The ‘Unipart Way’

  • Unipart is a 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

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