Meet Sarah – Head of Factory Operations
Forged from strong stuff
We meet Congleton's Head of Factory Operations Sarah and find out what gave her the steely determination to succeed in multiple manufacturing environments.
In 1996, Damon Hill won the Formula 1 World Championship for the very first time. The series went down to the wire with Hill being crowned champion on the very last race in Japan. However, thousands of miles away in Chester, a teenage Sarah sat glued to the television.
“I was a total F1 addict,” Sarah recalls. “I’d watch every race and attend the British Grand Prix pretty much every year. If I had to pinpoint where my love of engineering stemmed from, it would be F1.”
Unbeknown to the then teenage Sarah, she would embark on a career in engineering that would span 16 years and counting. Graduating from Loughborough University with a BEng in Manufacturing Engineering and Management, she then went on to complete a Masters in Operations Excellence and found herself working on her placement year for Alstom in Lincoln.
“It was quite lucky really that six months into my placement at Alstom, the site was sold to Siemens in 2003 and has stayed that way ever since. I was then sponsored through my final year and taken on as a graduate on the back of it. I joined at the age of 22 as a Lean Implementer.”
This role was within Assembly and Test, meaning that once the gas turbines were assembled, they were put into the test bays and run up to speed. Core to this early role was identifying process improvements and trying to save costs, but most importantly, working with diverse sets of factory teams.
“I moved through the ranks quite quickly, going from Cell Manager to Manufacturing Manager looking after teams of 30 people on the shop floor. I was quite young at the time but it gave me a great footing in a factory environment. After a few years in Lincoln, an opportunity for a Production Manager role came up at our site in Congleton in 2012. It was a no-brainer for me and my husband and we had already decided we were ready to move back to the North West to be closer to family.
“I was later promoted to the role of Head of Factory Operations, which is what I’m doing now. I am responsible for all of our production, the Engineering teams which includes Maintenance, Test engineering, Product and Process Engineering. I also lead the Lean Operations.. All in all, I’m responsible for around 250 people.”
As Head of Factory Operations, Sarah leads the award-winning Congleton factory, responsible for producing variable speed drives for Siemens Digital Industries. But as 2020 was barely a few months underway, Sarah and the Congleton Leadership team found themselves thrown into the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, mitigating as much risk for the team in Congleton.
“Our top priority was the safety of our teams, and making sure the workplace was safe and conformed to all Government Guidance. Another challenge for us was was supply chains, as we started to quickly see an impact in material supply to the factory. The was handled by the local team collaborating at a divisional level . As the end of March approached, we worked together with all of the team members at Congleton to put the necessary measures in places around safe working on site. Although if you’d told me that we’d be working among 33 other major organisations making ventilators in a few day’s time I wouldn’t have believed you.”
By Friday 21st March, two days before Prime Minister Johnson announced the full lockdown for the UK, Sarah and the team became involved in the Ventilator Challenge. That was when tens of people from the Digital Industry business were seconded onto the production of ventilators to meet the nation’s requirement for 30,000 units. By 27th March Sarah remembers that the team were essentially then working on it 24 hours a day.
“I was, and still am, so proud of what the core team did in those early weeks. They were relentless. I saw the time sheets, so I know the hours they were putting in. Each and every one of them put their heart and soul into the challenge and the level of dedication was astonishing. It makes our company special to work for when people were literally dropping what they were doing to support their colleagues. If we ever need to refer to an example of ownership culture, just look no further than the company’s response to the Ventilator Challenge.”
For Sarah and the team, a degree of normality is returning to Congleton; a site that kept producing for essential industries throughout COVID-19, reducing to around 80% capacity at the high of the lockdown. Keeping morale and productivity high is something that Sarah believes is one of her greatest skills, and something that deviates away slightly from the ‘Engineer’ badge that she’s often labelled with.
“For me this job has and always will be about the people. It’s about teams; how do you help people to realise their full potential, give effective feedback and realise the best solutions for our people and the business? I love the lean elements of my job, finding efficiencies, improvements and getting the best out of everyone in our business. What my Engineering degree enabled me to do is move into roles that brought out my strengths. It helped me see what put a smile on my face and, ultimately, what I’m good at. The hardest thing in any company is never the technical challenges, it’s the softer skills around developing people, breaking down barriers and conflict resolution.
“I think that sometimes people don’t realise the opportunities ahead of them. Stay curious, keep putting your hand up for things and find out what you’re passionate about. I’ve had setbacks and had people speak negatively about my gender. But you know what I did? I found that person and spoke to them. We’re all guilty of going around the houses when someone gets your back up, but I guarantee you that if you just do the bigger thing and speak to them, 9 times out of 10 it’s not you they’ve got a problem with. Empathy can be a great connector for people. And if they do have a problem with me, well then I’ll give as good as I get” Sarah laughs.