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Day 5: A sticky moment on the factory floor

1997 September 2
by Paul Vallely

I was disappointed. There was no singing of the company song at the Mitsubishi-owned subsidiary and there was no mass aerobics session before work began. But there was, after a lunch of Welsh faggots in the cavernous factory canteen, a “mass communication” at the two o’clock shift hand-over.

Three blue-shirted Welsh managers took it in turns to address workers wearing the Diaplastics company uniform of royal blue sweatshirts and navy blue trousers. The Japanese managing director, Mr Koji Morita, looked on impassively, wearing a blue shirt too, albeit of Jermyn Street quality.

Last Thursday had been the busiest day for nine years: “Twenty-five thousand pieces of product went out,” said the first speaker. Corporate relations with Sony were very good. But they are not so happy at Panasonic where Diaplastics managers recently had a meeting which was “not very pleasant”.

Time for a bit of kaizen, which is the Japanese, I was told, for “continuous improvement at little or no cost”.

Next an update on the factory radio which, following lobbying from the workforce, Mr Morita had recently allowed to be installed after seven years of silent working in the Japanese manner. “Please don’t vandalise the speakers in an attempt to increase volume. It burns out the amp,” said Catherine Tweedy, the Diaplastics personnel manager. And, though the workforce had voted to have Virgin Radio, they would have to put up with Radio One because the company only had an FM aerial.

And finally, the matter of chewing gum. Some people, it appeared, were once again chewing gum at work. “If it continues they will have to be counselled and then may face disciplinary action,” Ms Tweedy said.

Counselled? “Our discipline is corrective rather than punitive,” she told me afterwards. “The Japanese approach is very paternalistic: we are concerned, we want to know how we can help those having difficulties.”

It is serious stuff, the chewing gum issue. When the big Japanese firms like Sony and Panasonic arrived in Wales in the early Eighties they found difficulty in obtaining components which were reliable. “The policy was that zero defects would be tolerated,” said Alan Wellington, one of the Welsh general managers at Diaplastics where 300 natives work under six Japanese managers. “This was then unknown among British manufacturers.”

Gum is about standards. Customers had complained that gum was found on the side of cabinets or in plastic bags. After a number of warnings it was banned. The workforce accepted the prohibition without demur but now, it seemed, the gum lobby was reasserting itself. But if so it is the mildest of protests against the clinical Japanese management style.

As I wandered around the spotless factory chatting at random to staff on the assembly lines, the Welsh workers, to a man and woman, even out of earshot of their managers, were distinctly positive.

“They’ve got a much better approach than British managers,” said Lee Hicks, without pausing as he pulled a Sony TV shell from the line to inspect the finish of the robot paint sprayers. “They’re more professional. Their work layout is simpler and better thought through.”

The little things are important to Japanese managers. If machines, floors and surfaces are spotlessly clean, the source of any oil leak is immediately apparent. If palettes are stacked with precision more can be stored, and accidents are reduced.

Workers should have in front of them only the tools required for the task in hand. In Japanese factories there is a board with the shape of a shovel painted on for where the shovel should be when not in use.

“When I first arrived I thought there was too much discipline,” said Jeanne Wakefield further down the assembly line. “But I’m happy with it now. Standards must be high. If we lower them, we’ll lose customers and put jobs at risk.”

“You have to work overtime at a few hours’ notice,” said a fork-lift driver, Terry McCarthy. “But overtime is a mutual benefit.”

Wage negotiations were similarly viewed. British firms make a low offer and there are then two or three rounds of fighting with the union; Japanese firms make a good offer in the first place, which is usually accepted – they know what the going rate is in the area. The average basic wage is about pounds 200 per week in an area where you can buy a decent little house for pounds 40,000 up the valleys.

There is surprisingly little jibbing at the company uniform, compulsory for everyone up to the managing director. “It saves all that thinking about what to wear every morning,” said Catherine Tweedy. “For those allergic to polyester we will source 100 per cent cotton alternatives.”

Status goes to the heart of the style. All workers and managers are designated as “members” of the company, all eat in the same canteen, there are no reserved parking spaces, not even for the managing director. If there is a sudden rush order, white-collar staff and managers will join the production line.

It is more than a community of purpose. “In the Japanese system it is very important to form relationships – with staff, suppliers, customers,” said Mr Wellington, an ample chap whose girth exempts him from the Japanese- sized company trousers. His new colleagues have apologised to him for the war, he revealed. It was an embarrassment to them.

“The whole approach is bound up with honour. It is to a certain extent naive, but it seems to work.”

Not only is production at record levels but other indicators are positive too. The company has an absentee rate of only 3 per cent, not far off half the British national average. Koji Morita puts it all down to education.

“In Japan we begin learning by having to copy countless characters from a textbook. Our education model is following examples, where yours encourages individuals ability to question and innovate,” he said. When it comes to churning out identical TV sets he clearly feels the Oriental approach has the upper hand.

But are there any lessons for the Japanese? He laughed, showing his gold tooth. “Not lessons about industry, but about life. Tokyo is cramped and people are always in a hurry. In Wales we find time for family and recreation.”

Japanese executives returning home have founded the Clwb Hiraeth, which is apparently Welsh for homesickness club. “In Tokyo we have lost kindness,” he said. “Here in Wales I am regaining it bit by bit.”


Tomorrow Day 6: A thread of faith in the Midlands

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