Revving up for success

Each year, hundreds of employees from Honda’s franchised dealer network are
imbued with the corporate culture at the Honda (UK) Institute. Guy Sheppard
talks to its head, Pauline Wiseman

The range of products is huge, starting with lawnmowers on one side and
ending with a solar-powered car on the other. In between are row upon row of
motorbikes, all-terrain vehicles, marine engines, generators and
conventionally-powered cars. This is the centrepiece of the Honda (UK)’s £3m
training and development centre at Colnbrook, near Slough. If nothing else, it
underlines Honda’s claim to be the largest engine maker in the world.

Called the Honda (UK) Institute, its role is to elevate people development among
the almost 10,000 people employed by the company’s franchised dealer network.
Its inspiration is Soichiro Honda, who founded the company before the Second
World War. He believed an organisation’s success depended on the skills,
knowledge and enthusiasm of its employees. Although most of the people trained
at the institute are not Honda employees, they do represent the public face of
the company.

Before the institute was founded three years ago, training was handled
separately by each product division. By merging under one roof, the aim has
been to both expand and tailor it more to the needs of the company. Pauline
Wiseman, head of the institute, says the founder’s guiding principle of
creating a company that both customers and society want is still retained
today. "The idea of the institute was born out of the desire to provide a
positive experience for customers; ensuring no inconvenience for customers is
extremely important for us."

Providing opportunity

This could sound trite but Wiseman is persuasive as well as easy-going,
talking with a recognisable Northern Irish lilt even though she has lived on
the UK mainland since going to university. She is clearly passionate about the
institute’s role of providing opportunities for career development and personal
growth as well as motivation about working for Honda.

Every employee of its dealer network attends a one-day induction programme
so they can absorb the founder’s corporate values which originated in the 1940s
and 50s. "It’s very important for them to soak up the whole of Honda and
understand its history," says Wiseman. "The institute is somewhere
people can learn about this." She says it is just as important that the
least qualified people in the dealerships attend the induction programme as it
is for technicians and managers. "A car cleaner probably gets the job of
delivering cars to customers occasionally so they are in the front-line of the
company. If that person is not enthusiastic and motivated in his or her job,
the customer experience will not be as positive. It’s extremely important to us
that people go away with a positive feel about Honda and that this translates
into their everyday working life."

New recruits are often addressed by senior management from Honda (UK), whose
headquarters is at nearby Langley. This proximity underlines the importance
that training has within the company, which is responsible for sales and
distribution but not manufacturing. Wiseman reports directly to the managing director
and meets weekly with other departmental heads to shape corporate strategy.

"I believe that this positioning sends a clear message to our dealers
about how important training is," she says. "Last year, there was not
an awful lot of investment in training in the motor industry but we opened this
place, which cost about £3m. I’m told that spending here is on a much greater
scale than our competitors have spent." All dealers are expected to have a
personal development plan for each of their employees. "We will work with
the dealers to bring these plans to life," adds Wiseman.

Although the institute is an on-going investment by Honda, the dealers have
to pay for all forms of training it provides, apart from new product training
and induction. Courses are charged at a daily rate which is designed to cover
overheads. An exception is made for technician training because these skills
have to keep pace with technological change, so dealers pay a levy instead.

Wiseman says dealers can go elsewhere for training if they want. "We
charge what we believe is a competitive rate for training in the industry. I
believe that if training is to be of value to a business, it must be perceived
to be of value. If the training isn’t worth anything to the dealers because we’re
not getting it right, they just won’t come." In fact, 12,500 days worth of
training is provided by the institute each year, giving it a utilisation rate
of 85 per cent.

Courses cover areas such as time management and computer and presentation
skills as well as management and technical training.

One of the main innovations over the past 18 months has been to create a
qualification structure based on skills rather than job status. Every employee
joins the company as an associate and can progress upwards to become a member,
senior member and then a fellow of the institute. There are currently about 35
fellows who come from a variety of job backgrounds. Wiseman says the idea is to
encourage personal motivation, quoting research showing that the two main reasons
people stay in a job are opportunities for personal development and a feeling
of being valued by the organisation that employs them. "It really is just
about prestige, although extra skills will enable you to do your job better and
the likelihood is that you will get more satisfaction out of the job and get
more pay." She says an apprentice technician could become a fellow within
three years.

Although the institute’s core role is training, it has other functions as
well. There are one-off events, such as a talk given last month to around 300
people by the leadership development guru Stephen Covey.

