If any company epitomised the early Thatcher years it was Jaguar. However, when William J Hayden took over as chairman he said that the Jaguar factory was the worst that he had ever seen. Robert Heller argues that the only way to improve Britain's worst factories is if they practise total quality management.
"I have been to car plants all of the world. Apart from some Russian factories in Gorky, Jaguar's factory was the worst I had ever seen." Thus spake Ford's William J Hayden, talking to Car magazine about what he discovered on taking over as Jaguar chairman. According to Business Week, Hayden found a company "starving to death for lack of investment ... a small and dispirited engineering corps ... new versions of older models light years away". The only new product, the much trumpeted sports car, was "immediately shelved" as "underpowered and prohibitively expensive to make".
Yet if any manufacturer epitomised the hopes of the early Thatcher years it was Jaguar. Its boss, John Egan, was lauded (and knighted) for modernising Jaguar from top to bottom, energising its labour force, boosting education and training, restoring its engineering strength, greatly improving its models and, above all, vastly uplifting the quality vital to a luxury manufacturer.
Plainly, either the Jaguar resurrection was a mirage or, having indeed risen spectacularly from the dead, the company suffered a signal and horrifyingly fast relapse. The latter must be the more probable explanation. Business transformation is an endless task, which demands "continuous renewal" - that being the phrase used by the European Foundation for Quality Management, which recently held its second forum since start-up in London, and to which Jaguar belongs.
Of that membership, however, Jaguar has been virtually alone among major British manufacturers. At the end of August, out of 97 "founding", "key" and "regular" members, only ICI, BICC Cables and STC kept Jaguar company, along with two American subsidiaries (NCR and Milliken). The British number was increased by companies like Allied Dunbar and British Telecom: the latter was the only British founding member, rubbing shoulders with manufacturers like Robert Bosch, Sulzer, Fiat, Dassault and Volkswagen - companies which have correctly identified total quality as the sine qua non of survival.
Total quality does not, of course, refer only to the excellence of the delivered product. That is one prime consequence of raising standards throughout the organisation, whether in service or manufacture, to the highest attainable levels, using a combination of quality systems, technology, design training, functional integration, cultural change, etc. It is a demanding, long-term process which requires the highest commitment from on high - hence the "continuous renewal".
This is precisely the kind of programme to which British managers have historically been averse: it scores low on short-term pay-offs and high on current expenditure, while the benefits can only be won by unremitting professionalism at all levels of the firm.