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Smiths and Oxford: a collaboration between two great British institutions

‘Smiths,’ writes Deborah Orr in Motherwell, her posthumous memoir of growing up in 1970s Scotland, ‘had long been a giant of British industry, watchmaker and supplier of aeronautical dials to pretty much every plane on the planet’. (Orr’s mother worked in the Smiths office, and the Orr family home had a Smiths clock in every room.) The brand was a byword for reliability: Edmund Hillary used a Smiths watch in his ascent of Everest.

These days Smiths has branched out into many different fields – medical technology, energy and defence as well as aerospace – but it remains a great British institution, its reputation for quality undiminished. When NASA needed new connector technology for its manned spacecraft Orion that could withstand the rigours of a 280,000-mile flight, it was Smiths that provided the solution. It is Smiths, too, which is using artificial intelligence to make border security globally more efficient and effective.

So, it made sense that when Smiths wanted to train its team in Lean Six Sigma methodology, a key element of its global Excellence System, it chose another historic institution with a gift for innovation: Oxford University.

Ian Skeels, programme manager at Smiths, says the firm looked at several providers but chose Oxford ‘because we feel that obviously they’re a world-renowned institution, and their culture, values, capabilities and above all their passion are really strongly aligned to ours.’

Removing waste and inefficiency

Lean Six Sigma is a methodology for reducing waste and inefficiency in organisations. It combines two well-known approaches: ‘Lean’ manufacturing, which aims to identify all the stresses and unnecessary steps in a manufacturing process and eliminate them; and ‘Six Sigma’, which focuses on getting rid of variation in a process, so that the results of a process can be predicted with precision, making it possible to remove any errors.

The two approaches are complementary, both focused on identifying mistakes and inefficiencies and creating a smooth, seamless, replicable process. Lean Six Sigma works so well that it has been adapted by organisations for functions outside manufacturing.

The bespoke courses, which are run by Dr Robert Collins, began in December 2018 and have been attended by over 300 Smiths employees to date. By the end of the initial three-year contract, the plan is to have trained 1,000 of the 22,000 staff worldwide.

‘We’ve had people at engineering level all the way through to director level, so that even vice-presidents go on the training,’ says Skeels. The training has run not only in Oxford, but in China, the United States, Mexico, Germany, Singapore and the Czech Republic.

The Lean Six Sigma system offers different types of training, graded, like judo, by coloured belts. Peter Holland, a programme manager in continuing professional development at the Department, reports that for Smiths the programme includes three levels of training.

The yellow belt training is a one-day course aimed at leaders and managers who want an overview.  ‘Then we have a Lean Six Sigma green belt course which is five days and is for the practitioners – people from Smiths’ engineering, production and quality teams. And then we have the highest tier which is a two-week black belt course.’ This is split: after the first week, students take a three-month break to implement what they’ve learnt before coming back for a second week.  The black belt course, says Skeels, is about teaching people ‘to be change leaders, people who can inspire, coach and mentor others as well be custodians of excellence themselves.’

Engaging and energetic

Feedback from Smiths staff has been ‘resoundingly positive,’ says Skeels. So often, he says, business training involves sitting in front of a very long PowerPoint presentation, ‘but that's not the way Oxford do it. It’s so engaging, it’s energetic, people are doing practical exercises, they are working in sub-teams and they are considering dimensions of their own projects that they’ll go and run to drive improvements for the business.’

The training has already had an impact on the business. ‘We’ve seen supplier transformations brought into effect, existing processes being improved, waste removed, and variation removed, basically yielding some really incredible improvements,’ says Skeels.

The company, for example, had been using a few different transportation suppliers in the Far East, requiring the management of multiple contracts. ‘We’ve worked out a way to consolidate many different arrangements into a few different arrangements, giving us a much more integrated and coherent approach to doing transportation in the Far East,’ says Skeels.

Although reducing the number of suppliers has had its challenges, it has also, he adds, provided ‘rewards for the business in terms of how we interact with those companies.’

There may be opportunities to extend the programme beyond the first three years, but even after a year, Smiths has seen benefits that extend beyond the people being trained. ‘It's like a snowball effect,’ says Skeels. ‘As you train one person, they can run a project which impacts ten other people, and so on and so on, so you get this multiplicity of impact.’

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Published 6 February 2020