19 January 2016

For Whom the Bell Tolls

The end of shift bell stands silent at a shipyard on the Clyde that’s determined to do away with the command and control management of the past. Max Gosney meets the progressive team leading BAE Systems Naval Ships to a profitable future

Stop press. They still build ships on the banks of the Clyde, but Billy Connolly- a former shipyard welding apprentice- would barely recognise the scene.

The Big Yin struck comedy gold with his tales of burly Glaswegian dockers stampedingfor the exit gates at the shift ending klaxon- only to strut like lounge lizards after passing through them.

But the only sound you’ll hear these days at half past four is the relentless patter between blue overalled operators and white jacketed supervisors at BAE Systems Naval Ships about spurring shopfloorimprovements.

“We turned the horn off,”says Gary Mitchell, integrated works team leader at BAE Systems in Glasgow, one of two remainingactive shipyards on the Clyde. “It used to go at half seven to tell the guys to work, at half twelve to tell them to stop for lunch and then at four to mark the end of the shift. It was like school and we had to change.We wanted to show the guys: ‘we trust you’.”

Trust is all you need
Trust: that’s the pivotal word in Glasgow. Management has been on a mission to scupperthe ‘us and them’ attitude familiar to most factory floors, but somehow magnified within the vast expanse of a shipyard. “Historically it was very much a culture of command and control. We, the managers, were in the tell mode,” explains John Degnan, production director/general manager since 2012 and the man charged with supporting this change.

“We’re trying breakaway from that,”he explains. “We want to create standardisation to quality and safety standards. If people understand what those standards are then they can then think for themselves about achieving them. The process creates engagement, collaboration and creativity. It’s vitally important you don’t just use the employee’s hands but their heads.”

Brainsmust rule over brawn if Britain is tobuild a sustainable future in shipbuilding. China and South Korea,propelled by cheap labour and government backing,took 50,000 gross tonnes of orders last year: the UK had less than 200.Evenin the more protected realm of military vessels, of the kind produced at Glasgow, nothing is sacrosanct. Four Royal Navy tankers are currently being built in Seoul instead of Glasgow’s Shipyards.

“From a cost performance the government are looking for value for money,” says Degnan of the challenges.” An objective that would skew working practices under the traditional shipyard way of working explains Degnan. “People would want to measure cost and schedule on a job.So if you only measure cost and schedule you will get a set of behaviours that reflect that measurement. People will want to achieve the schedule at all costs. What you won’t get are any learnings.You won’t know whether the activity was performed safely or if the quality is to standard.”

It only takes a quick glance at a best of Billy Connolly DVD to see the results. Officious shipyard supervisors glued to stopwatches and barking out commands while broody workers performtasks perfunctorily and long for the honk of the hometime horn.

Degnan comments: “British industry, not just shipbuilding, has historically constrained its workforce by management putting controls in place to make themfeel they are in control and important. But if you measure the team differently: on safety, quality and continuous improvement, then you know you’re safe, your product is compliant and you are in a learning environment. And do you know what? You will get your cost and schedule for nothing because you have engaged with a team who care and have an emotional attachment to their product.”

Glasgow’sphilosophy is steeped in the teachings ofmanufacturing guruW. Edwards Deming. Ideals over incentives: appealing to a worker’s intrinsic desire to see a job well done and work as part of a team towards a common goal.

It was all yellow in pipe making
The first chance to pilot the theory came at thepipe making facility in 2012.“Things were very different back then,” says Mitchell, who ran the facility at the time. “Pipe making was run down, morale was low. There was a lack of trust between shopfloor and staff.”

Then came a project to replace the tools in the facilityexplains Mitchell. “Pipe makers can be very particular about their tools and hold onto instruments for 30 years. But we did everything in conjunction with the guys.We didn’t buy anything without their say so.”

It was a leap of faith for some mangersexplains Mitchell: “Some people were of the opinion we lock the new tool cabinets or chain them up. I didn’t want that. It sends the wrong message.” Mitchell won through and two years on and all 17 tool cabinets remain in immaculate condition.

