14 December 2011

Shop talk

Lesley Dixon, 47, on life as value stream manager at Factory of the Year, Parker Hannifin Manufacturing

I drive my husband to work. He works weekends so it's up at 5.30am seven days a week. Breakfast is two chocolate biscuits and a cup of black tea – it may not be healthy but it does me fine.

I love being part of this business because it values people and listens to them. I get a real kick from helping the HPTs [high performance teams] to achieve because I remember what it was like to be an operator thinking: "Gawd, what are they doing that for? Why don't they ask us?"

Career-wise, I didn't make things easy for myself. I walked out of school at 16 knowing everything. I was in the top grade so no one believed I'd go into factories – but I did, on a YTS scheme for £25 a week. The best job was on permanent nights. As long as the team hit our targets, we were left to make our own decisions. Looking back, it was just like HPT – and we always outperformed other shifts.

I left when I was pregnant. Four previous miscarriages meant seven long, boring months on bed-rest. The best moment of my life was seeing my son Jack. I joined Philips when he was two. My father had recently died and looking after the bairn gave my mam a reason to carry on. My line closed but I was asked to apply for two other jobs – one at £50 a week more; the other £50 less. I took the drop because it meant studying for an ONC in mechanical engineering. Everyone else in my class was 17 and male. They'd say: "You're the same age as me mam." Just great – but they changed their tune when they needed my help with their maths.

My job grew: I went to Eindhoven to set up a machine and then alone to Mexico to optimise a line and train supervisors. Then I was promoted to process engineer – the first woman engineer on the factory floor. It was pretty tough at first but I stood my ground. Then I was sent to Slovakia for five weeks. By now I was doing my HNC in production engineering. I had to pay back half the day release in overtime. I did my HND at the same time as a Certificate in Management. My husband was working away in London; I would get home, wait until my son was in bed and start my college work. Without my mam I just couldn't have coped.

I had stints in other areas but I always wanted to be back in manufacturing – I just love the pressure. Then Philips announced it was closing the plant. It was the hardest time to work through. When I joined, there were 1,500 people. In the end, there were just 12 on each shift. Whole families – two generations – lost their jobs. It's the story of the north-east.

Three years before, I had asked for data for my HNC. The director sent me the wrong file – the five-year strategic plan with all the details of production transfers and closure. When I told him, he held his head in his hands. But trust matters – all that time I kept the secret.

I came here in 2003 just before Philips closed. Since then I've moved from production engineer to business unit manager to value stream manager – and I'm still asking what the next step is. I'm a happy workaholic.

Jack mirrored me – fine at school but left at 16. I kept saying "try engineering." When he finally gave in, he loved it too. I knew I'd done something right when I saw his apprenticeship application. He'd written that I was his inspiration and he wants to achieve as much as me – or a bit more. It's the last bit I really liked.

  • Best advice you ever received? Surround yourself with good people you can trust. You can build other skills but trust is fundamental.
  • Biggest mistake? Walking out of school at 16.
  • Your hero? My mam who made all this possible.
  • Favourite food? I don't even need to think about that – chocolate and more chocolate.
  • On your iPod? Take That, Plan B, Adele, Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody is the best.
  • Unwinding? The world's softest Dobermann, my puppy Katie who's scared of loud noises and hates the rain.

Annie Gregory

Supporting Information

Parker Hannifin Manufacturing Ltd

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