How Sant’Anna factory (Lisbon) thrives since 1741 (and others didn’t survive)

Bom dia! I recently got the chance to have a tour and take part in a little workshop at the Sant’Anna ceramics factory – or manufactury – at Lisbon, which was highly interesting.

The unusual thing about Santa Anna is, that it is working exactly the same as 250 years ago. And still profitable where others are not.

In LEAN terms, I saw a lot of Monozukuri, craftmanship at Sant’Anna as part of their unique success.

If you want to know about their most important business rule for success, management style (and just a little story), read on!

Sant’Anna Ceramica Lisbon is Europe’s oldest still active ceramics factory. It was founded in 1741 and is still profitable. Actually, it is the only bigger ceramics and pottery production factory left in Europe.

You can find it on Fábrica Sant’Anna (

Imagine that: their whole working process is still completely manual: The making of the tiles, vases and various ornaments, and pottery like lamps, basins, vases, drinking glasses from different kinds of clay in different types of ceramic like fiance.

This is the production process of Azulejo tiles (without the following hand-painting of the designs):

Every item is made by hand in moulds. Then the clay is dried about 1 – 3 months and then burned for about 1 day and cooling down in the oven for 2 days afterwards.

The painted tiles are called Azulejos, from arabic Al Zul: Polished Stone, for which Portugal is famous, though the techniques came from mauric southern Spain first in the 15th Century.

The factory is a regular company, still family-owned. The family’s members fly to distributors and representatives all over the world, employing very modern sales techniques. When I talked to the member of the family, who was somewhere between 35 – 40 years old, I guess, he did not know methods like Lean or Little’s Law, but they apply a lot of these approaches knowingly or not. And some that they could profit on they do not use, because they do not know.

One of the main principles of the factory is:
“We don’t miss a delivery date. Never.”

He said, in 10 years that he runs the factory, he did not miss one single agreed-on deadline.

How do they do that? They know perfectly how long their processes take – how much time they need for which kind and size of order. They also know where they may increase speed or output through using some retired workers or working some week-ends. But that is it. So they never, ever take an order that they cannot meet. The answer is: no. We cannot deliver in that time, so we do not take the order. And that was always lived in the history of the factory. There is also no need to include a significant time buffer: they know how long it will take.

They work diligently, but never hasty. This is highly “Lean” or Monozukuri – a master craftsmen’s attitude of working.

It is this consequence that keeps them profitable and highly reputable.

Actually, they reported cases where potential customers chose an industrial producer who promised to deliver in a much shorter period of time. Often, the deadline was not held, or quality was not what was promised. So several of these customers then came to Sant’Anna, gave them the order, and Sant’Anna took the time they knew they would take and delivered on time with perfect quality.

The burning of the ceramics is the only part of the process changed. Until about 40 years ago, wood-fueled ovens as big as a small chapel burned 6 days 24 hours every week. The ovens still exist, but wood-fueled ovens were forbidden for environmental reasons and pollution. And the electric ovens are much more comfortable and easier to control the temperature

After burning, each piece is checked whether it is intact – by the sound it makes when tapped with another piece of ceramic. Then they are glazed and painted by hand.

The factory employs about 35 people. Labour cost is about 80 % of total production cost. Additionally to all pottery items etc., the factory makes about 20.000 painted Azulejo tiles per month and delivers them through distributors worldwide, be it in Arabia, the Americas or Asia.

The assortment is still mainly based on historic designs – the majority of clients chooses designs from the 18th and 19th century or slight variations of it. The factory also does any design the client wants to have. This often includes complicated pattern designs made of dozens of tiles that need to be numbered and assembled like a puzzle in exactly the right order. Each of these designs is checked and numbered by hand before being shipped.

So this is very “inefficient”. Many routines could be strongly reduced in effort. But the factory does not want that.

Mastery versus “Just the same”

They watched all (!) other ceramic factories who embraced some part of industrializing their processes vanish and close. Because anyone anywhere in the world can do that. While nobody else takes the care that Sant’Anna does.

It takes years to learn the little secrets of handling the materials to reach the quality – which is taught by the experienced workers to the younger. Workers usually stay all their work-lifes at Sant’Anna, so they can hand down up to 40 years of experience. With some of the designs, it takes studied painters 3-5 years to master in perfection. Some of the designs take up to 1 day to paint. Per tile!  

It is about pride and a century-old, authentic artisanry tradition. About artistic quality and craftmanship. Their painted tiles still look the same after several hundred years. And that is what they take pride in.

And customers value and pay for that. When distributors offer well-situated customers the choice of a $6 industrial painted tile or a $26 Sant’Anna hand-painted tile, more customers decide for the $26 tile than the $6 industrial tide.

I really liked this way of working and running a business. Rather, it’s not “running” a business, it is … “walking a business“, you could say. It is not a model for large factories, quantities and commodity prices. But it is very sustainable. For hundreds of years.

From a “Lean” perspective, I saw several places and parts in the factory where it was not cleaned up and well-ordered. Outdated rusty tools and parts where hanging on the walls, crates of half-finished goods were standing around and narrowing space for walking, some places where the floor had steps or other risks of tripping were not secured, eliminated or marked.

No way or company is perfect. I did enjoy getting insights into this unique factory’s working.

* If you want to talk to me 1 – 5 days about how Lean will make your company better – I can easily promise that – and help you overcome fake Agile, book my Training Lean Management & Lean IT or contact me *

Thorsten Speil

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