IN MY OPINION: Sir David Wright

Management Today, March 4, 2003 | Go to article overview

IN MY OPINION: Sir David Wright


Chartered Management Institute companion Sir David Wright, now vice-chairman of Barclays Capital, calls for a fuller use of agencies in public services.

I have been fortunate in my career to experience very different management challenges. I've twice managed a core management unit of the Foreign Office - an embassy overseas - and on both occasions in the Far East: Korea and Japan. I have sat on the management board of the Foreign Office and have had the unique experience of setting up British Trade International as a separate government department but one with the unusual position of being answerable to two Secretaries of State.

I was involved with the Far East at the time when Japanese management practices were being assimilated by UK companies. We should not overstate the novelty of these techniques. For now, with the benefit of hindsight, their introduction can be seen as a revolution that owed more to the failings of management and the bitterness of class division that reigned in British boardrooms and trade unions in the 1950s and '60s.

Here are just a few examples. The just-in-time system is an entirely logical and unexceptionable method of inventory management that improves output and reduces costs. Kaizen represents a search for quality and improvement that any efficient producer should espouse and as a result manufacture products that respond perfectly to the aspirations of consumers.

High levels of R&D expenditure and a constant search for product improvement should be at the top of the marketing and development strategies of all companies. And communication with the workforce on a regular basis, whether in canteens, companies' sports activities, or kaizen discussion groups, should surprise none.

So although I acknowledge the benefits brought to British industry as a result of the management techniques imported with Japanese capital in the 1980s, we should not be dazzled into believing that these techniques contained some unanswerable truth that Western economies couldn't penetrate.

And as we look now at the problems that the Japanese economy faces, we can see that the Japanese had no more discovered the Philosopher's Stone than had Britain in the late 19th century. They now face their own management challenges in finding ways to unleash innovation and change into unresponsive business environments.

In Britain, the challenge of management change has shifted to the public sector. The call now is for improved delivery of public services. In spite of the fashion for applying private-sector management techniques to government, difficult issues remain about the way in which government both performs and delivers its services. These affect any assessment of how private-sector management techniques can be applied to government.

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