Power to the people – the Unipart way

Unipart is on a mission to raise the UK's productivity and promote employee accountability

It should be a journalist’s dream. Group HR director at manufacturing and logistics firm Unipart Group John Greatrex is having a busy day, and running a few minutes late for our interview. I’m sat outside his office as he finishes a conference call... staring straight, and somewhat guiltily, at a collection of rather revealing-looking charts.

I’m trying not to look. And then wondering if I should. Among the more innocuous but still perhaps delicate diagrams and bullet points, on ‘global mobility costs’ and Unipart’s ‘wellbeing plan’ for example, are charts relating to health and safety – most sensitively perhaps: ‘employee liability claims’.

Cut to 15 minutes later and it turns out I needn’t have fretted. Those same charts, tracking in detail the performance of Unipart Group’s HR function and future strategy, also feature five times bigger on the wall of the meeting room we’re in. And Greatrex is explaining exactly what they mean.

For in these charts and plans lies the secret not just of the HR department’s success, but of the company’s as a whole.

“This is a comms cell; that’s where people get together to talk about the work they’re doing. You could walk out into the factory floor or the warehouse, or into financial services, and there will be one of these,” explains Greatrex. “The content varies according to area but the structure is the same. So I could go to any part of Unipart and pretty quickly get a good idea about what’s going on: what the issues are, what we’re doing well, what we’re not doing so well.

“We get customers who might look at our boards and say ‘that’s very brave of you, do you think you should be doing that?’” adds Greatrex. “But our mindset is: absolutely. We want to see if there are problems and issues. Because problems and issues are opportunities for improvement.”

This quest for continual improvement lies at the heart of the Unipart way of doing things – a way that you can’t fail to become aware of as soon as you drive towards its 500-employee HQ and operations site in Oxford. ‘Join our productivity revolution’, ‘We’ve improved productivity by 33%’, signs near the entrance decry.

It’s an approach that many will, however, already be at least somewhat familiar with given the organisation’s tireless mission to boost the UK’s productivity (currently a woeful 18 percentage points below the G7 average).

Originally part of the state-owned automotive empire British Leyland, Unipart was demerged in a management buyout in 1987, led by current chairman and chief executive John Neill. Saddled with some of the worst factories in Britain, Neill scoured the globe for ways to turn them around, hitting upon the Japanese concept of lean manufacturing.

Today Unipart has added logistics, rail engineering and extensive European, Gulf and US operations to its automotive parts manufacturing activities. The £700 million-turnover 6,000-employee company has also branched into consultancy work, advising the likes of the NHS, HMRC and National Grid. And Neill is a highly vocal campaigner on how best to boost the nation’s productivity, and the danger of using the term ‘puzzle’ to describe the problem, with its implication that the issue might be too complex to overcome.

Greatrex is a similarly strong advocate of a positive approach to the productivity... challenge. “We have this thought that UK productivity is almost culturally set, that we’re not as productive as our competitors,” he says. “But there are some great examples in this country where companies have reached the very highest levels. So there’s a way of doing it, it’s just that we need to spread that best practice.”

For Greatrex HR needs to be at the very centre of this. “HR has a critical role to play building any capability in an organisation. So if we’re looking at productivity, it’s about how do we build that capability? Our approach would be to say: first, let’s see what we’re trying to achieve in the future. Have we got the capability to deliver it? If the answer is no then the first thing to do is go and find out what great looks like... let’s go and see some other companies and talk to academics.”

He adds: “HR needs to be part of that process because if you’re going to build a capability, at some point or another that’s going to be spread within the population of the organisation and it’s about people.”

HR’s critical role in boosting productivity comes back in no small part to the issue of employee empowerment, explains Greatrex. Along with ‘puzzle’, ‘lean’ is a word Greatrex says he isn’t massively keen on, due to misuse in some cases. “I would advocate anybody to see lean as a way of empowering people and driving employee engagement. The one problem is that’s not the case in a lot of lean initiatives.”

