UK: Britain hitches a ride in a world class Japanese machine. (2 of 2)

UK: Britain hitches a ride in a world class Japanese machine. (2 of 2) - Over in Wales the story of impoverished human resources is the same, though not the level of commitment to building them up. Matsushita's TV factory in Wales has a design department

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Over in Wales the story of impoverished human resources is the same, though not the level of commitment to building them up. Matsushita's TV factory in Wales has a design department but its work is at the relatively mundane level of ensuring that products comply with local safety standards. All of the basic design is still done in Japan. "We have 23 people in design at the moment," says the factory's managing director, Yuzo Koyama, "and we're still looking for more. But it's difficult to get good quality engineers here."

Sony's 25-strong R and D team has more creative achievements to its credit, but the firm's main European research effort is located in Stuttgart, where useful engineers are more readily recruited. Lesson number one: the more that Japanese companies fan out across Europe in the years to come, the less indulgence they are likely to show to a workforce that lacks the necessary skills. Screwdriver plants will remain screwdriver plants because that is the only sort of tool that the workforce can be trusted with.

But building up in-house research and design is only part of the story. The most exciting aspect of the Japanese presence for many British industrialists is the chance which it offers them to hitch a ride in a world class machine.

The shoddiness and unreliability of local component suppliers has been the universal complaint of Japanese manufacturers in the UK. But because they start off shoddy does not mean that they have to stay that way. In this area, too, Nissan's Gibson demonstrates the level of commitment which make his firm an excellent role model for other Japanese employers in this country. "We have established what we call the Supply Development Team. We took a number of our people and committed them full time to improving suppliers. That does not mean criticising suppliers. It does not mean auditing suppliers. It means genuinely being a resource to the suppliers to improve themselves.

"We took senior people, we trained them here in the UK, we trained them in Japan. We also shipped them to the US so that they could look at what happens there. They work with a supplier at a time, spend some weeks with him in order to teach him techniques and technologies and means of improvements, so that they do improve. That has been extremely successful. When we first asked our suppliers if they wanted to become involved, we had 12 volunteers; we now have a five-year backlog. They can see what can be done once they have those skills and experience."

What Nissan's paternalistic benevolence is achieving in the North-east, some enterprising companies elsewhere are learning to do for themselves. Alf Gooding's Race Electronics and its offshoots are the most brilliant example of this, and of how, given the capacity of managers to learn and to transcend their limitations, British industrial culture has the potential to be galvanised by its encounter with the Japanese.

Gooding-Sanken, manufacturing power supplies for the computer and electronics industries from its base in the Cynon Valley, is the first of a new breed of company. As the name suggests, it is a joint Anglo-Japanese venture, but what makes it special was the insistence on the part of Gooding and the new firm's managing director, Malcolm Sanders, that the company would do everything itself, from research and design through to manufacturing. Established in June last year, the firm now has 180 employees and a turnover of £15 million.

Why did Sanken, the Japanese parent, agree that research and development be integral to the new company's operation? "It's because, while they have no trouble servicing Japanese manufacturers," says Sanders, "when it comes to servicing non-Japanese they would have a struggle. We are much better placed to do it."

What gave Gooding and Sanders the confidence to insist on this condition - and the negotiations leading to the establishment of the company took over a year - was the deep background of both men in working for Japanese clients and attaining Japanese standards of quality. Sanders spent three years with Sony and eight with Matsushita before joining Gooding. Gooding's Race Electronics has been supplying the big names in Japanese electronics for years. Both are keenly aware of the standards demanded and are prepared to do what it takes to attain them.

This is what close involvement with the Japanese can bring to UK companies that are willing to rise to the challenge of matching the standards of the best manufacturers in the world. "There has been more change in the UK motor industry in the last four years than in the 10 years prior," says Gibson. "The reason for that is just over the river in Sunderland: people realise they have no excuse any more. You can say to yourself what works on the far side of the world won't work here. It's a bit more difficult to say what works on the far side of the river won't work here. It concentrates the mind."

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