after the meeting.

During the actual interview I was just asked general questions about what I’d done at Marconi and received some more information about the setup at Kerry and then the MD stood up and said, ‘Welcome to Kerry Simon’ and that was it – I had passed the interview and was going to start in about a week.

My time at Kerry Ultrasonics

The first few weeks were spent getting to know the people in the test department and the factory generally and, looking back on the experience I realise that the MD kept away from me and left me to get to know what was needed.

The test supervisor, Gary was very friendly and had a good relationship with everybody and although I think he probably thought that I was an unnecessary addition to the team, was still fine with me.

Factory Layout and products

I discovered the whole of the Kerry Ultrasonics operation was centered on the single building in Hitchin. The entrance at the front of the building led to offices to the left where sales and admin staff worked and to the right where there was a large demonstration room. A door straight in front led to the factory floor.

My miserable year at Kerry Ultrasonics in Hitchin 1
Kerry desktop cleaner

On the top floor of the front building were offices where the senior staff worked. The MD’s office was the largest and plushest, and then there were more modest offices where Jane and the other directors worked.

Through the doors into the factory, the shop floor was split into two areas. Straight ahead was the assembly / test area with a main store down the right hand side, and through a large opening on the left was a machine shop where the large steel panels for the plant were constructed.

As well as the large, industrial plant, Kerry Ultrasonics also had a series of small desktop cleaners for things like jewelry and small mechanical assemblies similar to the one shown here.

Later experiences at Kerry Ultrasonics

It was after I’d been at Kerry Ultrasonics for about 6 weeks that I discovered the MD was the worst type of person to run the business – well, any business.

For a start he was basically rooted in the 1960s. Any email he received had to be printed by his secretary so that he could have a paper copy which he either annotated with a response, or dictated to her what the response would be. She then had to type the answer to an email and send it for him.

He had been the sales director at the company, prior to becoming MD and it became apparent that the chief cause of the quality problems was that the sales team, which were still under his direct control, were encouraged to sell anything with no regard to how or when it was going to be built. That meant the factory would go from having no work for periods of 3 – 4 weeks and then suddenly being required to build and test 5 large cleaning plant in the space of a couple of weeks. This inevitably led to short cuts and rushed work which is never the best way to manufacture anything, especially large expensive plant.

It was during one of these bouts of extreme activity that I discovered one of the MDs other traits; he expected people – at least anyone who was in a managerial position – to work way past their official finishing time. My work times were, I seem to recall 8:30 to 5 with 30 minutes lunch break but I’ve always been a early starter so I would arrive at about 7:30, but since the MD never turned up in the building until about 9:30 he didn’t see that.

This came to a head when the 4 test personnel were working on 3 different machines and we then had to build a 4th plant which consisted of about 8 different stages of washing, along with a large automatic placement system for an important customer who needed delivery in a few weeks2.

Because of the rush, the Service manager, Mike was drafted in to assist with the testing. Mike had worked in the factory for about 20 years and completely understood all the different aspects of the systems, so this made sense and I agreed with him that the test personnel (the 4 testers and myself) would start work early and do a couple of hours in the morning and then Mike would stay a couple of hours after work. That way the machine would be worked on for the maximum time and we’d have a chance of getting it completed.

Of course when the MD left the building at 6:30 he found Mike working on the machine by himself.

The next day I got summoned to his office and received a dressing down3 because, ‘the test department were nowhere to be seen’ and we’d, ‘left Mike doing all the work’.

It was then that I discovered that not only was the MD a bully, he had no capacity to listen to any reason. I tried to explain that we had worked out the best way to achieve the testing of this particular plant, but he wasn’t having any ‘excuse’. I was basically shouted at to ‘make sure test people were working on that machine tonight’.

Because I couldn’t actually insist that people do overtime, that resulted in me staying until 7:00 that night basically following Mike around until I saw the MD leave the building.

Don’t speak up

After about 6 months a new quality manager joined Kerry and started a series of brainstorm meetings which were focused on some aspect of the product design. I was invited to attend these meetings and went along with some ideas of improvements we could make.

The meeting had been running about 10 minutes and we were into the, ‘throw out ideas for improvements’ phase and I put forward one of my suggestions.

