Improvement taken for granted

6 min read

Grant McPherson learned to manufacture the Japanese way after two decades at Honda. Now the new Jaguar Land Rover boss tells Max Gosney about the CI secrets driving up standards at JLR's Castle Bromwich site

Grant McPherson, operations director at Jaguar Land Rover's Castle Bromwich plant, points at the laptop screen: "What do you see?," he asks. To the untrained eye, a door stares back – it's off its hinges and lays abandoned in the yard of an anonymous textiles manufacturer. "You see a door, yeah, but what do you really see? I see a door that's been hanging off for weeks and has finally fallen off. Someone has had the foresight to prop it against the railings, but it's next to a parking space. Typically, only managers park on that site. The guy who parked there today probably noticed the door and walked right past it. I see no maintenance, no care, no pride." Welcome to McPherson's world, where manufacturing managers possess powers of deduction to rival Hercule Poirot. The Jaguar boss is using images like this as part of a continuous improvement drive with his management team at the Castle Bromwich site he took over in May this year. The plant manufactures the three mass production Jaguar models – XF, XJ and XK. "This is what we're teaching the guys to do: to learn to see," explains McPherson. "Problems like the abandoned door are only symptoms. What we need to do is get to the cause, and that could be a result of the machinery, processes or management." The psyche stems from McPherson's 21-year spell with Honda where he rose to plant director at the firm's Swindon engine plant. "My experience comes from the Japanese," he explains. "Everyone's looking for this magic pill for continuous improvement. Can I pay this consultancy fee and my factory will be okay? The answer is no, there are no shortcuts. The key is to get on with it." And so a touch of Sake spirit has flowed into Castle Bromwich over the past six months. It's helping to power McPherson's mission: to lift an already high performing plant with a strong focus on quality to the next level. "We've set a vision for this factory. We have fantastic cars with unbelievable performance and our quality is high. But I want us to get even better and deliver cars that far exceed the high expectations Jaguar customers have." Enter some inspiration from the Land of the Rising Sun. "Look at the Shinkansen train in Japan – it's never late," McPherson enthuses. "The conductor bows when you get on and off. That person is going to be the best ticket collector in the world and that's the mindset we have to beat." In Japan, commitment to the cause can border on the comical, explains the JLR chief. He recalls the tale of a manufacturing manager who took drastic action when his line fell behind. "He decided to come in over the weekend and start running the line to catch up," explains McPherson. "But he didn't just bring himself, he brought his wife and kids, and made them run the line!" The McPherson family can put down the hi-vis vests though – the anecdote highlights a rather extreme dedication, he admits. Yet the essence of this esprit de corps is something UK manufacturing should look to imitate, he claims. "As a sector we must get better at inspiring the workforce and capturing their knowledge. I'm doing it now – we're doing some tests on models before the design is finalised. We're taking the guys who fit the rear tail lamps, a part they fit 15,000 times a year, to the final build to get their feedback." Bringing the workforce to you is only half the battle, says McPherson. "You can't expect to solve problems without going to the source. You need to get out on the shopfloor and see for yourself," he says. Just ask the crew at Castle Bromwich. McPherson has become a familiar site for workers, from paint shop to weld, as he takes his daily walks. As well as inspiring improvement ideas, McPherson's strolls have a salutary effect on workforce morale, he says. "When we're working on Saturday I'll go around every line and say 'thanks for coming in; your wife's already spent it'. It's those little tiny things – a pat on the back and a 'well done' can mean a great deal." McPherson's mantra has also overhauled management meetings. Where department heads once conversed around a boardroom table, McPherson now holds sessions in a converted area of the shopfloor. "I want us to have our meetings in a place where everyone can see us, where we can bring in people who work on the cars and talk about the issues which may arise." Each attendee has footprints painted on the floor denoting their place and all are encouraged to bring parts rather than Powerpoint presentations for discussion. The sessions are serious: it's about focusing on the detail and getting everyone engaged, he explains. "We talk about the real issues. We put up the results and if