Jaguar rumbles out of a labour jungle

Focus: Re-skilling has paid off for the car manufacturing giant
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By Ian Herbert

By Ian Herbert

4 October 2000

Ten years ago, it would have taken courage bordering on lunacy to suggest, even most deferentially, to Liverpudlian Ford workers that their reading, writing and mathematics skills left a lot to be desired. Careless honesty like that was a guarantee of down-tools at the notoriously unionised Halewood plant, Ford of Europe's least productive in the Eighties and early Nineties

But on the evidence of a visit by Baroness Blackstone, five days ago, Merseyside's famed militancy does not appear to be worrying senior management at Jaguar, which took the plant over in 1997. The Education Minister was handing out certificates in basic literacy and numeracy to dozens of workers who have recently been diligently trooping off to St Helens College. "It does help if they can read and write, and some could not," said a Jaguar director.

Jaguar, bought by Ford 10 years ago, has moved in at the plant with a £40m Government grant to transform it from a mass producer of Escorts into the Jaguar manufacturing flagship which, from next February, will turn out the marque's great new hope, the X-400 model, or "Baby Jag". It is a spectacular marriage which, by Halewood standards, has brought many eye-catching activities to shopfloor workers.

With the plant on shutdown until pre-production of the new X-400 starts next month (the last Escort was rolled out six weeks ago), teams of car workers were sprucing up schools and council estates in the local borough of Knowsley and fastidiously applying yellow paint to the plant's car park before the Baroness arrived. It would have been unheard of three years ago but downtime apparently no longer means home time in the Jaguar world.

But life within has not been entirely harmonious. When the Schools Minister, Estelle Morris, made a PR opportunity out of the "new Halewood" earlier this year by announcing that the plant's workers would soon be refurbishing Liverpool council's schools, the unions claimed council staff were being deprived of work and the project was called off.

The Knowsley project has required more delicate handling. But Halewood's cultural transformation clearly goes beyond the totem poles soon to be topped off with the leaping Jaguars and the almost entire $450m (£310m) factory refit.

First task was dealing with the shocking working practices Jaguar discovered when it moved in. The plant was languishing in territory its Midlands plants had left behind in the mid-Eighties. Jokes about the sloppy finish on Friday afternoon Escorts were all true.

"Scallyness", as corporate affairs director David Crisp describes the mischievous Scouse spirit, was aplenty on production lines where men shrewdly "worked the welt", leaving their work stations to shift 20 or 30 pieces of work further up the production line and so buy a quiet 10 minutes with the newspaper. It meant components were frequently fitted out of sequence so cars needed dismantling to accommodate them. "My dad told me when he worked the night shift at Standard Triumph he would take his sleeping bag and I knew what he meant," says Mr Crisp.

Still, the practices told Jaguar it had some savvy at its disposal. "To do the bad stuff they needed to be smart," says Mr Crisp. "They knew how the process was done but had never known how to put the knowledge to good use instead of bad. We believe their short-term idea of work went back to the docks, when you knew if you had work for the week only when you turned up in front of the foreman on Monday."

The workforce was understandably suspicious of its new paymasters. Numbers had been cut from 13,000 at Escort's peak to fewer than 3,000. They had bucked up after being promised work on the Ford Focus model, only to be told the Saarlouis plant in Germany was getting the work instead.

Rumours of a closure similar to that which struck Dagenham, in south London, earlier this year had been dominating the Liverpool Echo' s front pages since the mid-Nineties. "Then all these men in green jackets arrived and said, 'Well you've not got the Focus lads but you are getting the Jaguar'," says Mr Crisp. "They were entitled to have their doubts." Whatever its reputation, Halewood had also been building the best-selling car in the UK for 20 years, producing a model every 45 seconds while Jaguar workers turned out one every three minutes. The Jaguar production cycle was, naturally, more involved but there was, says Mr Crisp, a sense of "who are you guys to come and tell us how to make cars?"

With a workforce steeped in a culture of "meet production volumes and we'll deal with the problems later", changes started at the top. All but three of the dozen Ford management team left, workers were sent in batches of 400 for intensive training at Jaguar's plants in the Midlands, and working groups of 40 were reduced to teams of less than 10. Management consultants Senn Delaney helped develop "The Halewood Difference", a set of corporate ideals to which workers signed up. The minority who disrupted Senn Delaney workgroups were "asked where their future lay", says Mr Crisp.

There was soon a liberal smattering of Scouse Japanese doing the rounds: kaizen, the process of seeking gradual improvements in quality, and yamazumi, a system of blackboards on which workers suggest productivity improvements. Many shop workers say they had just tired of the same old Ford defeats. "The same old dings and dents you saw on cars last month were the same ones you saw three months earlier," says Chris Parr. "We'd create thousands of reasons for things that no one seemed to tackle." There has been dissent. One worker's unwillingness to cover for an absent colleague brought a shift of Escort production to a halt in April, one of four mini strikes earlier this year.

Quality and lean manufacture were not instantly attainable, either. Six months into its task, Jaguar saw it was not hitting targets and concluded the process of change was too rapid. It identified four small, manageable areas of the workshop - door lining, trim and final, a paint shop line and part of the press shop - in which the excellence it sought could be prototyped, instead. For those areas, it meant new work management systems, quality process sheets and a tidy environment with proper racking and better lighting.

Only when quality in those areas had been attained and sustained ("Ford was good at winning flags but once they'd won them always forgot how," says Mr Crisp) would new areas get the same treatment. The aim is to have 30 per cent of the workforce involved in centres of excellence by the end of the year.

Though Jaguar admitted last month that "Baby Jag" development costs had almost wiped out its profits, Ford quickly needs a model to challenge the C-class Mercedes, Audi A4 and BMW 3 series in the "compact executive" sector. A successful X-400 could lift Jaguar's total output from around 80,000 cars a year to more than 200,000.

"Our new model will be scrutinised to make sure it is a true Jaguar," says Mr Crisp. "The marque alone does not make it that."