We asked HR operations manager Warwick Hall how BMW developed a new breed of
supervisor to meet the skills demands of its latest engine plant in the West
One statistic sums up the training problem confronting BMW since it began
manufacturing petrol engines at Hams Hall in Warwickshire three years ago. Only
20 per cent of shop floor workers had received relevant training before being
recruited, compared with 80 per cent at its sister plant in Steyr, Austria.
Warwick Hall, HR operations manager at the UK plant, says the reason is
obvious. "Walk into the average technical college in this country and you
will probably find the engineering department in mothballs."
Much of this dates back to cutbacks in engineering’s training infrastructure
during the late 1980s and early 1990s, which means fewer apprentices went on to
become the experienced engineers of today. Even if people did arrive with the
relevant background skills, additional training was necessary because of the
much deeper level of knowledge expected of them to perform the plant’s complex
machining and assembly operations.
Without a suitable college network to fall back on, BMW has had to rely
heavily on its own bespoke programmes to plug the skills gap.
Huge resources have had to be allocated to foster a learning environment
among the 650-strong workforce at Hams Hall. By 2005, around £20m is due to
have been invested in its training and development programme with 45 per cent
coming from government grants.
Hall says: "In the past, we had done a lot of work teaching people
about problem analysis and resolution but had not talked to them about the
materials, tools and manufacturing processes they were working on. What was
missing was fundamental basic engineering knowledge."
At Hams Hall, semi-skilled workers are expected to look after and maintain
equipment in their particular section of the plant to both increase a sense of
ownership, and reduce dependence on maintenance staff.
Jobs within each section are regularly rotated, making it much easier to
cope with holidays and absenteeism because everyone ends up being able to do
each other’s job.
The key to managing such a flexible workforce has been the creation of technical
leaders, who are each responsible for between five and 20 people, depending on
which area of the plant they are working.
Their role includes guiding, coaching and deploying people within their area
as well as checking the quality of the processes they are responsible for.
Disciplinary issues and formal appraisal of staff remain the responsibility of
Hall says: "A technical leader understands and knows his area better
than anyone else. He ‘owns’ the plant and equipment and makes any necessary
improvements and changes. All our equipment here is very complicated, technical
and inter-related. A traditional maintenance person would come, perform the
maintenance function and then leave. He does not have ownership in the same
The mixture of technical and inter-personal skills needed for the job means
there are few obviously qualified people to take on the role.
Hall says: "They must have a technical engineering or maintenance
background and a good knowledge of the production processes, the product and
the quality requirements. They must be good at planning with and working with
people. We are looking for someone who has the empathy to understand and
appreciate what their team members are going through, and be able to operate on
He says the main dilemma when identifying potential technical leaders is
whether to go for someone who already has the softer, people-related skills and
build on the technical knowledge, or to build on the softer skills in someone
who already has the technical background.
How then, has BMW selected and trained people for the role? Hall says most
have a background as engineering apprentices and the initial intake was mainly
drawn from people who had already maintained and serviced the machinery.
One option for candidates lacking the necessary technical background has
been to join the plant’s two-year mature apprentice scheme, which includes one
year of full-time college. This has been developed because of the dearth of
relevant engineering skills in the local labour market.
The 31 people currently on the scheme are aged between 23 and 35. "They
stay on the same pay and we are giving them the ability to have a fresh start.
It will bring them to the base requirement for consideration as a technical
leader," says Hall.
Assessment for this role includes aptitude tests and questionnaires.
"We will observe them working with others in a team exercise and give them
a personal interview as well as a technical one," says Hall. "As and
when we have a vacancy, we will put them into the role, under development,
before they have any training."
At this stage, a mentor is assigned to give advice and, where necessary,
help. "The mentor works in a different area of the plant, otherwise they
will know all the answers and simply tell you what to do," says Hall.
"If they work in a different area, they will have to question you to find
out the problem. This gets you to find the answer yourself."
Technical leaders are given time to find their feet in their new role before
attending formal training at Woodland Grange.
Hall says: "Training is about doing the right thing at the right time,
and there are a lot of things we can’t do in advance. We develop them into
their role so they have an understanding of what they need.
