Factory Beauty: Does looks impact performance?

Factories are like people; they come in all shapes and looks—some more attractive than others. There is no doubt that a good looking factory is nice for workers and visitors, but does it also have a significant impact on the plant’s operational and financial performances? How much should management care about factory beauty?

Over the last years, I’ve seen close to 100 factories on five continents. A candidate for the “prettiest” among all these is a factory that I visited a few days ago in my own hometown Trondheim, Norway. It belongs to Sandvik Teeness AS, a producer of anti-vibration tools and a fully-owned subsidiary of Sandvik—the Swedish tooling giant with almost 50K employees and 40 factories worldwide. About 120 employees moved into a brand new Teeness factory in 2008. Its architecture was designed to fit perfectly in the hills just above the Trondheim fjord. The first thing you see is the all-glass facade. Teeness is proud to show what they do—and they should be.

Sandvik Teeness

There are a few other interesting things about this factory. Teeness has been known a long time for its strong socio-technical approach, where empowered blue-collars have a strong voice in any management issues. The management offices are almost on the factory floor; only thin and soundproof windows separate them. The idea is transparency—both ways from blue-collars (all dresses in casual black Teeness-labeled clothes) to white-collars. Furthermore, everyone eat together in the high-standard cantina or meet for a break at the cozy café on the factory floor. All this symbolises: Teeness is a good place to work.

I see three core arguments why factory beauty matters a lot to financial performance:

  • Attractive work places attract attractive workers.
  • Pretty factories have leaner operations.
  • Pretty factories sell more products.

#1 Better workers

Some workers are more attractive to a company than others: They are positive, intelligent, hard-working, future-oriented and team players. Workers with such traits can choose between employers, and they choose employers who are attractive to them. When Teeness opened their new factory they experienced a rush of job seekers from other factories in the Trondheim area. What is the value of having an above-average competent and motivated work force?

#2 Leaner operations

Contrary to what I argue in this post, there is nothing in the literature on Toyota Production System or Lean that claims factory beauty to be an important principle. It does not add value to the customer, hence it is “waste”. Visitors to Toyota in Japan often report back that that “it did not look nice there, but it was super efficient”. Therefore, many lean consultants argue that Western managers misunderstands “5S” and “lean” as cleaning exercises and that investing money for prettiness is waste. I disagree.

First, if you want to sustain high levels of 5S, than give your employees spotless, shiny and beautiful premises. Second, there are few better ways to showcase Toyota’s principle “respect for humans”, than to provide attractive and healthy work places. Third—if not overdone—beauty increases visualisation because distractions are removed, which will lead to more streamlined and efficient operations. My hypothesis will be that there is a strong positive correlation between prettiness and effectiveness in manufacturing factories. If it looks good, it probably is good!

#3 Increased sales

On the day of my visit to Teeness there was also a Russian delegation of tool purchasers. Would they buy more or less tools if the factory looked like a shack? Bringing customers into your factory is a great opportunity to sell more products, and to build lasting emotional links with your buyers (as BMW, Guinness, Harley Davidson, Hershey’s and many others do). In a Volvo factory I’ve heard that “nobody sells a truck better than our shop-floor workers”; the dealers loved talking to passionate and knowledgeable truck assemblers whose intention was not to sell trucks.

Going the extra mile and having something spectacular in your factory is a certain way to be remembered. Beautiful factories sell more products. What’s the value of that?

Who else got the looks?

Sandvik Teeness AS is indeed a nice one. But there are many other beauties out there as well. I’ve read that the following factories should be considered among the nicest in the world (they’re all on my 50-factories-to-see-before-I-die-list): Volkswagen’s transparent factory in Dresden (Germany), Bang Olufsen’s design palace in Struer (Denmark), Boeing’s mega plant in Washington (USA), and Aarbakke’s fun factory in Jæren (Norway), to mention a few.

What factories do you find attractive? Who else got the looks?

8 thoughts on “Factory Beauty: Does looks impact performance?

  1. Interesting observation! I agree fully. Indeed, factory beauty makes the place more attractive to employees (and increases their loyalty), makes it easier to maintain the “shine”–the toughest S in 5S, and is a great marketing tool. HP (in its golden days) always brought its customers to its factories. It even had some of its sales conferences in its factories.

    A “beautiful factory” to visit on my list is the BMW plant in Leipzig.

  2. Many thanks for your comments Nicolay and Kasra! I’m sure Teeness will be happy to read your remarks about “good design” and how HP increased their sales using their factory as a conference location.

    • This is inspiring reading, both about your thoughts and also the comments.
      I was lucky enough to start in Teeness just before planning and construction of the plant was made in 2007. We put a lot of effort in the planning and also money in details to achieve a factory that would support for high performance. It is also designed to help us to “living the brand” Silent Tools.
      So far, my experience is that the appearance do affect performance in a positive way. I know, it is easy to become self-centered as a defense of our solutions, but I experience that much comes for free. Pretty clean look inspires everyone to keep order. We can then use our energy to provide quality and new products. It is more time available for management to be engaged in the development of the business, as basic activity to maintain performance comes free from all employees.
      Finally, we have customers visiting the factory for product training, and having a nice factory that we can be proud of and not afraid to show, do help to have the customers focus on the products performance. This i believe give them added value trough better knowledge in the use of our product.

      Q: Does looks impact performance? A: Yes, both for us and the customer.

  3. I really enjoyed your blog post, and reading the comments along with it. And what a great notion of having a list of Must-See Factories, Torbjørn!

    I strongly support your arguments. I believe factory “beauty” do lead to satisfied workers, better operations and improved sales. It would be an interesting topic to empirical data on.

    I dare to propose a fourth claim: #4) Better integrated in society.

    I believe that “beautiful” factories are more accepted by it’s neighbours in the surroundings and perform better on environmental parameters. The argument for this would be that a sense of worker pride and cleanliness inside also shows on the outside. Exteriors looks better, workers talk better about their employer, worker pride and sustained 5S leads to less waste, and more attention is given to polution and impact on the physical environment.

    Thanks for an interesting post!

    • Dear Ottar. Sorry for the late reply to your very kind remark. Your proposed fourth claim seems very legitimate: Indeed a good looking factory can blend in with other appreciated buildings in a society. In my next blog post I have been inspired by you, among others, to write about “lean & green”; hope you like that post as well.

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