In 1999, the institute launched a dedicated recruitment service, called
People First, to reduce staff turnover and thereby save on training costs. The
most spectacular results have been among car sales staff, where turnover used
to be almost 50 per cent a year, just below the industry average. "Since
we started, we have recruited 290 people into the dealer network and staff
turnover is now between 8 and 9 per cent," she says. "By putting
adverts in, telephone screening the candidates and doing other basic HR
procedures, we took a lot of pain out of the recruitment process." She
says People First has resulted in a noticeable drop in staff turnover across
other jobs as well.

New products

The institute employs a dozen managers and administrators as well as three
specialist trainers, who develop training for each new product during the early
stages of its development. External consultants are used for specific subjects.
However, some training takes place away from the institute, with management
courses held in hotels and new product training often provided in the
dealerships themselves. Everyone in each dealership is briefed about the
virtues of a new model, and a competitor model is often brought in as well to
illustrate this.

The institute, originally based in Chiswick, is now in a 46,000 sq ft
converted industrial unit with seminar rooms, computer-equipped work stations
and workshop bays with specialist tools. The central display area is designed
to instill a sense of pride in the company as well as provide opportunities for
hands-on training with all the models.

Over the last two years, the institute has piloted the development of
individual skills training for Honda worldwide so that trainees can study at
their own pace and thereby reduce the amount of time spent away from the
workplace. "Traditionally, most training is done in the classroom, but
here the bulk of the training is done at the work station," explains
Wiseman. "Depending on their ability, they can proceed through each module
much quicker and get more personal feedback from the facilitator. It’s a very
specific, practical method of training."

Because of its success, the concept may now be adopted throughout Europe.
Wiseman says the UK operation acts as ‘the mothership of Europe’ which means
training is generally piloted ahead of the continent.

Honda’s modern apprenticeships for technicians last three years and involve
25 weeks at either the institute or the company’s regional training facility at
Doncaster. More than 150 people are currently going through the scheme, which
is run by three dedicated trainers. Wiseman is "fairly happy" with
the requirements laid down by the Government for modern apprenticeships but
says the use of outside organisations to run it was abandoned last year, partly
because Honda is dealing with so many different products.

"Outsiders could not get their heads around what we were trying to
do," she says. Management training is generic to all types of dealer.
"We don’t own these businesses but can support them with all sorts of
training right up to leadership itself, helping them to plan for succession,
develop their staff and recruit new staff," she says.

Ways of ensuring that qualifications are recognised throughout the motor
industry are currently being explored. Technical courses are already accredited
by the Institute of the Motor Industry and Wiseman is working to ensure sales
and management qualifications are also included.

As chairwoman of the education and development committee of the Society of
Motor Manufacturers and Traders, Wiseman is closely involved in an effort to
establish accreditation for management qualifications through the Retail Forum.
"In this country, there is no set of management qualifications which
transcend all franchises. It’s a major project."

Training evaluation

Evaluation of training within the institute is run at four distinct levels,
ranging from verbal feedback from trainees through to whether the organisation
they work for has moved forward as a result of the training. "We have a
planning manager and part of her job is evaluation of our training
delivery," says Wiseman.

Having run the institute since its launch, Wiseman could claim much of the
credit for its achievements but says the organisation stands or falls on its
management and administration staff. "The experience of everyone who comes
through the doors is down to them. My greatest pride is the positivity and
energy of those people and the pride they take in the institute. You can’t
over-estimate the effect that has," adds Wiseman.

She says that one of the biggest challenges is a likely change in the law
which will mean franchised car dealers will no longer be tied to selling one
type of car. "It’s very difficult to say what exactly will happen but we
could end up having to spread the offer much more widely."

As with so much of the institute’s work, inspiration will probably come from
founder Soichiro Honda, who died in 1991.

One of his aphorisms, quoted in a brochure about the institute, seems
particularly apt:

"No matter how difficult the task, to the person with expertise, it is
the easiest work to do."

Pauline Wiseman

2001: took on additional
responsibility for Honda (UK)’s parts division

1998: head of Honda Institute

1995: Honda (UK) head of finance

1993: Honda (UK) dealer development manager

1991: joined Honda (UK) to set up business development
department for car retail network

1988: business manager with Peugeot-Talbot in Slough

1986: accountant with John Martyn Group, an Edinburgh-based car

1985: worked for chartered accountants in Edinburgh after
graduating from Dundee University with a degree in accountancy

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