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Nissan Sunderland: where East meets West

By raccars Published

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Nissan is fuelling record growth in the UK automotive industry. Here's how.

British car brands are experiencing unprecedented success, but the biggest car manufacturing plant in the UK belongs to Nissan. 799 acres in Sunderland, to be specific, where 60 cars are completed every hour. A third of all British manufactured cars are made in the Nissan Sunderland plant, nearly half a million vehicles per year. And four out of five of these are destined for export to 130 different countries.

The plant will have been open for three decades this year, and has made about eight and a half million cars since Baroness Thatcher inaugurated it in 1986. Nissan has just announced that it plans to invest another £26.5 million to expand its battery making division. Nissan is therefore also vitally important to the job market in the UK, employing 6,700 staff directly and providing work for 27,000 more in its supply chain.

The home of the Nissan Qashqai, Juke and Leaf

The plant makes some of Nissan's key models, particularly the super successful Qashqai crossover and its little brother, the Juke. Nissan's electric Leaf model and its fuel cells are made in Sunderland and Nissan's luxury sub-band Infiniti also makes its Q30 hatchback in Sunderland.

Nissan's success in Sunderland is all down to a Hercule Poirot-esque insistence upon order and method. Every part of the vehicle construction process is automated but the firm also relies upon a symbiotic relationship between its machinery and a skilled workforce. The cars roll at a slow but steady speed along the three mile production line, following a split second schedule. On average the Sunderland plant works at 95 per cent capacity.

The build process for every Nissan Qashqai requires 828 robots, completing 3,367 welds. Each car needs 10.5 litres of paint, which dries within two hours. There are 1,700 mechanics working on the final assembly, each of whom complete their assigned task in one minute. Screens around the plant measure how efficiently each production line is performing.

Japanese philosophy

The workforce has been trained in the Japanese philosophy of Kaizen, a commitment to constant improvement in one's work. This Eastern philosophy has apparently been welcomed by the local workers, as part of the process sees improvements acknowledged and results measured. The workforce has assimilated the notion that success means a commitment to advancing.

Among the staff are members of an elected council, in German co-operative style. A supervisor or 'managing director' is appointed to each zone, who is given quite far-ranging authority to hire and fire as necessary. Part of Nissan's incentive programme includes rewarding its workers with generous pay rises - 3 per cent above the annual inflation rate. The result is productivity one and a half times higher than the average car manufacturing facility.

The philosophical approach includes signs around the plant detailing the Japanese theory of Douki Seisan, which espouses the policy of a high quality output made in a timely and orderly fashion. Another working philosophy to which the Sunderland staff adhere is Genba Kanri, a system of staff management whereby daily practices account for business success.

Where East meets West

It's this melding of Eastern philosophy and efficiency with Western craftsmanship that has put Nissan at the forefront of car manufacturing in the UK. The spiritual approach could provoke mirth among the down-to-Earth northern folk when they enter the factory but it's hard to argue with the results. If British car makers of the past such as Rover, British Leyland and even the likes of Jaguar, which are now foreign owned, had had access to this approach, the landscape of the UK's manufacturing industry may have looked very different today.

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