The project served as amarker and others quickly followed. Regular team debriefs became a feature gain in the facility and shook off the stigma of being simply a harbinger of bad news. Visual management boards sprung up and the facility, quite literally, began to shine. “We had an industrial psychologist in who said yellow was supposed to stimulate the mind. We painted a lot of things in yellow…” jokes Mitchell.

The influence of psychology in the change programme is telling. Degnan and Mitchell both recognised the importance of gaining the mental buy-in of key operators early on.“You need a few cultural architects,” reflects Degnan. “People you can work with, help and support who are influential in their networks and can build the momentum. It’s also about finding the blockers, the rocks not the sponges, and having a chat with them to convince them.”

Rocks don’t come much bigger than 6ft 4inch Alan of pipe making. “Back in the 80s, Alan was seen as an old-style foreman in command and control mode. When we ran out first Lean Learning Academy Alanwasn’t on it,” says Degnan. “Now Alan would have seen himself as the cultural architect and the guy to take things forward , everyone would have expected Alan to be on that first course. We chose not to put him on it because for me at the time he was a leader of a different style. Alan went away and turned that around. He wason course number two.Where he and his team have out performed everyone else.”

The Portakabin that sparked process improvement
Hundreds more have followed in Alan’s rather large footsteps up to two once derelict Portakabins renovated and rebadged as The Lean Learning Academy [see box]- a command centre for continuous improvement, according to Degnan. “We wanted somewhere safe where people could make mistakes and challenge one another and then take their learnings and ideas out into the workplace.”

The influence of the Lean Learning Academy inspired improvements in productivity and safety. In 2014 a system called schedule-based working was introduced whichreplaced traditional shift patterns with a qualitative way of working allowing workers to use the time appropriately as they see fit, which time off oncethey’d completed a project to the requisite standard.

“The guys at the beginning were very sceptical,” says Mitchell. ”We were changing 108 years of culture so it took a lot of trust.”Schedule-based working was greeted with uniquely Glaswegian wit. “Some people didn’t want to go home when they were done. We had people saying: ‘But now I’ll need to go shopping with the wife’...people were used to the rules. But those were the rules of the past and not the future. You only set rules when relationships are strained.”

Almost two years on and Glasgow has done an awful lot of growing up. Safety records haveimproved. Andon boards are being piloted and a suggestion scheme titled: ‘you said, we did’ has taken seed. Pipeshop has saved more than 7,000 working hours .

Not that anybody here is welding hulls in rose tinted safety goggles. Glasgow’s vastsq footage and century’s worth of ‘the way we do things around here’ could envelop the most ambitious change programme. However, the tide is on the turn. The UK Government committed to an £859 million demonstration phase contract for Type 26 in April 2015.

Degnan hopes it is just the start. “Success is we create an environment where we start to spread our wings and bring more workinto the UK. More ships being built on the Clyde - wow, what would that do for the local economy and the boys and girls coming though on apprenticeships?”

It’s an aspiration that even the most stalwart of shopfloor operators would struggle to disagree with. And one that’s eminently achievable providing all are prepared to invest a little trust. “That is the biggest thing you can do,” says Mitchell. “This is Glasgow, we do a lot of shouting up here. People like to shout and be controlling but as a leader you have to change.See the guys in here, they are the ones who know how to do the job, you’ve got to trust them.”

Six ways to overcome an ‘us and them’ culture

Most factory managers bear the scars of trying to win round a change resistantshopfloor to a continuous improvement programme. But bear a thought for John Degnan and the senior team in Glasgow are taking on 103 years of ‘that’s just the way we do things around here’. Here’s how they have begun to win the workforce trust:

1)Treat everyone like an adult

The ringing of bells, hurled insults and a mad dash for the gates at hometime: there was something very schoolyard about the shipyards of old. Degnan and his team have expelled the classroom culture by empowering employees to act as free thinking adults. Gone are the bells denoting shift end and it’s down to workers to decide the best assembly steps to achievepre-determined build quality and safety standards. Degnan describes the work as ‘inverting the triangle’. It’s a philosophy that does away with deferenceandhierarchy in favour of trusting frontline employees to make crux operational decisions . The heightened engagement that has followed has led to productivity improvements of 17% in some areas of the site.

