UK car workers head European efficiency league

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The Independent Online
The British car factory worker, once a joke around the world, is now among the most efficient in the industry, thanks mainly to the Japanese.

The trail-blazing Nissan plant at Sunderland, which began the Japanese invasion 10 years ago, knocked General Motors' Eisenach factory off the top of the European car makers' productivity table last year, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. Each of Nissan's 4,100 workers on Wearside made an average of 73.2 vehicles per employee last year, easily outstripping the 67.7 for GM's older Opel factory.

Yet the huge gulf in efficiency between Japanese car plants built over the past decade in the United Kingdom and longer established British car factories shows little sign of diminishing.

The report shows Rover's biggest manufacturing plant, at Longbridge in Birmingham, languishing in 19th place near the bottom of the league table, with the unit describing productivity as "generally poor". The average Longbridge employee turned out just 28.2 cars last year, although the survey admitted that by the end of 1996 the rate was back up to 35 cars following the introduction of new models. Other Japanese manufacturers, who chose the UK for its cheap and flexible labour force and generous government investment grants, have also beaten the best of indigenous European car makers.

Toyota's Burnaston plant in Derbyshire jumped from seventh place to third in the table, while Honda kept its hold on fourth place, making 64.2 cars per employee. For Toyota the figures represent a particular victory after complaints by the company that UK components suppliers could not meet their exacting quality demands.

The improvement in UK productivity could also influence Toyota's on- going review of sites for a new European factory to make a small car, with the UK currently battling with France and Eastern Europe.

Rover said the report was "meaningless" because it did not discriminate between plants like Longbridge, which carried out most manufacturing processes on site and companies which imported part-finished products like seats and engines.

But the figures will come as a shock to those in the British motor industry who had argued that companies like Rover, Ford and GM's Vauxhall subsidiary had almost matched Japanese efficiency standards. Billions of pounds have been poured into "traditional" British plants like Longbridge, Dagenham or Luton as car makers adopted Japanese "just-in-time" manufacturing techniques.

The biggest advantage for the Japanese was in labour flexibility, with workers allocated to the shop floor to meet forecast demand and others redeployed elsewhere on activities such as retraining. Older British plants tended to get their predictions wrong, ending with companies closing plants, or cutting shifts when production fell.

Nick Oliver, from the Judge Institute of Management Studies at Cambridge University, warned against reading too much into the figures, but added: "The reality is that Japanese methods are not bolt-on appendages, they are central to the manufacturing process. It's a way of life to the Japanese."

Motoring to success

The top 10 in terms of vehicles produced per

employee in 1996 were:

Company Plant Vehicles/


1. Nissan Sunderland 73.2

2. General Motors Eisenach, Germany 67.7

3. Toyota Burnaston, Derbyshire 66.9

4. Honda Swindon, Wiltshire 64.2

5. Ford Valencia, Spain 55.6

6. Ford Saarlouis, Germany 54.6

7. General Motors Zaragoza, Spain 54.2

8. Peugeot Mulhouse, France 51.7

9. Fiat Melfi, Italy 50.0

10. Seat Martorell, Spain 47.6

Source: Economist Intelligence Unit