If someone were to ask you to name a country whose manufacturing is known for quality and efficiency, you’d struggle to look past Germany or Japan. Both countries’ manufacturing and engineering bases are the traditional benchmarks for technological innovation, high standards of production methods, quality build and their use of design to continuously evolve their methodologies and standards. The acceleration of innovation and efficiency in these two countries was catalysed around the same time, for similar reasons, but based on differing initial conditions.
During World War 2, the ‘totality’ of war saw it’s nadir (or apogee, however you see it); Stalingrad, Dresden, the Ruhr, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Okinawa – these were not small battles on a greater stage, but military arenas of such historical, economic and social impact that we still live with the consequences today. Both ‘sides’ of the war committed acts of destruction beyond all reason and understanding that 60 years on, we struggle to comprehend. The ultimate consequence of WW2 was, in most cases, simply a wasteland – people, materials, environment, societal unity.
Britain, at the start of WW2, remained the leading nation of an empire on which the sun never set. Into the 21st century, it was still paying off debts accrued through borrowing at the end of the war (from the USA, mostly), needed to kick start the economy. We’d pretty much run out of metal to chuck at the Nazis, never mind for building ships, engines and the other machinery that was the core of British industry. The US would always have been OK: such a resource-rich, populous and well-developed (and relatively isolated) nation would practically relish a war and the consequent willing customers (think of the ammunition and ordnance sales) to lend to. Britain on the other hand was on her knees, rationing everything and knuckling down.
For Germany, the obliteration of the Ruhr, Dresden, the occupation and cessation of the Saar and the Russian control of East Germany heralded 1945 not as the end of the war but Year Zero for the aftermath. Japan was equally hammered: Hiroshima and Nagasaki were targeted for as much their industrial capacities as for the need to stun the Emperor into surrender. As with Germany, the surrender of Japan heralded a step into the unknown: never a country blessed with voluminous resources compared with the other major players of WW2, as an occupier of Korea, China and other areas of East Asia, it could draw on their mineral deposits to fuel the war effort. After VJ day, there these sources could not have been called on to get the Japanese economy to stand on its own two feet.
Britain, Germany, Japan – these three nations were suffering from similar maladies: depletion of (or the means to access) mineral resources, heavy damage to infrastructure, poor societal morale. But, as we know, British industry is a shadow of its former self – smaller in scale and influence, with significant proportions of industry and infrastructure foreign-owned, with that which can said to be truly British certainly more ‘niche’ and often targeted at the higher value, luxury market.
In the vacuum of post-war reconstruction, low inflation, a large workforce to call on and a demand for German goods – machinery, chemicals and automobiles – fuelled an economic boom that was unparalleled, and saw German companies become multi-national conglomerates in a short space of time. German industry has a long reputation of quality craftsmanship and efficient action. Even the likes of Aldi and Lidl are changing the landscape of grocery on shores beyond Germany. Meanwhile, a significant number of small and medium size enterprises (SMEs) bridged the divide between the large-scale ‘populist’ producers of goods and the demand for high-end items.
Japan, meanwhile, used its limited material wealth as a force for action, rather than a limiting factor. A bullish national bank promoted lending to businesses beyond a bank’s means in order to drive heavy industrialisation; basically betting on the ability of the nation’s companies to build superior and in demand products. The bet paid off. Through import controls and a focus on technology and quality control methods from the West, Japan focused on making products that kept up with (some might say accelerated) the technological pace of change taking place in the post-war economy. Not only that, companies such as Mitsubishi, Honda, Toshiba and Yamaha had diverse production bases, allowing diversification to adapt to changing demand for goods.
Britain, on the other hand, trod neither path. Since British infrastructure was somewhat repairable, and that businesses that took up the war effort switched back to their former sectors (car manufacturers, for example), there was no true ‘blank slate’, and thus leaders in industry and government lacked the motivation to innovate, or worse, were disinterested, thus British products lacked quality (and thus demand), yet were still resource intensive. Where the people of Stuttgart could look forward to seeing the Mercedes W116 rolling off the production line, their counterparts in the West Midlands had the Rover SD1, a car known for its construction problems before it was even sent into mass production. The decline of British-owned manufacture in fuelling the economy left a gap for the booming financial and services sector to drive the GDP of the nation, a situation fraught with volatility to this day.
Knowledge work is not industry, yet the story I tell has amazing parallels with school education in the UK today. We are in the midst of funding cuts, falling take up of teaching posts, high turnover of staff and increasing flight of staff from the sector, and a lack of mid-level infrastructure between governance and schooling on the ground. Yet, expectations placed on education is on the rise. Demands on technical and creative skill are ever more increasing as the global pace of change becomes ever more rapid and the need to look after a growing, aging population with a greater energy demand requires our urgent attention. The UK as a nation has always been able to import human skill where there are gaps, but we are in the midst of cutting off that source. Education in the UK is the parallel of British, German and Japanese industry in 1945: in need of rapid growth to meet the challenges of the country it serves, but without a resource base at a scale traditionally expected to meet them. Education is knowledge work, and as I say, knowledge work is not industry, but a similar premise remains. 2017 calls for a choice to be made by schools in the this country; is this a period of knuckling down and waiting, or is it a time to grasp an opportunity and look past traditional responses?
It is time to truly innovate. It is time to get LEAN.