How to learn Japanese: Manufacturing: UK companies benefit from seeing how they do it in Tokyo

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The Independent Online
WITHIN three months of Graham Collin's return from a technology transfer programme in Japan, his company's turnover has increased by around pounds 240,000.

Mr Collin is manufacturing manager of Bloxwich Engineering, near Walsall. In March he returned from six months on secondment to one of Toyota Motor Corporation's eight plants - which produce 11,000 vehicles a month - to learn their methods of design, engineering and manufacturing.

His company was already supplying engine pulleys to Toyota's Deeside plant, and other components to its body- manufacturing plant near Derby. But as a result of his visit Bloxwich is also starting to export pulleys to the Toyota engine plant in Japan.

Mr Collin explains: 'We got the contract because we had demonstrated our commitment to their company and had sent someone there. The contract was part of their commercial commitment to us.'

The idea for his secondment came from Peter Burton, chief executive of Bloxwich, who wanted the company to have first-hand experience of a Japanese work environment, so that it could be combined with best practice in European car production. (Bloxwich supplies a number of European companies, including Volvo and Mercedes.)

Mr Burton used the Engineers to Japan Scheme, designed to help UK companies create and develop strategic links with those in Japan by sending high-quality engineers or technologists to work there for up to 12 months.

'Japanese technology and the level of automation are very advanced,' Mr Collin says. 'But their strength lies in their well-trained, capable workforce and the way they plan and monitor every activity. The British motor industry is now developing in this way.'

His company is emulating a lot of the automation techniques and implementing change in other ways - communications, teamwork, more cost-effective production.

He sees secondment as leading to business deals in two ways: British suppliers have opportunities to increase trade, and individuals working in Japan can form business relationships. Britain excels at design engineering and innovation - 'and the Japanese like to know how we work, think and solve problems.'

Host organisations also include Sony, Toshiba, Japan Airlines and Mitsubishi. Most visiting engineers are between 25 and 35, though the age range is fluid.

The Department of Trade and Industry pays half the cost (up to pounds 35,000) towards air fares, living accommodation and salary. The balance is paid by the UK employer. Before leaving, engineers take an intensive four-week language course.

The scheme, co-ordinated by the Royal Academy of Engineering, started in the 1980s, but now deals with larger numbers of people and a wide range of engineering specialisms.

Michael Clements also returned last spring from a six- month training / learning secondment to Toyota, and expects it will bring future business gains to his company, Albion Pressed Metal Limited, of Cannock, Staffordshire.

He points to the long-term view taken by Japanese companies: they see the advantages of having suppliers that understand their goals and how to work to them. They also realise that by developing suppliers they will get a better service.

Mr Clements, who is project manager in charge of development, adds that British companies do not understand Japanese methods, and the purpose of his visit was to learn in depth.

'I saw how well they do everything,' he says. 'They're very professional: their method in automotives is probably the best in the world. But they like to learn from us, too: how we do things and how we work in teams.'

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