There is no place like home: Manufacturing is returning to its roots

Innovation crucialJohn Ewing from Syscom shares his thoughts on how the UK needs to build its way out of the production lag it has created…

It is sad to think that Britain was once revered as being one of the world’s largest industrialised nations. We exported 70% of our GDP at a time when everyone wanted anything British. Our families grew up in the shadows of manufacturing monsters. Their very existence was due to an abundance of work. Generation after generation followed their fore fathers and mothers into industry to carry on the family tradition and took pride in seeing what you had achieved knowing it to be the best quality.

Now, 30 years on, British manufacturing has shrunk by two-thirds. We sold off our heritage, Industry moved away, perhaps merged with other businesses or simply closed down creating a dust bowl where industry once stood. It is even difficult to see where Manufacturing ever existed in Britain and with that, the families that once served such giants have scattered to the four corners of the world.

It has been a fact for many years that many of our skilled workers have and are still seeking to work and to live abroad. Perhaps chasing work or simply fed up. Either way, the fact remains people emigrating is directly linked to skills shortages we have in Britain as it is a requirement of many countries to have a trade before even being considered entry. So, whilst Britain struggles others capitalise on British tradesmanship and quality.

Trades such as Millers, Ship Builders, Thatchers, Whitesmiths, Platers, Sheet metal workers, Milliners, Foundry men, Miners, Fabricators, Seamstresses, Forgers, Casters, Panel Beaters even Piano Tuners have vanished from our manufacturing landscape. Where other countries have kept their national brand names, we have systematically taken apart everything that was British in the name of Economic Modernisation. Ironically, those in need of such services today, pay a premium price thereby increasing manufacturing costs.

Surprisingly, these past 10 years has actually seen the return of Manufacturing TO Britain and I have no doubt that in the years to come, we will see the ownership of such giants return as our ability continues to outpace, and outperform all entrants when it comes to what can be achieved here in Britain.

Recently the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osbourne issued a statement describing his next challenge would be to improve productivity across the UK. When it comes to Global productivity, it is claimed that Britain now lags the rest of the world by a significant margin. But does this mean we have been working less harder than other Countries?  No, in fact the Nissan plant based in Sunderland is revered as being THE most productive company in the world.  So, perhaps we are working far harder and that it is in our approach that we must turn and the tools we use to create the approach.

The economists would have you believe that the Chancellor needs to offer: Greater tax incentives, tax breaks for greener efficiency, investment in people skills and a greater reduction in red tape. This suggests that our ability to produce is stifled by bureaucracy, and when looking at the variance in operational overheads country wide, they are not unreasonable requests if Britain is to stand tall against its global competition and improve GDP contribution.

Many companies recognising a change may never come in the foreseeable future found themselves the means to borrow (not an easy task when the Banks refused to lend money) and invested in new, more effective machinery and technology to help improve productivity ratio.

I have no doubt that the British Public retains its pride in what it does best or why would so many foreign investors hurry to our shores to use British tradesmen. I have no doubt that we work long hours and work hard to finish our work in line with demand or stand tall against our competitors. But, we certainly make it hard for ourselves. Not surprising since a great deal of the raw material we use to supply our goods and services is procured from abroad. But this is all changing. Apprenticeships have seen a resurgence, recapturing lost trades allowing Britain to build from within and where practical, manufacturers are using British suppliers.

The task Mr Osbourne faces is not an easy one and it should be recognised that it is easy to effectively be inefficient. What our staff need to learn is that it is not about being efficient, it is about being effective. There is a saying ‘work smarter not harder’ (Allan F. Mogensen, the creator of Work Simplification.) It is very easy to be very inefficient efficiently, or we can do a bad job very efficiently. Knowing the difference and improving how effective we can be will by its nature improve productivity.

Just to simplify what Mr Morgensen describes in his book as part of the manufacturing process: We buy in raw materials or goods to then make something from them and then sell the finished articles. We make it difficult for ourselves because we rely on perhaps traditional processes that take no account of the world at large (“it’s the way we have always done things”), we use IT Systems that are tired, bandaged and stitched up from more and more bespoke applications woven into the corporate fabric, and we have staff that demand accurate information upon which to make informed business decisions.

There have been many papers written about the decline of Great Britain, but one fact that is hard to shy away from is that last year we bought £97bn of goods more than we sold, the biggest shortfall since the 1980’s. We will have a greater shortfall again in 2015. My message to Mr Osbourne would be that we must build our way out, stand tall and be proud to be British. We must set aside our past and look to a future that others will replicate and admire.  We are redeveloping lost skills, re-engineering business and modernising our approach.

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