you've passed, it's green; if you've failed, it's red. If it's always green, then let's change the target. If it's always red, then let's change what we're doing." Green has been this year's colour. Heavy savings have been made from scrap bills and quality is ever improving under McPherson's unstinting drive for continuous improvement. In 2010, over 56,000 vehicles were built at the site, selling in 65 global markets. McPherson plans to use kaizen to push production volumes ever higher. Any time gained can then be used for extra training or site housekeeping, he explains. Continuous improvement has had a domino effect, adds McPherson. "We're really going places. Tiny incremental targets are very powerful," he adds. "I had a Japanese mentor who used to say that the trouble in the West was that when we achieve something, we stop and take a breather. In Japan, if you're climbing the mountain, they move the flag to the next peak just before you reach the summit." At JLR the flag keeps moving. "My team achieved many year-end targets after the second quarter and that's terrific," says McPherson. "But now I'm saying we've just reached first base – we don't stop here. They're on a journey with me now." And if the climb gets too tough for some, then expedition leader McPherson promises empathy. "It's okay to fail. Failure is a golden opportunity to learn and improve." The key is measuring the reasons for falling short, says McPherson. "You work out where you had a gap and you start trending it. Okay, so you had robot downtime three times – so you know that's the one you need to go and fix." Whatever the mistake, people won't be hauled over the coals as long as they are honest, he says. "They can come and tell us anything that they've just screwed up – just tell us what went wrong so we can fix it." career in brief Grant McPherson was raised in Fleetwood, Lancashire where his father was based in the merchant navy. Inspired by the power of boat engines, McPherson went on to study marine engineering. After graduation he travelled the world working as a expedition guide before taking a job with Honda, originally to fund his next travel plans. Twenty years later, McPherson had risen through the ranks to become manufacturing director at Honda's Swindon plant. Manufacturing mantra: Get out from behind the desk and go to the factory floor to solve problems. McPherson's laws of CI Go and see If you want to solve a problem then get out on the shopfloor and see it with your own eyes. McPherson makes walks on the factory floor a part of his daily routine and seeks advice on production issues from the people who build the cars. Another attribute he encourages is viewing the factory floor with the assiduous eye of a detective. "Not everyone can see. Many of us walk past problems without noticing them." McPherson challenges people to seek out symptoms and trace them back to causes and consequences. Targets The best targets are much like desert mirages: you obsess over reaching them, only to find that when you do, they've moved. "To improve, you need a target that's tough, yet realistic," says McPherson. "If we seem to be able to make 300 cars a day, let's make 301, then 302, and so on." And the best person to come up with the target isn't the boss, he adds. "I never set targets. I go down to the shopfloor and ask 'how many do you think you can do?'. The commitment level is so much higher if the team sets the target." And if the team misses, the emphasis must be on measuring the gap – the factors that led to failure. Once identified, these can be removed to ensure success next time. Equality is all Nothing hampers continuous improvement quite like an old-fashioned hierarchy, according to McPherson. UK manufacturing carries a cultural burden of segregating management and shopfloor, he explains. This means many shopfloor workers with the power to make improvements will be excluded from the process. "We need to harness the vast amount of knowledge and experience we have within the business at every level." Don't be afraid to fail The rewards of failure. It sounds like an oxymoron, but in fact analysing why you went wrong and addressing this is rocket fuel for continuous improvement, says McPherson. "If you know what went wrong you can countermeasure it. That's great, but sometimes when you take a countermeasure it goes the wrong way – so you stop, check your plan and go again." An openness about errors means issues get fixed, he says. Data is king Visible performance information acts like a radar for factories. Operators can use it to spot potential hazards and adjust course accordingly, says McPherson. "Clear and concise data displayed at the right place is essential. We need to avoid the temptation to overload and overcomplicate visual data to a point where it becomes difficult to understand, thus losing its impact. In essence, keep it simple."