The management policies in this industry are antediluvian,' fulminates Jeremy Evans, head of manufacturing at loudspeaker makers Bowers & Wilkins, lamenting that he can't source more components locally, or even in Europe, for the company's world-leading speaker range. Instead, it must go to China for the required quality and cost.
But then, the Worthing company aims to embody the exact opposite of the craft-based, one-man-and-a-dog management style that has seen the once-prominent UK hi-fi industry in steady retreat before better-organised rivals: high-end (B&W's extraordinary-looking Nautilus speakers sell to the likes of Bill Gates for dollars 35,000 a pair), brand-led, commanding a dominant world market share in its upscale segment, and supporting the Rolls-Royce image with equally slick manufacturing in a purpose-built new facility.
Until 1997, as Evans admits, B&W was more the rule than the exception.
True to the stereotype, the company was the creation of a passionate audiophile, John Bowers, who began building loudspeakers at the back of a Worthing hi-fi store. Bowers was more than a brilliant designer, however, astutely consolidating early success by investing in a dedicated R&D lab (the 'University of Sound') and an exclusive global network of distributors (you can't buy B&W in a chain), some of them fully owned, who form 'a vital part of the B&W family'.
The firm's manufacturing processes, though, had not kept pace with the product, and a decade ago still bore the hallmarks of B&W's artisanal origins. Although people were good at improvising their way round problems, the system was much less good at handling routine. The gap between ambition and means was exposed in 1997, ironically by the runaway market success of the company's 600-series loudspeakers. It couldn't keep up with demand, or make them to its exacting quality standards.
Thus began the long, winding march towards lean: putting together a team, gathering data - and making mistakes. The early stages were marked by surprising and not always welcome discoveries, often about management. The new ways (single-piece flow, standard procedures, teams) drew plenty of resistance. But as the obvious benefits began to accrue, there was a domino effect. For instance, reorganising tweeter manufacture cost nothing ('except ego', notes Evans) in investment but resulted in doubled productivity, a huge gain in quality, a 99% cut in work-in-progress, and throughput time cut from two weeks to 20 minutes. It's hard to argue with that.
As the learning has spread, B&W has been able to restructure production from subassembly departments into three focused factories organised by value stream. Central to this progress is a performance management system that tackled head-on the people issues brought into the open by lean methods. Pay, twice-a-year appraisal and training have been brought together in a way that clarifies expectations, helps staff to achieve them and rewards them accordingly. The year it took to develop the pay system (with the help of ACAS and B&W staff) was well spent; it is now part of the flywheel that drives the company forward.
The direction for the momentum is delivered by technology innovation in product design, at the service of the brand. B&W has a long history of loudspeaker firsts, and is constantly looking to carry it forward.
The difference now is that a high-performing factory has become an essential part of the strategy, at once process-development lab for the designers, logistics centre for the world, and, not least, a badge of quality: for B&W at least, 'Made in England' still signifies what it always used to.