UK: Toshiba's vision of the future. (3 of 3)

UK: Toshiba's vision of the future. (3 of 3) - Apart from the blue coats (and the pink swans), the factory shows no sign of its Japanese parentage. Only 11 Japanese work there, in management, engineering and staff functions. In a total workforce of 1,050

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Apart from the blue coats (and the pink swans), the factory shows no sign of its Japanese parentage. Only 11 Japanese work there, in management, engineering and staff functions. In a total workforce of 1,050 their presence goes largely unremarked. Says Takeo Fujii, Toshiba Corporation's London-based general manager and representative for Europe: "We try to use only local staff except where tasks require Japanese staff. We would like our TCP factory to be regarded as European."

The seemingly small changes in status together formed a base for more significant ones: open communication and employee involvement in company decision making. Every morning there is a five-minute briefing session in all parts of the factory at which the previous day's work is reviewed and comments noted. More important still is the monthly meeting of the company advisory board (COAB) which provides a two-way conduit for communication. On it sit representatives of all groups in the factory. Membership is currently 14, plus Williams, who chairs the board's meetings. These representatives then report back in detail to the entire workforce.

The agenda always includes a number of standard items: a report on profit and loss, monthly sales and the state of the market, which, says Williams, is "exactly the same information as goes to Japan monthly". After these, anything goes. Says Pemberton, who as senior shop steward is automatically a member: "They don't do anything without talking it over in COAB. COAB is the hub of the company. I don't think it could have worked without it."

Williams, too, thinks that the system works well. But he admits that involving the entire company in decision making can pose problems. "The most difficult thing with open communication is the question of when an idea becomes firm enough to be an actual plan," he says. "There's no point in sounding out a plan (in COAB) if it's going to be put back." On the other hand, he adds, "the spirit of COAB is gone if we take a decision before talking to them".

In times of trouble, too, COAB comes into its own. In 1988, for example, the company made 85 people redundant as a result, says Williams, of "market deterioration". The question of who should go was put to COAB. "COAB actually gave us guidance as to how we should deal with it," he says. "Many companies operate a last in, first out system. But COAB protected the company, saying that the people who went should be those who were least loss."

To date COAB has apparently failed no one. Discussion has never reached the stage of pendulum arbitration between management and union; issues have always been resolved at COAB level. Predictably, the closest that it has ever come was over pay negotiations, but even then COAB successfully defused the situation. Pemberton points out that when the company puts forward a proposal for the annual pay rise, COAB smooths the way: "You know why they're not offering more because you hear the figures monthly." Other than that, according to Williams, policy on smoking has provoked the most heated discussion.

There was a time, however, about four years ago, when it was generally felt that the company was losing that all-important "personal feel". As TCP had grown it had become hard to sustain the enthusiasm of a smaller outfit. The solution was a system of teams, each with its own leader. Says Pemberton: "If a team of 30 works together, it doesn't matter how large the company gets; you still have the team spirit."

As Toshiba and the other TV makers have grown, they have been joined by Japanese car manufacturers whose contribution to Britain's trade balance will be even more significant. Nissan leads the sector and with Toyota and Honda will raise output to two million a year in the second half of the 1990s. According to the Nomura Research Institute, if present trends continue, Britain will be running a trade surplus before the end of the century - courtesy of the Japanese.

In the long term, however, as their British bases mature, the Japanese will remit profits back to the parent companies. It seems, then, that any long-lasting gain from the Japanese presence in Britain will have to come on a local level in the form of jobs and work for suppliers. Beyond that, British industry will have to open itself to the management lessons that the Japanese can teach it. Until it does, pink swans will remain a rare species on the shopfloor.

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