Developing customer focus
A British Steel case study

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Page 4: Working in teams

British Steel 4 Image 2As a further development of the total quality process, teamworking was introduced in Shotton Works in August 1995, under the acronym TOPICS, Team Orientated Programme for Improved Customer Service. The objective was to equip and organise the workforce to enable better understanding of the processes and bring about Right First Time manufacturing by eliminating the opportunities for error. Teamworking relies on trust and people working co-operatively together. It provides a mechanism for interaction between people carrying out different functions but with a common purpose. Effective teamwork is recognised as a key feature of successful organisations today.

From the start of the programme, it was realised that the benefits of teamworking would not appear overnight. However, it was planned that the process would, over a period of time, lead to better product quality, increased plant availability and a higher level of deliveries on time. It would also enable British Steel’s Shotton Works to develop a highly skilled workforce which would achieve and maintain a leading edge over its competitors. Five integrated manufacturing teams, centred on specific production lines and involving around 1,000 employees, were developed as part of a collaborative effort between management, trade union representatives and all other employees.

British Steel 4 Diagram 2All production employees were asked to apply for team positions. Members were selected from people already employed in existing production areas and others with the appropriate skills. The selection process involved a series of written tests and face-to-face interviews. Switching to new tasks and working practices can sometimes be difficult, especially for those who have operated in a particular way for a long period of time. Those selected for teams followed an intensive training programme averaging thirteen weeks over a year. Six of these weeks were ‘off the job’ and based in a classroom. A number of personnel issues, such as job grading structure, trade union representation and rates of pay, had to be resolved as part of this process. One key advantage was that team membership and promotions were now based on competence and proven ability rather than length of service. Continuous learning was also recognised as an important part of the training process.

The team structure was simplified into a shift manager supervising working section leaders and team members. The shift teams were supported by day managers and others with specialist knowledge, such as engineers. The team approach made the structure of the organisation much flatter, with fewer levels of authority, and less hierarchical. De-layered structures, developed through self-managing teams, helped to empower employees, making them more responsible for their own actions and allowing them to participate more in decision-making. They also had more freedom to put their training and experience into effect.

The benefits of teamworking

A number of key benefits resulted from teamworking, including job enrichment. Job enrichment involved giving people more responsibility and recognition, thus helping people to feel that their contributions had been upgraded and were more appreciated. There was also the opportunity to earn more money for new skills through a ‘personal competence supplement’ to their pay. The use of Open Learning programmes, i.e. any type of learning undertaken in the employees’ own time, but mostly PC based, increased ten-fold between 1992 and 1998. More recently, the LEADS (learning and development opportunities at Shotton) initiative was introduced to encourage employees to extend their knowledge and pursue both vocational and non-vocational qualifications. Other benefits included:

  • better communications
  • a more positive approach to work
  • less down time/waiting time
  • improved knowledge of engineering issues as well as knowledge of the plant and processes
  • improved documentation
  • service functions (e.g. Personnel, Quality Control) focused on supporting the manufacturing process.

British Steel 4 Image 4All of these improvements are measured to monitor progress and quantify the benefits to the works. It is important that the measurement of performance and other standards are always forward-looking. The development of teams helped employees focus on both personal and team issues such as the achievement of quality, customer satisfaction and productivity. Right First Time and Service Level Agreements between manufacturing teams and internal supplier departments such as engineering, accounts and technical, also served to maintain a focus on key issues. Service Level Agreements are ‘contracts’ within the Works to ensure that the product or service provided by the supplying department is that which is required by the receiving department. The constant reviews of personal performance and the achievement of objectives helped determine promotion prospects and progression through each team.

Results of teamworking

The results from the teamworking process over the first three years were impressive. With fewer people, the new manufacturing teams achieved around 4% increase in productivity, increased product yields by an average of more than 4% and both accidents and customer complaints more than halved. Employee suggestions for improvement had tripled to an average of more than one per employee per year. Overall, the massive savings for the plant increased both its efficiency and competitiveness, measured through internal Service Level Agreements, as well as the key business performance indicators and critical success factors. At the same time, it provided employees with the chance to increase their skills, maximise their own potential through self-development and make a positive
contribution to improved business performance.

British Steel | Developing customer focus