One of the big issues with a large cleaning plant was that they would lose heat from the tanks and therefore were costly to run because the heating elements had to be on frequently.

I made the suggestion, ‘why not line the doors to the plant with insulation to minimize this heat loss’. To me, that sounded like a fairly sensible and obvious suggestion. Apparently not;

‘That’s the most stupid suggestion I’ve ever heard’, spluttered the MD, ‘Every time the doors are open, the heat would just be lost anyway’.

Because everyone needed to keep in with him they mostly nodded along, but I could see the quality manager was pretty upset by the episode; the whole point of brainstorming is to get ideas and then evaluate them – if any idea is shot down before the evaluation it could be a good idea has been lost without real thought.

I learnt at that time to keep quiet in meetings.

One Good thing

There was one good thing which I achieved whilst I was at Kerry, although I doubt is was actually used after I left the company.

One of the items of equipment the company sold was an auto placement robot which picked items up from a conveyor and placed them into the first bath of a multi bath process. This device as called an Auto Trans.

When an order required an Auto Trans, a member of the Test Team had to produce a program which contained the parameters which drove the Auto Trans to pick up items from the correct place, the amount of travel required to place them, the speeds to run etc. This ‘program’ was actually little more than a text file of parameters, but producing it took time and the process of creating it couldn’t start until the plant was built.

Since all plant consisted on a variable number of uniform sized tanks I created a desktop application using Java Swing which made it possible to create a ‘virtual’ plant of the type being built.

You could create any number of washing, ultrasonic, drying etc stages and the system would be ‘built’ in the application allowing you to create an initial program to drive this virtual plant and get it mostly written before the plant was built. Although it wasn’t accurate enough to produce a finished program, a lot of the initial work could be done prior to starting the plant.

This was quite useful, and certainly impressed the people who saw the cartoon like virtual machine running in the application, but I produced this towards the end of my time at Kerry and I suspect it was not used after I left.

The final straw and release from Kerry Ultrasonics

By the time I’d been at Kerry for about nine months I was hating every moment of my working day. Because of the systemic problems the quality of the product was not improving significantly and concepts like ‘design for manufacture’ were laughed at at the highest level in the company.

Basically, the theory at Kerry was that quality was the sole ownership of the manufacturing dept, and when something was delivered with faults it was manufacturing, and specifically test who were completely responsible.

This came to a head in the last couple of months before I left Kerry Ultrasonics. It was another period when we had more product to build than we had either staff or space to work on. One particular plant, which was destined for an LCD manufacturer in Cambridge, was due to be shipped in a couple of days and we’d received another order for a large plant which needed to be started.

By this time I’d introduced a final test check sheet so that every machine produced had a list of confirmatory checks that had to be performed prior to the plant being shipped. This sheet had to be completed and signed by one of the test staff, and then the product could be packed.

I’d told Jane that we could start the new plant after we’d done the final checks to the Cambridge machine and handed it over to the shipping staff. In the afternoon of the day we were due to hand over the plant to shipping the MD came and asked why we hadn’t started the new plant.

“Don’t you know how vital this is?” he screamed at me on the shop floor4. “Why are you messing about with bits of paper – get this plant shipped and start on the important order”.

So, we did as we were told and the plant shipped to Cambridge.

About two weeks later I was asked to accompany the quality manager on a visit to a factory on the Cambridge industrial estate where one of our machines had been delivered in a faulty state. I’m sure you can guess which machine it was – sure enough it was the unit which I’d been told to skip the final testing on and ship out. Virtually every fault the machine exhibited and the customer was complaining about was something covered on our final checklist.

Panels had been left with cables untethered, a low level of water had been left in the tanks, the unit had been delivered dirty with marks and stains over the panels.

As if the fact that we’d delivered another faulty wasn’t bad enough, and having been on the receiving end of some serious customer complaint at the customer’s premises, when we got back to the factory I received another roasting from the MD because we’d delivered a faulty unit!

About a month after that Kerry Ultrasonics had another restructure and I was made redundant. To be honest, by that time I was pretty pleased to be going and left Kerry Ultrasonics in May 2004.

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