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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 June, 2004, 18:49 GMT 19:49 UK
Mini workers help transform firm
By Rory Cellan-Jones
BBC News industry correspondent

Mini Cooper
A German management style is behind changes at Mini
On a test-track near BMW's Cowley plant two production workers are having a spin in the brand-new Mini convertible.

In recent weeks, the company has taken some of its colleagues on nights out at comedy clubs, or lent them cars for the weekend.

They are all being rewarded for their ideas which have helped transform the fortunes of this plant.

All employees at Cowley - or as BMW has renamed it, Plant Oxford - now have to come up with three ideas a year on how to improve the production process.

The people on the track know best - why not ask them?
Ian Palmer, Mini employee

In the last year their suggestions have produced cost-savings of more than 11m.

Many of the ideas seem pretty mundane.

In the paint shop, Ian Palmer and his team decided the company was spending too much on a very high-quality heat-resistant masking tape.

When the firm took up their suggestion to switch to a cheaper tape, the factory saved 28,000 a year.

In another part of the plant, workers on the door line noticed the wrong wing mirrors kept ending up on cars. They devised a checking device to cut out errors, with an annual saving of 31,000.

Mr Palmer says it makes sense to ask the workers for ideas. "The people on the track know best - why not ask them?"

Overseas threat

But Mr Palmer, who started work here more than 25 years ago when Cowley was making the Austin Maxi, admits none of this would have been possible in the old days, when there was a culture of "them and us" across the British car industry.

In 2000, the workforce here feared for the plant's future when BMW decided to sell Rover.

Then the company decided to keep Cowley and make it the base for the new Mini.

Bernard Moss, the union convenor, admits that has focussed minds amongst the workforce.

"In the old days, if you told people there was a threat to the plant, they wouldn't take it seriously. Now we know companies can close down and move to China or Eastern Europe."

Friday shift

The convenor has co-operated closely with BMW's head of change management, Nicola Scott, as working practices are transformed.

The changes have not been universally popular - nobody seems to like the Friday shift introduced to boost production of a car which has become a best-seller.

But Mr Moss says one big difference from the old days is that he can now be seen walking around the factory with Ms Scott.

"Even ten years ago, people would have said what's going on, what's that all about?"

German management style

Certainly, the atmosphere in this car plant feels a world away from the dark, dirty, noisy metal bashing world of Britain's car industry 20 years ago.

There's plenty of light, little noise, and the workforce are wearing smart, colourful uniforms.

But it has taken a decade for BMW to make a success of car-making in Britain. When this was a Rover plant, the old culture proved difficult to shift.

Now, with a car they can be proud to make, the British workers seem to have accepted the German management style, albeit with some reservations.

But in an industry where it is much cheaper to make a car in China or Hungary, the Cowley workers cannot stand still. They will be under pressure to come up with more good ideas in the years ahead.


SEE ALSO:
Mini ideas save BMW 10m
22 Feb 04  |  Oxfordshire
A new life for the Mini
22 May 01  |  Business


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