Kirsty Adams (KA): Ian what happened at the Mini Plant when we went into lockdown?
Ian Hepplewhite (IH): Like virtually every other part of the manufacturing industry in the UK, we ceased production. Consequently, the vast majority of our material supplies into the plant were halted, from the 23rd of March right the way through to the 18th of May, when we started production again. We started production on one shift for two weeks, and then we introduced a second and third shift. It was quite a bit of work to get that to a safe standard and still produce at the same rate as before the crisis.
KA: What safety measures did you introduce to get production moving again?
IH: So during the production stop, we worked tirelessly as a team to put measures into our logistics processes to ensure the start-up was as safe and as practical as possible for people working on the site. We started with a full risk assessment of every area, and each of the processes. We then changed layouts and process methods to ensure we could keep people the right distance apart. We created extra break areas to increase space. In some cases, such as lorry driver interfaces or paperwork handling, we completely redesigned the process.
The same kind of risk assessments were done across every other part of the plant. So paint, body and assembly too. This was to ensure we could produce to the same quality and quantity whilst safe, on top of the more general things like modified pedestrian floors, extra handwashing facilities, dividers in toilets and changing the food service to a takeaway rather a canteen facility. We also allowed people to work from home remotely - which they're continuing to do so where possible - to reduce the number of people on-site.
KA: Did you remain on site?
IH: I’m on-site now. I have to be, it’s in the job title! I'm in charge of physical logistics. Although I don’t do a massive amount of lifting myself nowadays. During shutdown there was a mix of on-site and off-site working. We were on-site when we were actually preparing the areas, but off-site when we were doing the first sets of risk assessments and plans on how we would start-up.
KA: What was the main challenge?
IH: Once we got into the flow of changing physical processes, it was less of a challenge, and probably within our comfort zone, because it’s what we do. You come across a problem, then you have to redesign a process, system or a way of working. The big challenge was not so much making people safe, but making people feel safe. We sent staff detailed communications on the changes to the site including our commitments, and expectations.
We sent that out to people before they returned. All our management team went out to the gates to welcome people back on the first day. We guided them to their places of work. We spent a lot of time developing and then giving inductions to people for the first couple of hours to make sure they knew the new processes. The biggest challenge was making sure people felt comfortable when they were coming back, and taking away the nervousness or anxiety they had.
You can’t underestimate that human element of the job, that human touch if you like. Anything which can be done to boost morale, no matter how small, is massively important.
My advice to operators is; don't underestimate how much effort, time and planning needs to go into communicating to your staff. They will feel nervous about certain tasks, and confused about the situation outside of work as well as inside.
You have to take account of that and be the people who allay those fears. You can’t wing that on the day. You need to establish exactly what should be communicated, how it should be communicated, when and by who.
KA: What does the future look like Ian?
IH: I think the main thing for us is getting used to the 'new normal', not a term I’m keen on. It will be about ensuring we provide the same levels of service and standards of operational cost effectiveness, we've always had, whilst somehow keeping the new social distancing rules and measures in place.
We’ve got some fantastic teams. I’ve no doubt we can do that on site. But as time moves on, we’ll continue to have to look at everything we do, keeping focused on how we can optimise our processes and our costs.
Sales obviously stopped at the same time our production stopped. Showrooms were shut. And we’ve yet to see what the take up will be once people come out of the lockdown process. We’ll have to be flexible in the market, make sure we’re as efficient as possible, so we can compete with the rest of the world.
KA: How has your relationship with your suppliers changed?
IH: One of the things we’ve worked very hard on, certainly in the last few years I’ve been here, is our relationship with our on-site service providers and suppliers. They’ve been partners with us in getting this preparation done. For example, we did risk assessments, implementation and inductions with our logistics service providers. But that is what we would expect regardless of what the problem or crisis was. Our parts suppliers have worked very closely with different elements of the plant, to make sure they are at the same level of safety standards and performance, as we are.
KA: What surprised you most throughout this strange period?
IH: What surprised me more than anything, when all of our people returned,was just how keen and enthusiastic they were to be in work, to apply the new rules and the new processes. It’s a lot of change for them. Even how they get to work is different and requires more time and effort. But everyone has been accommodating. I was expecting more of a problem from staff. But they can see that everyone is in it together, and that we’re dealing with something that’s much bigger than a BMW issue or a Mini issue. Thankfully, everyone is on board.
Ian Hepplewhite is general manager for physical logistics at the MINI Plant, Oxford, part of the BMW Group.