If we spent more on engineering education instead of MBAs, would our manufacturers stand a better chance of survival? asks Roger Eglin.
The diary in The Sunday Times carried an interesting item last month. The author described a cocktail party a few years ago where one of the guests asked an elegant German lady what her husband did. He is an engineer, she replied. Nothing remarkable about this, you might think, except that this was how Frau Siemens chose to describe her husband's role at the head of one of the great industrial empires: not as chairman or chief executive, or top manager, but as an engineer.
This appeared shortly after another item in the Isle of Wight's weekly newspaper, the County Press, about the former Plessey radar factory on the island. This has been one of the island's major employers and a supposed centre of excellence for radar development. But more often than not, the County Press has been reporting fears for the plant's future prompted by cuts in defence spending or takeover threats. This story was different.
After the GEC-Siemens takeover of Plessey, the radar factory came under Siemens' control last year. After reviewing the plant's future, Siemens, said the County Press, had decided to build a £9 million design engineering centre there. Roger Barnes, operations director at the plant, said that soon after the takeover, engineering work practices had been reviewed and with the approval of Siemens' main board, a five-year plan was being implemented to introduce the best in computer-aided design and draughting. The 300 designers and engineers, who at present are working in a scatter of temporary buildings, will be housed in a purpose-built block and will enjoy the very best in modern working conditions, fully air-conditioned and well lit.
Reading this prompted several thoughts. The most obvious is that in Siemens' case commitment to engineering excellence is an ongoing attitude; pride will make sure that you remain a good engineer. The second is to ask why the plant's previous owner had not thought such investments worthwhile or implemented any improvements. The third is to wonder how many British firms have five-year plans to develop their design engineering. And finally there is the light that this incident throws on the survival prospects of British manufacturing. Put simply, any company that conducts its operations with the same sense of excellence that Siemens does will prosper in the competitive world markets of the 1990s. Those that do not will go under. And sadly I suspect that there are too many British companies that fall into the latter category.
Clearly the Siemens success story, as it does with so many companies in Germany and Japan, starts at the top with the leadership example of senior management. There was a time when many British companies were led by men grounded in the mechanical facts of life. Ironically one of them was Allen Clark, the original founder of Plessey. He was a man who lived in considerable style, touring America in his own Pullman car, but it was always said of him that there was no senior manager better capable of rolling back the sleeves of his silk shirt and showing some machinist working on the shopfloor just how the job should be done.