Nissan: The car giant that conquered Britain
How Nissan combined Eastern efficiency with western workmanship
Giant yellow claws clasp the shells of cars. As they shuttle along a slow-moving production line, workers swarm over each shell.
A wagon containing all the components required to build a vehicle rolls around on a miniature railway, ferrying the parts to the mechanics stationed at different points on the production line.
They have less than a minute to attach a specific part to each car frame before the wagon rolls off down the line to the next worker. It takes three miles for the vehicles to evolve into the Nissan Qashqai.
Though it is all in slow-motion, every second counts at the 799-acre Nissan factory in Sunderland, the biggest car plant the UK has ever had. Failure could bring the whole production line to a grinding halt.
New technology: The Sunderland plant also builds the electric Leaf vehicle and manufactures its battery-powered fuel cells on site.
This year, the plant celebrates its 30th anniversary and to mark the occasion its Japanese owner announced plans last week to spend $NZ60million expanding the battery-making facility. One in three of all cars made in Britain rolls off the production line in Sunderland and Nissan exports 80 per cent to 130 global markets.
It is a key employer, home to 6,700 staff supporting 27,000 related jobs at local suppliers. The site is a beacon for UK manufacturing, producing 476,000 top-selling cars a year having made 8.4million cars since 1986 when it was opened by Baroness Thatcher.
The Sunderland plant doesn’t just make Qashqais, a cross between a hatchback and off-road jeep, but also the smaller Juke, and top-of-the-range Infiniti Q30 hatchback.
The plant also builds the electric Leaf vehicle and manufactures its battery-powered fuel cells on site.
But its success and survival is down to the firm’s fixation on systems and processes. Every worker is focused on something the Japanese call Kaizen, a philosophy of continuously improving every work task.
Mechanics don’t just come to work to do their jobs, they come to do a better job, and each improvement is measured.
It is a philosophy that sits well with the front-line engineers.
Andy Mills, 49, has worked at Nissan for 25 years and says many skilled workers migrated from the dead or declining worlds of mining, steel or shipbuilding.
He came south from Motherwell in Scotland having worked for British Steel.
‘The traditional industries were all beginning to go when I came here,’ he said. ‘Plants like Nissan are extremely important to the area.’
His colleague Les Greener, 50, from Northumberland, has worked at the plant for 29 years as did his brother who has since left. His son Joshua has applied for an apprenticeship after a spell on work experience. Greener said: ‘Nissan has given a lot of local people hope. There aren’t many opportunities around here.’
The site is operating at 97 per cent efficiency and there are screens that show various targets on each production line and how they are measuring up.
When up to 100 per cent efficiency, the plant is hammering out cars at 60 an hour. No other UK car plant has ever come close to achieving such scale.
Other big names such as Morris, Daimler, British Leyland, Jaguar and Lotus are either disappearing or being taken over by foreign firms. So why has Nissan managed to achieve what has eluded so many ghosts of our native car makers past?
The answer according to Colin Lawther, head of production at all of Nissan’s car plants in Europe, is the fusion of British workmanship with Japanese techniques. It is East meets West on an industrial scale.
He says: ‘This plant thrives on combining the fighting spirit of the West with the Japanese focus of continually improving. If you stand still you die.’
The key is the way the plant is set up with a council of elected members from the shop floor, similar to a German workers co-operative.
‘The supervisor of each area is the managing director of his zone,’ says Lawther. ‘He hires and fires and is delegated considerable authority. He is also well briefed so there is complete transparency for the workers.’
Rewarding mechanics with pay hikes linked to the increased productivity has also helped create a world class plant.
‘We have been increasing pay by 3 per cent a year well above inflation because we are paying workers what they deserve,’ he says. ‘We are one and half times more productive than most plants we benchmark against.’
The Japanese philosophy is not just text book theory, it is ingrained in the culture. There are signs through the buildings espousing Douki Seisan, a philosophy to encourage workers to manufacture high quality products in sequence and on time.
Workers on the shop floor also refer to Genba Kanri, a type of workshop management that focuses on day-to-day practices to improve the business.
Some Brits might laugh, but home-grown car makers never stood a chance in the face of such a meticulous approach.
Nissan has benefited from cherry picking the best workers from defunct plants like Rover.
Lawther said: ‘The business didn’t modernise with the times. British Leyland was employing 100,000 people to build half as many cars as our workforce of 6,700.’
Out of the ashes of Britain’s carmakers rose Nissan with a leaner army of mechanics and engineers.