UK: MANAGEMENT TODAY - BEST FACTORIES AWARDS 1993. - 'Most Improved' Category - Most Improved Factory - Land Rover.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

'Most Improved' Category - Most Improved Factory - Land Rover.

The sight that greeted the judges as they arrived on the factory floor at Land Rover, Solihull, was one rarely seen in today's high-tech, right-first-time motor industry. A small group of men were beating out press defects from vehicle bonnets before delivering them to the assembly line. The spectacle exemplified some of the major challenges faced by this year's winner in the Most Improved category - like the age range of its product line and the low volume of its production.

The Defender, as the original Land Rover is known these days, dates back to 1948. Conceived as a short-term stopgap with export potential, the vehicle is still in production 45 years later. Only the VW Beetle has been in continuous production for a longer period of time. Land Rover misread the market just as comprehensively when it introduced the Discovery in 1989. The latter car was a response to the Japanese incursion into the four-wheel drive sector. At the time the company believed, as managing director Terry Morgan recalls, that 'production might reach 300 vehicles a week'. In spite of widespread recession in the motor industry, production is currently running at almost three times that level. Yet Land Rover's output is still minuscule by motor industry standards. (Ford turns out nearly 7,000 Mondeos a week from a single plant.) Even with £1 billion of sales in 1993, the company is still, as Morgan agrees, 'a niche player' - with all the limitations which that implies.

Aside from the metal-beaters, the Land Rover factory looks at first glance like any other vehicle assembly plant. The tracks and feeder cells seem conventional enough. So is the complex purchasing and scheduling organisation that juggles build rates, vehicle specifications and the flow of associated parts from suppliers. However it is on the tracks and in the feeder cells - where sub-assemblies are prepared - that the factory's inherited problems are most apparent.

These days, in the automotive industry, design-for-manufacture is everything. Yet the old Defender still takes over 100 man-hours to build. The more recently designed Range Rover (although this is getting long in the tooth, too, dating back to 1970) takes between 60 and 70 man-hours to build. By contrast the newer Discovery needs only 45 man-hours. The three vehicles are produced almost side-by-side. So here is slick, state-of-the-art technology. And there is much the same operation being carried out virtually by hand.

Land Rover's success depends on making a virtue of the difficulties that it labours under. With low volumes exacerbated by a multitude of variants - over 800 different model specifications were produced last year - flexibility is the key. For example, some car makers have a separate paint shop dedicated to each model they produce. Land Rover's vintage paint line (it was originally installed for the 1970's Rover SD1 saloon) has to spray all three of its models. Most car makers aim to maximise the number of vehicles sprayed with a particular colour. Land Rover's average paint batch is six. A total of 22 colours is automatically available, and the switch from colour to colour takes place in the gap between one vehicle and the next.

The motor industry has gone further than most in adopting Japanese working practices, and Land Rover has certainly been no laggard in this respect. Parts are delivered at the track side 'just-in-time'. Every employee takes part in quality circle discussions. (According to an independent audit, Land Rover's quality circles are the most active in the country.) Every employee is individually appraised and has his or her own personal development file. Everyone is identically dressed, and that includes Morgan and manufacturing director Ian Collier: for there are no 'workers' at Land Rover, only 'associates'.

Empowerment is no mere buzzword, Morgan insists. On the track, where the specifications of successive vehicles can differ considerably because of the wide range of options, Errol Bell and his team demonstrate what this means in terms of flexible working. Bell points out a block of empty offices - 'that's where the managers used to be'; also an open plan arrangement of desks between the tracks - 'that's where they are today'. Managers are not only more accessible, they are fewer in number, and the scope for continuous improvement has increased in proportion. 'As long as the new process is better, there's no reason why anything can't be changed,' says Bell.

Activity: Production of four-wheel drive vehicles

Task: Efficient and market-responsive assembly

Complexity: High

Size: 4,000 employees

Outstanding features: Flexibility, people management, continuous improvement.

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