2)Deliver on your promises

Nothing will sink fledgling trust with the factory floor faster than a false promise. Degnan and his team try to prove their credentials with a You said, We did shopfloor suggestion initiative. Degnan says: “If the individual raises an issue then the manager needs to give effective feedback. They should go back to that person and say: ‘you raised a concern, this is what I’ve found out and done to fix it. That builds engagement and trust.” Other confidence boosters include investments in workforce amenities. A help yourself tuck shop area has arrived on the shopfloor. What would once have been written off as a skivers paradise by senior management but has turned out to be an impressive bellwether of workforce buy in. Mitchell says: “There’s an honesty box with snacks and a TV where they can catch up on all that’s happening daily. It’s a totally different way of treating people and it’s been key to building engagement.

3)Get the unions on board

British shipyards are synonymous with fervent unionism- a direct consequence of the command and control tactics favoured by managers of yesteryear reflects Degnan. “It was them and us. You couldn’t have a mature conversation. Every year at wage negotiation there was conflict.” Degnan knew union support was critical to building momentum behind the change programme. Managers and reps kicked off negotiations laced with the brooding intensity of a UN weapons inspection teams’ trip to North Korea. “We locked ourselves away in a local hotel for a few days and said: guys this can’t go on,” recalls Degnan. “We discussedwhat our rules of engagement would be and how we would respect each other.We have the same common goal: ensuring a future building ships but different views on how to get there. We have built on that dialogue together.”

4)You are what you measure

Cost and schedule have been deposed as the undisputed king and queen of shipbuilding and succeeded by metrics based on quality, safety and continuous improvement contributions. Degnan explains: “The old style metrics like cost and schedule are lagging indicators. The leading indicators of the future are how many quality interventions you have or quality coaching sessions you’ve had? It’s night and day difference and the discretionary effort that’s applied across the whole organisation is huge.” Cost and schedule targets are delivered as a by-product of heightened employee engagement according to Degnan. The move to more qualitative metrics has complimented a shift to schedule based working on the site. Old Monday to Friday routines have been replaced by the prospect of flexibility in attendance when projects have been delivered to quality standards.

5)Try a Lean Learning Academy

Take two derelict Portakabins apply a lick of paint, add some forward thinking employees and hey presto you have a wave of productivity enhancing shopfloor improvements. The Lean Learning Academy has been the mission command centre for continuous improvement gains. The centre was set up in 2012 and pooled employees of all experiences in the pursuit of lineside innovation.

6)Fusebusiness values with family ones

Businesses are queuing up to sew worthy sounding values into their company crest. But Degnan advises a more down to Earth testsof who you are and what you stand for. “Lots of businesses focus on business values but the people who work for you have been brought up with family values by their parents and grandparents. If you employ those first wouldn’t it be a lovely place to work?”. The site has fused business ambitions of being trusted, bold and innovative with the quintessentially Glaswegian ethos of pride ina good job, their community and of course, humour. The values can align spectacularly when a ship is delivered to the customer, concludes Degnan. “The biggest feeling you get is when a ship is being delivered. There will be family days where relatives can see what mum and dad have built. The sense of community, pride and achievement is incredible.”

Max Gosney

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Do you have any comments about this article?

Very heartwarming to read about the success of lean initiatives in ship building in Glasgow. This must be a major breakthrough for UK industry and a good omen for the future. If you can achieve collaborative style management in Glasgow against a 100 year tradition of rigid demarcation and command and control management then anything is possible. I particularly like the 'six ways' to overcome the 'them and us' culture. The primary one is to treat everyone like an adult, the others follow on from that.

Comment Jeremy Old, 22/09/2016

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