A Vision of the Future: Toshiba's Plymouth TV Plant Holds Lessons That British Industry Would Do Well to Learn

Article excerpt

A VISION OF THE FUTURE Last summer, an executive on secondment from Toshiba Corporation in Tokyo sat down at its Plymouth subsidiary with some plain pink paper. He proceeded to fold it into intricate, pink paper swans. Since then, the origami swans have become a familiar, if incongruous, sight on the shopfloor. Awarded to employees as part of a three-month quality initiative for 'a perfect previous day's work', they are a small symbol of the Japanese attitude to managing people.

Their acceptance by the British workers on the assembly line at Toshiba Consumer Products (TCP) is indicative of a potentially more significant factor - a willingness to adapt to Japanese ways that has been fundamental to Toshiba's manufacturing operations in this country. If such flexibility became widespread, it could instil new life into British manufacturing.

But many managers, not to mention trade unionists, would be highly dubious about the power of a paper swan as a motivator, however marginal. Understandably so. That gesture, like so much of the Japanese approach to people management, challenges the time-honoured confrontational traditions of Bristish industrial culture which, despite commendable exceptions, still persist in most UK production plants.

Toshiba has built up an efficient TV manufacturing operation where British manufacturers have failed. Ironically, not a single British-owned TV maker has survived independent into the 1990s. Uncompetitive, some have simply gone out of business; other have been absorbed into more competitive foreign rivals. The last to go, Thorn EMI Ferguson, was taken over in 1987 by the French electronics giant Thomson.

The Japanese meanwhile have thrived. Eight firms now have local production in the UK, dominating the market. In 1990, the colour TV sector achieved a trade surplus of 271 million pounds, against 58 million pounds i 1989 and a previos deficit almost since colour TVs came onto the market. In the 10 years since TCP started production in Plymouth, its turnover has increased tenfold to over 100 million pounds. Output has risen from 76,000 in 1981 to 600,000 colour televisions a year. Not a single day has been lost to industrial action. This year, a second factory nearby will start production of air conditioning units, representing an investment of 23 million pounds. Total investment in colour television manufacture amounts of 49 million pounds.

Back in 1981, it was by no means certain that 'the Plymouth experiment' would be a success. All the production planning and systems in the world would have been worthless without the right industrial relations, so the Japanese set about engineering them - through sympathetic British managements and unions officials. Much was made in the media of the so-called 'no strike' agreement concluded with the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications & Plumbing Union (EETPU) in April that year. The deal allowed for pendulum arbitration in the event of total disagreement between management and unions but, happily, has never been invoked.

However, the agreement alone might have proved less effective without accompanying broader changes in people management. George Williams, who took over a managing director in 1988, had not previously worked for a Japanese company. Before coming to Toshiba, he was European operations director with RCA, first under the ownership of General Electric of the US, then under the German group Bertelsmann. A cheerful, unassuming Liverpudlian (whose accent was 'educated out of him' at grammar school), he wholeheartedly endorses the Japanese philosophy: 'The difference between the Japanese approach and the traditional British scene is that they like dialogue and cooperation rather than differences and confrontation.' In confrontation, everyone loses. Round the table we exchange views and should come up with a recommendation that is best for the company. It may sound trite, but I believe it,' he adds. …