"Someone with some experience under their belt has an opportunity to
talk with his tutors about those experiences, so they will come out with a much
greater level of learning."
There is no formal validation of the technical leader training programme,
although Hall says this is being worked on with the Engineering and Marine
Training Authority and could be introduced within two years. "The next
step up is into a process or quality engineer type role, from where management
is the next progression. The best recognition they can get is when their work
team say they are doing a great job."
He denies the role creates resentment among shopfloor employees.
"Technical leaders develop a good level of respect, upwards and downwards
based on their knowledge, capability and competence. We have a different
environment here. There’s a culture of training."
Everyone is expected to achieve NVQ Level 2 in performing manufacturing
operations within a year to 18 months of joining. "We will put them
through the necessary training for that, irrespective of whether they have the
appropriate qualification, because we want them to understand the way we
operate," says Hall.
The plant’s training philosophy is simple – give employees the necessary
skills to perform at their best in their appropriate role. "I firmly
believe people will do anything, provided you give them the right tool
kit," says Hall.
Once a funding package for training had been agreed with the Government,
partnerships were set up with Sutton Coldfield College and City College
Coventry to provide bespoke off-site training for the company in technical,
engineering and business skills. Lecturers were brought in to complete the
necessary training. These colleges also run related BTEC and City & Guilds
courses on site.
Although the Hams Hall HR department is responsible for the foundation and
induction courses, all other training is run by outsiders.
The plant has three training managers but no dedicated trainers of its own.
The annual budget for training is £1.1m a year, or £1,500 per employee.
Hall insists that neither the plant’s German-based parent group nor
government training agencies such as the Learning and Skills Council have
modified the training programme to meet their own objectives. "The fact
there was external support available was irrelevant. We have done nothing to
implement a skills, training or competence strategy because of external
He says the spin-off for the Government has been to enhance the regional
skills base. Applying a BMW blueprint to meet the plant’s training needs would
not have worked, because the skills base varies so much from country to
"BMW wants us to build a high-quality product which is very
cost-effective and attains the necessary business performance objectives,"
says Hall. "It is up to us to encourage people to deliver that for them.
What we do here is not the same as what we do in Germany, South Africa or the
US. It is observed by other plants, but it does not necessarily mean they will follow."
If someone does, then Hall’s advice is not to be too prescriptive. "The
primary lesson for me is to go into these things with an open mind and be brave
enough to allow your organisation to float and find its own level."
With technical leaders, this has meant allowing individuals to work out the
boundaries of the role themselves, depending on the technical demands of their
work area as well as the personal demands of the people they work alongside.
2000 HR operations manager for Hams Hall
1995 BMW manager responsible for the Hams Hall training project
From 1977 Various roles in industrial relations
and personnel management with Land Rover, Austin Rover and the Rover Group
1974 Sales support engineer in UK, Europe and the Middle East
1968 Mechanical engineering apprentice
Management training for technical
All technical leaders undergo a
six-day training course to develop their management and interpersonal skills.
The course is specifically tailored for the needs of Hams Hall
and is run by Woodland Grange, the Leamington Spa-based management training
centre. The main subjects covered are:
– Managing Hams Hall’s processes and systems
– Working with people and facilitating effective relationships
– Playing a leading role in the development of fellow employees
Linda O’Shaughnessy, the centre’s head of management training,
says: "It’s a very different type of training to that in technical areas.
I think this area is often ignored in business; people are promoted because of
their technical ability to manage others, without being given this type of
The BMW programme is highly interactive, using case studies and
existing situations for team and individual exercises. It is based around a
‘buddy’ system, where trainees from different areas of the plant team up before
and after the course.
The idea is that any advice they give to each other will be
more dispassionate than any given by someone they work alongside.
The course is split into two three-day segments. After the
second one, trainees examine a problem specific to their work area which is
usually concerned with managing people.
They then give a PowerPoint presentation to managers and fellow
trainees about how they have dealt with, or intend to deal with, the problem.
So far, nearly 50 people have participated in the course, which costs around
£600 per person.