May 11

Unipart & Vanguard ‘ways’ to improve

  • Productivity is the most important peacetime issue facing any nation or organisation – therefore, one would expect all governments and major business schools, management organisations and consultancies to focus on it 

  • Not so

  • For example:

    • The UK has no well-known, well-supported productivity ‘centre of excellence’ e.g. a UK Productivity Centre – HMG might occasionally set up study groups to evolve better measures of economic performance or advise on ways to improve national productivity but nothing much ever results

    • Major UK business schools offer no courses on the subject

    • The CBI and IoD offer no useful help or comment about productivity on their websites

    • Major consultancies offer their expensive advice on anything but – the one exception being McKinseys who delve into the subject, albeit only at the macro/ global level 

  • So, for all the huffing and puffing about productivity being ‘almost everything’ and ‘the guts of capitalism’, managers and ministers are left with all sorts of productivity experts forever trotting out their groupthink wisdom about dismal ‘productivity gaps’ followed by widely different theories but little good practical help on how to close them – hence, most productivity gaps persist 

  • However, hope is at hand 

  • Two management consultancies have emerged who already have a successful track record in obtaining BIG quantifiable productivity improvements for organisations in both public and private sectors viz:

    • Vanguard Consulting

    • Unipart Consulting

    • N.B. I have no connection with either and only a limited understanding of their approaches but I do like what I know of them 

  • Vanguard, led by John Seddon, has cut through all the highfalutin fads and TLAs on offer to identify HUGE improvement potential available in most organisations, much from cutting waste caused by what they call ‘failure demand’ or which arises within most processes – their approach is based on the thinking of Taiichi Ohno, his revolutionary TPS (Toyota Production System) and his focus on ‘removing the non-value adding wastes that occur in all OCTs (Order Cycle Times)’ 

  • Unipart, the car parts company, founded by John Neill some 30 years ago and a huge success given it now has £1bn revenue and 10,000 employees – this week I was invited by Frank Nigriello, their Director of Corporate Affairs, for what turned out to be a long chat about their approach, the ‘Unipart Way’ and whether it could be improved:

    • Driving up to their Oxford HQ, one is peppered with roadside hoardings announcing ‘Productivity up by 33%’, ‘Waste down by 80%’ and so left in no doubt about what matters there

    • Frank and I then sat in the canteen that all levels of staff use – no separate directors’ dining room, lifts or loos as was often the case in my ‘old days’

    • Apparently, it’s difficult to summarise the Unipart Way as a sequence of discrete steps but my understanding was it’s a mix of:

      • Management communicating company plans to all staff – and highlighting exciting changes en route e.g. a new working environment such as that found at Disneyland

      • Hoshin Kanri – aka policy deployment – a system which translates directors’ aims into meaningful action and improvement projects for levels below – it also seeks feedback from below on possible problems/ barriers and suggestions for even better projects to produce changes needed

      • Less than 20 specific KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) employed overall – for example:

        • Customer satisfaction measures cover customers’ ratings of the price, quality and service levels offered them – as I also recommend

        • However, Frank added an extra heading ‘innovation programme’ saying customers put great emphasis on efforts made there

      • ‘Circles’ of representatives formed for each work area – members are empowered not only to think of lots of ways for continuous improvement (CI), no matter how small, but also implement them – CI is an approach ignored by most in the West yet it offers huge benefits for little cost and risk – go figure!

      • Process mapping helps identify wasteful activities and agree ‘standard methods’ for doing things – at least until even better ways are found

      • LEAN is used to reduce ‘seven’ causes of waste – Toyota had even been over to teach Unipart how to do this well – now, they offer to pass on this knowledge

      • Performance charts per work area displayed on several of the canteen walls showing trends and gaps, plus action planned and taken:

        • All are audited daily by internal staff – and there was no sign they found this ‘a chore’

        • The key is all this performance information is visible to all employees who can then offer their own ideas anytime

      • Frank then reeled off an impressive list of household name clients (e.g. Vodafone) where the Unipart Way had achieved significant hard-nosed results

      • I had originally thought their approach was essentially just another version of CI with a large dose of wishy-washy five year journeys and culture change thrown in

      • Wrong

      •  UW = ∑ (QL + CI) projects = a mix of Quantum Leap + Continuous Improvement projects underpinned by strong employee motivation/ involvement levels 

  • The latest buzzword for the latter is ‘employee engagement’ exemplified on my visit by the following:

    • First, the smiley/ friendly atmosphere that greets you as you walk into the HQ building – after countless client visits, one learns to spot the difference between happy companies and others

    • Then the same in the canteen where girls behind the counter or on the till called Frank ‘Frank’, not ‘Sir’ – and Frank called them by their first names too – no aloof ‘command and control’ here

    • Then Sid happened to walk by us – he was an ex-employee who had retired to South Africa five years ago and was visiting the UK – he just wanted to meet up with his old chums, including Frank, whilst over here – and, again, it was first names only

    • My only quibble was Frank kept banging on about ‘employee engagement’ whilst I dared suggest it depended largely on the quality of leadership over said employees – perhaps modesty forbade any follow-up comment

  • Last, I asked Frank whether any further steps were in hand to improve the Unipart Way

  • ‘Digitalisation’ of all staff i.e. the ongoing teaching of all about potential benefits from use of robotics, 3D printing and AI (Artificial Intelligence) – already, this has produced a suggestion to instal sensors in canteen fridges so staff don’t need to keep checking that temperatures are kept within strict limits and food is not wasted

  • Before I left, and knowing that Frank and Chairman John Neill are keen to help improve UK productivity, I suggested that Unipart sponsor/ conduct an annual UK productivity survey – much like the survey I led in the late 80s in conjunction with the CBI – in the process, they would enjoy splendid publicity for their consultancy arm as well as do something positive for the nation

  • And, if/ when that proved successful, Unipart might consider pushing for a powerful successor to the old UKPC, along the lines followed by Carla O’Dell and her APQC (American Productivity and Quality Center) – a win/ win result for all

  • Overall, my conclusion is “all power to Unipart and Vanguard” in their efforts to improve the performance of others – they might disagree on how best to get there but both seem to offer what most organisations desperately need i.e. practical solutions for big quantifiable productivity improvements and quick paybacks

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