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Pictured at the Lean Business Ireland Awards were Michael Conacur, Áine Conacur and Barry O'Brien, Leading Edge Business Mentor.

Clare firm Leans into new way of working and saves €150k

A KILLALOE company has scored on the double by winning a Lean Leadership Award that brought extra cash of up to €150,000 into the company over an 18-month period.

Thinking Toys was recently presented with an Award of Achievement in recognition of lean leadership at the 2022 Lean Business Ireland Awards.

Implementing transformation change with stock management through a new Lean Management Programme to deal with an overstocking issue helped the company reduce their suppliers to 130 and product lines to 4,000, which cut the value of stock it held by 35%.

Thinking Toys had grown from employing two people with ten suppliers and 200 products in 2004 to nine employees with 160 suppliers in 2020 across the world and 5,500 product lines.

The family business was set up by Michael and Áine Conacur, inspired by their eldest child Ailis, who has Sturge Weber Syndrome and who had major brain surgery when she was two.

The frustration and difficulties the couple endured in trying to source suitable products that would assist in her development was a catalyst in deciding to spare other parents in similar situations the same experience.

Michael recalled that tackling the overstocking issue wasn’t easy.

“We had to look at each supplier around the world, examining frequency of order, minimum order, lead time to delivery and shipping time.

“We had to devise a financial algorithm so we knew when we would reorder. Our mentor Barry O’Brien was the lead in finding the solutions.

“We now have a practical system for every supplier that is working for the warehouse and our bank account. We still don’t have to reduce the quality of our product range and service. Our principle is that we have a product in stock when a parent or teacher wants to buy them.

“The savings from lean management were great as cash is still king in business.”

This change also resulted in having a lot more space in their office with an improved working environment for all employees.

It also freed up a location for a new media centre for all their photography, social media and promotional videos, without having to move products.

Fewer products also resulted in the provision of a new dedicated office unit for two of their employees with additional needs – former Irish Paralympian swim team member, Jonathan McGrath, who has Cerebral Palsy, and their daughter, Ailis (26), who has Autism.

“Ailis would never have gone into the warehouse because it was too frantic. Jonathon did a lot of research work on how to create a suitable work environment and sensory space for an adult with a disability.

“Jonathon works with Ailis when she comes in to work six or seven hours a week. Ailis puts our kits together.

Mr Conacur explained their business grew dramatically because they were constantly identifying a solution for a child or an adult with an additional need.

At the start of 2020, Mr Conacur recalled he received an invitation from Finbar Tuohy, Clare Enterprise Office Business Advisor, to participate in Lean Management but felt it wouldn’t be suitable for his business so he didn’t respond.

However, Mr Tuohy telephoned him and presented a strong case about why his mentor and Lean Management consultant, Barry O’Brien, of Leading Edge, Kilrush, was ideally placed to help a small business.

The company paid a small nominal sum for the Lean Management programme, which is administered through the Clare Local Enterprise Office.

“We immediately hit it off and I knew Barry understood small business and how it works. Working together, we came up with real practical solutions that made a difference.

“He was a great mentor to bounce ideas off. When Covid-19 hit, the timing was priceless because all the best plans went out the window. We had to adapt for what we thought would be three months that turned into 18 months. I couldn’t overstate how beneficial it was to have Barry at the end of the phone.”

Mr O’Brien also helped the company prepare its application for the annual Lean Management competition.

“We had no great expectation of winning. To be honest I did it for Barry. He deserved to get some recognition because we already had got the benefit.

“When we saw the size and calibre of the companies in Croke Park for the ceremony, we were wondering what are we doing here. I was really surprised when our name was called out,” he outlined.

Mr Conacur, who was previously cynical about the benefits of Lean Management, recommends this programme and working with the Local Enterprise Office to all companies regardless of their size.

Securing timely supply lines is still a problem for businesses due to Covid-19, the war in Ukraine and Brexit, he said.

He recalled Covid-19 had a major negative impact on manufacturing goods because if one vital component was missing then it led to huge delays.

What was taking about a week to get a product from Italy is now taking two and a half weeks. Most shipments come through the United Kingdom that can lead to delays.

About Dan Danaher

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