Terry Murden: Japanese continue to lead by shining example

AMONG the many management and “how to” books offering advice and explanation, a short paperback by Peter Wickens sticks most in the memory.

The Road to Nissan, published in 1987, was more than a simple account of how and why the Japanese set up their car plant in the north-east of England, now preparing to welcome a further 400 employees.

Wickens, personnel director and Nissan’s first British employee three years earlier, distilled the new ethos brought to these shores from a country that, at the time, was setting the industrial world alight with its ambition and revolutionary methods.

Its pioneering mix of industrial behaviour and Far Eastern-personal development prompted some fanciful stories about company sing-songs and sniggering among those more used to an us-and-them approach to labour relations.

Wickens told us how, by building mutual trust, the workforce and management could work towards a common goal. He introduced us to the philosophy of kaizen or continuous improvement that would be instilled in the employees and, years later, be widely adopted in other factories and offices.

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With Nissan now numbered among a number of “foreign” car manufacturers in Britain – it was followed by Toyota and Honda – some may find it difficult to understand how much of a change its arrival represented. Thatcherism was in its pomp and Britain was turning into an “enterprise” nation, but British industry was still in hock to the trades unions and suffering from poor productivity. Manufacturing, regarded as grubby and unfashionable, was in steep decline.

Nissan brought us a factory floor you could eat off and a level of automation and sophistication more familiar in the new Japanese electronics factories that were also taking root in fading British industrial heartlands.

Fundamentally, its management style, championed by its UK managing director Ian Gibson, changed the relationship between manager and employee. Its single union agreement, the first in the UK, and the abolition of worker-management barriers, represented a stark contrast to the strike-ridden and poorly-performing British car industry. Its decision to locate in north-east England rather than any of the traditional centres – essentially the West Midlands and Merseyside – was considered no coincidence.

Even so, the north-east was a mining and shipbuilding centre and Nissan knew that it could hire from a skilled populace. As these industries were in decline, it could offer a new beginning for the next generation.

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The industrial relations record over 26 years has provided stark evidence of how the experiment turned out: not a single minute has been lost to disputes.

For a time, Nissan flew the flag for Thatcherism and the north but was noted by those worried by the general decay in the mining, steelworks and shipbuilding communities for being one of only two destinations that she or her ministers would regularly visit in the region – the other being the MetroCentre shopping mall in Gateshead.

As such, cynics began to wonder if its fortunes would fade as the political landscape changed. Some saw it as a temporary political fix, lured by government incentives and just as likely to depart as the money ran out, the novelty wore off and British workers reverted to their old ways.

Instead, it has prospered, not only helping to lift the entire British car manufacturing into a new and thriving era, but outliving both Thatcherism and many of the more fashionable electronics factories that were meant to represent the future.

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It put the north-east back on the industrial map for all the right regions, although for a time it was described by the southern media as a Tyneside plant because, as one journalist from the Times told me, no one in the south had heard of Wearside.

With total investment of £3.3 billion and more than six million cars built – 80 per cent for export – they have certainly heard of it now.

The latest jobs expansion comes at a time of over-capacity in the car industry, but should be seen as a vote of confidence in Britain. It is also a shot in the arm for the supply chain.

Thatcherism may be long gone, but Nissan’s achievements are an inheritance that the current Conservative leadership will gladly accept.

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