What goes around comes around – How UK firms could profit from practices abroad
Even though every country is different, there can still be lessons to be learned. Fleur Doidge reports for The Manufacturer.
Just as other nations have learned by copying British innovators, a truly global UK might do best by considering lessons from abroad.
Vanessa Podmore, Leader and Founder of Podmore Consulting and Director at the British Footwear Association, agrees. She says that, beyond challenges such as minimum wage rates, governance and even long-established and traditional mindsets, there are definitely lessons out there for UK manufacturers.
In the UK, the focus can be on established customers rather than new designers and small businesses. However, Italian footwear manufacturers, for example, benefit from a “sense of shared responsibility for healthy supply chains.”
“Even tiny vulnerable suppliers are supported because if they fail, the whole supply chain fails, as well as the high levels of design focus and perseverance with refinements and corrections in the sampling phase,” explains Podmore.
Small biz and low volumes can be beautiful
Further afield in Asia, there has been a shift towards lower minimum order quantities (MOQs) as suppliers recognise the changing business landscape, the need for more variety in a brand’s product line and, perhaps most enlighteningly for the UK market, the opportunities presented by smaller brands and businesses, Podmore says.
Asian manufacturing specialists have a long-term view of relationships and investing in new processes and machinery is deemed a competitive advantage and not a burden, she says.
James Murphy, UK Co-Founder and Vice-General Manager of rapid prototyping firm HLH Prototypes, also points to demand for increased choice and customisation, which is increasingly powering low-volume manufacturing rather than traditional, larger scale production runs.
UK and European manufacturers often overlook such opportunities, being rather conservative, even risk averse. Meanwhile, peers in places like China have benefited from more of a ‘have a go’ approach, suggests Murphy.
“In UK manufacturing projects, a lot of what people expect and want is to be kind of 100% certain that you’re 100% able to do it,” says Murphy.
Murphy says China-based manufacturers can make something work “nine times out of ten” because they understand their processes and what they’re trying to achieve. In fact, the Chinese approach can be nearer to the Silicon Valley ideal of ‘fail fast, fail often’, achieving results and learning fast.
That said, changing attitudes in the UK may well require significant support from government – as indeed it does in China – with policy, frameworks and regulation devised that encourages greater entrepreneurship and doesn’t punish people as much for taking risks.
“We do need to look at how we can make UK manufacturers more competitive. Not looking at how to recreate low-cost strategies but how to link up ideas and be entrepreneurial,” Murphy says.
Paul Crutcher, Operations Director at office equipment maker Bisley, notes that Lean stems from the Toyota Production System. However, more manufacturers could go deeper on Lean, working with the Japanese concept of Kata for sparking and sustaining greater innovation by continually improving and adapting what they do.
He believes that Western managers often pass up multiple opportunities for improvement, sometimes more or less ignoring the people actually carrying out the work, instead focusing on leadership via their managers.
“People say ‘that’s what I’ve told somebody to do, and I told them to do that several months ago’, yet when they go back a couple of months later, they aren’t still doing it – and that comes as a surprise” Crutcher says.