Austin Rover chairman Harold Musgrove on the new Rover 800.
“I cannot over-emphasise just how important this car is, not only to the company but to the country. Where the Metro was the car for our survival, the Rover 800 is the car for our future prosperity.”
ROVER LINKS UP WITH A LEGEND
By David Simpson
The most ambitious fruits of Austin Rover’s Japanese alliance will go on display today with the launch of the Rover 800 series. The Anglo-Japanese hybrid , the Rover 800 where Austin Rover is concerned , but the Legend in Honda marketing terms , represents a marriage not simply of design and production techniques, but of management philosophies. The new cross-fertilised executive car will have a number of identities, which will be manufactured both in Japan and at the Austin Rover plant in Cowley.
The differences between the cars will be largely cosmetic, body and interior design. There will also be an increased harmony between Austin Rover and Honda management and worker attitudes to an extent impossible to have anticipated a few short years ago when the bleak, rebellious reputation of the UK car industry conflicted starkly with the image of its Japanese counterpart. Yet, with each company scheduled to produce cars for the other, a convergence of management and production styles became an Inevitability. Honda executives will be hand , after all to monitor production when Legend assembly starts up shortly at Cowley, just as Austin Rover managers will be stationed in Japan to ensure there are no hitches in Honda’s manufacture of Rover 800s for the Australasian marketplace.
A tour round the Rover 800/Legend production facilities reveals an environment more reminiscent of the slightly antiseptic Japanese car plant than of the dark and forbidding British car production dungeons of yore. Television screens and notice boards punctuate the brightly whitewashed factories; relaxation and smoking areas, with gaudy plastic chairs and tables abound ; hissing robots are more evident than snarling shop stewards. But says Andy Barr, Austin Rover productions director, the changes which the group has brought into play for the Rover 800 production have not been drawn directly from Japan.
Nor indeed, insists Barr have they been employed because of the pressures of the Honda collaborative venture. Rather Austin Rover has implemented a wide ranging series of environmental training and participation schemes whose broad objectives are improvements in quality and productivity, to allow the group to meet international competitive challenges from a stronger position. Its new practices will not be confined to the Rover 800 tracks but will be spread throughout the groups plants.
Barr admits, however, that the instigation of the Rover 800 with its new assembly line provided the group with an ideal opportunity to install new techniques.
“We did not just lift a stack of practices directly from Honda or Datsun,” Barr explains. Instead, he and fellow Austin Rover executives embarked on a world-wide series of visits, studying the methods of West German and US car manufacturers as well as Japanese, to evolve their own system of improved working practices.
“One thing we wanted to do was to change employees attitudes so that their aspirations became the same as the company’s.” Barr says. The most positive of the methods they sifted from other car manufacturers were presented to the management consultancy firm, PA to write up and produce as a working programme.
Training, of course, was an early area for treatment and workers on the Rover 800 line have undergone a three week training programme, many times more extensive than ever previously attempted within the group. The efficacy of the training programme , while still to be judged in qualitative terms, has already proved its worth at more than one level as far as worker involvement is concerned.
“When we transferred some extra workers onto the 800 line, the people already there complained bitterly” Barr relates with some satisfaction.
“They haven’t been trained, they said, they aren’t competent enough to do the 800.” Andy Barr has another recent tale to illustrate the changing workforce attitudes on the Rover 800 assembly lines : A large group of component suppliers visited Cowley the other week for the mandatory tour of the new robotised lines.
“The difference was,” says Barr , ” that this time workers were rushing up to the suppliers and eagerly asking them what they thought of the new car, whether they liked it I’ve never seen such a change in attitude. ”
This change of mood is central in the light of the intensified Japanese relationship. The Japanese executives who will be much in evidence when Legend production comes on regular stream will expect to talk to the Cowley workforce as they are able to in Tokyo, and overcome, in some instance, a lack of linguistic commonality. Applicants for jobs at Austin Rover are now invited to undertake a two day assessment course, over a weekend, in company with their families.
“It’s not just that we weed people out and decide whether we want to employ them,” Barr explains.
“It’s important that the whole family gets involved in the decision and decides whether they want to work with us. We’re not pretending to be taking on the Japanese employment for life concept although at Cowley, maybe by default, we have a surprising number of fathers and sons employee situations. ”
In the end, Barr and his fellow executives agree conclusively, that whatever overseas management and industrial relations practices, including Japanese , may be adopted, Austin Rover must remain very British. But if they can locate ideas which can make Cowley or Longbridge more competitive and successful, and employee identification with the products and the company is a key means to these ends, then ideas will be taken on board. The bottom line is a fundamental one.
Cowley will initially produce 1,500 Rover 800s and Legends a week, many of them destined for export markets, particularly the US. Present production is geared to a two shift system, but if the new car achieves the magnitude of sales Austin Rover and Honda hope, and the vehicle’s quality image will play an important part in this , then Cowley could move to three shift working on 800 series output And that would mean more jobs.