“We’re not going to come into your business and review it and tell you what to do. That’s not our approach,” he adds. “Our approach is: we know how to map processes, how to manage workflows, and about problem-solving techniques. So we’re going to teach your frontline staff about how they can own the processes.”

Greatrex cites the example of A&E departments the company has worked with: “Nursing staff are completely overwhelmed and overloaded, they have very set targets and all sorts of managers and experts get involved. Then you look at the alternative – take that away and empower the people who do the work. They know most about the work so empower them to take ownership of their processes.”

Of course all this talk of staff ownership and continuous improvement can’t fail to bring the issue of employee wellbeing and resilience to mind. And Unipart CEO Neill has conceded before that the ‘Unipart Way’ perhaps won’t be for everyone. But for Greatrex it still is for the vast majority of prospective employees. For accountability and wellbeing for him are two sides of the same coin.

“Resilience isn’t just about CBT or wellbeing or employee assistance programmes. All those things are important, and certainly we have various programmes and plans in all of those areas,” says Greatrex. “But a fundamental piece of that model is good quality work.

“So, what is good quality work? It’s based on people’s day to day experiences, their relationship with their manager, whether they feel empowered. Do they feel listened to? And that goes back to engagement. The whole thing fits together.”

Greatrex warns that, for empowerment to result in a strong culture of wellbeing and engagement, it has to be coupled with equipping people with the right tools and training. “You can’t just say ‘take accountability for it’. You have to give people the tools and techniques to be able to do that,” he says, adding: “There are a whole range of problem-solving skills we need to give staff... You have to give that critical skill to everybody.”

Regarding how such an approach can’t fail to engage and motivate most people, Greatrex explains: “Take some jobs with all-female employees in low pay: we have in our minds sometimes that they just come to work, it’s just a social thing, they just come to earn money. But actually if you give them more accountability it’s incredible what they can do.”

One of the most formative experiences in Greatrex’s career was the chance, at Diageo, to work overseas, and to realise that “the fundamentals of how you realise the potential of people are the same” all over the world.

“We all have preconceived notions and when you go on an international assignment you go with those,” he points out. “It’s only by living and working with Jamaicans, for example, that you see those are entirely false. In Jamaica spreading best practice was easy. People were so keen to take up learning and get on with it, but you wouldn’t necessarily associate that country with those traits.”

He adds: “We do tend to focus on the different elements of say motivation for different generations and different groups of people. There are differences and nuances, but the fundamentals of what great HR is all about are essentially the same.”

Greatrex’s advice for those contemplating an international opportunity is: “Go for it. Take a risk generally – a stretch project perhaps”.

“If we can challenge our preconceptions, I think that’s a far better way of unleashing diversity of talent than almost any other intervention I can think of,” he adds, citing the example of Unipart’s tech division, where the company challenged its assumptions about the kinds of skills needed in certain roles, and now has a highly successful female director and general manager, both with female deputies, as a result.

Greatrex would add to this the advice to get experience of as many different sectors and business models as possible. He has done exactly this through first working at EMI, then the BBC, and now Unipart, which is privately and also part-employee-owned.

Greatrex is also passionate that HR practitioners have a strong expertise in their profession. “With members of my HR leadership team, I want them to be committed and full members of their business units but also balanced by being members of the HR community,” he says.

With Greatrex’s passion and commitment to both it’s hard to see how members of his team couldn’t be. And as he leads me along Oxford-based Unipart House’s labyrinthine corridors – past the building’s ‘Knowledge Factory’ training rooms, ‘Lean Machine Centre’ employee gym, and cafeteria (complete with comms cells of its own) – the buzz and sense of purpose around the ‘Unipart Way’ is palpable.

Greatrex is on occasion self-deprecating and apologetic when reiterating key Unipart principles, and regarding some of the more “twee”-sounding slogans such as ‘Gate to Great’ and ‘Learn at 10 and do at 11’. But he is also convincingly adamant of their worth.