Unipart HR director: HR’s key role in solving the productivity puzzle

Teams are empowered to solve problems and improve processes at Unipart.
Teams are empowered to solve problems and improve processes at Unipart.

Give employees the right tools to solve problems and HR can unlock productivity and employee engagement, argues John Greatrex. Personnel Today spoke to the Unipart Group HR director in advance of his session at next week’s CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition.

With productivity in the UK still not recovered from pre-recession levels, one of the questions nearly every employer would like an answer to is how to increase the output of their staff.

And, according to John Greatrex, group HR Director of automotive parts manufacturer and consulting company Unipart, this is an area where HR can really make a difference.

CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition

John Greatrex, Group HRD of Unipart, will be speaking at the CIPD Annual Conference on 4 and 5 November.

His session, Building the HR of the Future, will look at how to develop a lean HR model that empowers people to perform at their best. It will cover:

  • lean HR models aligned to the business to increase engagement and productivity;
  • strategies to develop your team’s agility to cope with unknown future challenges;
  • how to devolve responsibility and accountability to teams and spread good practices;
  • frameworks to increase the quality of your team’s decision-making process; and
  • transforming HR into an enabler of engagement and continuous improvement.

“Of all the different influences HR faces, what are the key ones facing HR in the future? Technology will be important, but as I see it, it’s the productivity puzzle, how we produce more with less, that is the critical challenge facing private- and public-sector employers, and UK plc,” he says.

Greatrex will discuss how Unipart has revolutionised employees’ output, and engagement, at next week’s CIPD annual conference and exhibition in Manchester.

His theme, “Building the HR function of the future: developing capabilities and lean ways of working”, will touch on how the company has drawn on “lean” manufacturing approaches to constantly review and improve its processes and empower staff to solve problems.

“You can use lean tools and techniques to empower people to take ownership of their own work, and the more you can empower people to take ownership, the more engaged they are and the more effective they are,” he explains.

He estimates that techniques such as allowing workers to solve problems at the very lowest level, rather than pushing them on to managers, can improve productivity by as much as 40% in just 12 months.

But while these “lean” techniques are long established in manufacturing (having been popularized by car companies such as Toyota), how relevant are they to other employers and can they make a difference?

Empowering the front line

Unipart’s approach has been so successful internally that the company now helps other organisations embed it for themselves, with consulting clients including major financial services companies and NHS trusts.

Greatrex adds: “Take an A&E department as an example. If you empower nurses and porters who are frontline staff to understand processes and how to make improvements, they become a lot more efficient. People understand their own jobs better than anyone else.”

In order for this approach to be effective, however, HR needs to start by looking at the efficiency of its own processes: “If you’re going to embark on this sort of thing you must apply these capabilities to the function itself and be part of a process that helps apply them into the business as a whole,” Greatrex argues.

“HR needs to ask questions such as, how good at we at measuring what’s important in what we do? How well do we understand processes and working out ways of improving them? How good are we at cascading strategy right from the top of the organisation?”

Crucially, too, HR must not lose sight of engagement. Lean processes often get a bad press, according to Greatrex, because they are “anything but engaging”, with all the focus on efficiency improvements at the expense of staff happiness.

CV – John Greatrex

JG Photo2005-present: Group HR Director, Unipart Group
1994-2005: HR director roles, Diageo
1990-1994: HR director, Homepride Foods, Dalgety Group
1987-1990: HR manager, Grand Metropolitan Brewing/Express Foods

“It’s crucially important that if you’re going to sustain a lean initiative and get it right, you need to do it in an engaging way,” he says.

At Unipart, employees at all levels learn problem solving skills and other approaches such as process stream mapping so they can review how they work and improve if necessary.

Take ownership and improve

Employees learn how to codify what they do and teach it to new people, in order to “take ownership and improve”, which in turn helps them feel engaged with their work.

When it comes to measuring that engagement, Unipart uses traditional employee engagement surveys, but measures both at the beginning and end of processes so managers can see how behaviours have changed, rather than simply capturing an attitude at a certain point in time. Staff are encouraged to address any gripes that arise through the survey head on; only those they cannot control are dealt with centrally.

Unipart employs more than 10,000 staff worldwide, and Greatrex admits that the company’s HR model borrows “a bit of everything”. He says: “We’ve got a diverse range of businesses, so there’s no perfect answer. I believe in HR that you have to make sure that the key capabilities in your organisation are also the key capabilities of the function.”

Before joining Unipart 10 years ago, Greatrex held a number of HR director roles at drinks company Diageo, another diverse group of businesses, but with a greater consumer focus. And while the results of working in a leaner way at Unipart have clearly reaped rewards – the company’s annual turnover is more than £1 billion – he insists that this does not make him or the company some “paragon of virtue”.

He says: “We do make mistakes, but we learn from them. One of our key principles at Unipart is that no problem is a problem. Instead, we say, let’s look at this as a source of improvement.”

If HR professionals can apply just some of this advice on empowerment and improvement, they will be on the way to solving the productivity puzzle.

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