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I recently joined a cohort of enthusiastic Q community members who attended a Q Visit to the Unipart Group headquarters in Cowley, Oxford. When it comes to cultures of continuous improvement, Unipart is leading by example, so the aim of the visit was to gain insight into how this has been embedded and sustained.

The aim of the visit was to gain an insight and understanding of how Unipart has embedded and sustained a culture of continuous improvement, an area in which it is leading by example.

An international organisation with roots in the automotive industry, Unipart currently has over 10,000 employees, a presence in over 100 countries worldwide and greater than a £1 billion turnover. Over the last 30 years the Unipart Group has had to evolve and reinvent itself in order to remain competitive. In its current multi-sector form it now has three main divisions: manufacturing; logistics and consultancy.

The visit took the form of a day long “go and see” experience, coordinated by Peter Dudgeon and Emma Adams from the Health Transformation Partnership (HTP) and facilitated locally by Unipart’s Ian Arthbuthnott and Mark Varnom, Principal and Executive Practitioners respectively. As well as informal discussions and networking opportunities, the day included a presentation introducing the material and visits to the shop-floor to observe employee engagement and better understand the Unipart Way.

Key principles and tools of the Unipart Way

The term ‘Unipart Way’ was coined in 1997 after a management buyout led to a transition in working practices. It refers to the organisation’s unique, unified and deliberate working practices; these are a combination of certain aspects of the lean methodology, human factors skills, all with an intentional focus on self-development and cohesive working. The Unipart Way is underpinned by the organisation’s key principals and values which are known and understood by all and guide both employee engagement and working behaviours.

One particular aspect of the Unipart Way was appealing to me; the concept of an in-house continuous improvement faculty.

The Unipart team describe their working practices as unique as a result of the dedicated leadership and bottom up approach which then engages people at all levels to drive towards the common goal of serving the customers ‘better than anyone else.’ The high levels of committed leadership, employee engagement, systematic use of tools, and supportive infrastructure combine to elevate Unipart as an organisation which prides itself on achieving ‘sustainable high performance through engagement.’

One particular aspect of the Unipart Way was appealing to me; the concept of an in-house continuous improvement faculty. Unipart has implemented a work based corporate university or ‘faculty’ to promote self-directed learning and training. Through this faculty, employees can gain access to resources, share ideas of best practice, learn tools and techniques to enable training and skill development which further enhance both daily and ongoing continuous improvement. Moreover, the faculty assists in creating strong foundations for self-development and the implementation of Unipart’s ‘Gate to Great’ ethos; that is anyone who enters the Unipart gate will be given the support and experience to become great.

From the unified way of working, which had been carefully planned and constantly adapted to respond to both the needs of the organisation and employees, to the obvious high levels of enjoyment and passion in the teams that we met, all were attributes we wished to see in our teams.

During the visit we had the opportunity to meet part of the finance team who, in recent years, have focused on improving their teamworking. They described how they have significantly improved their team productivity – so much so that they are now considered exemplary within the organisation! The team spoke about how they’d achieved this, illustrating this with pictorial and practical examples of the techniques they used. These techniques included process mapping to restructure their team activities and using the Unipart Way concepts of team development, building on the five stage process of ‘first see, then learn, then apply then teach and then coach.’

We were fortunate to be exposed to the daily team huddles which occur in all teams across Unipart. This 10 minute huddle, also known as a communications cell, was similar to a medical handover: it is mandatory and occurs at the same time each day for the safe transfer of information. It was led by a different team member each day and the team discussed their daily agenda, identified any potential obstacles and any project which potentially required problem solving. The discussions were based around a handwritten or digital visual aid (similar to a patient board) which highlighted the team available that day, their skill set, actions required and time frames. There was an in-built process to identify potential problems in a process sooner rather than later so a solution can be sought in a timely way.

Key lessons

In addition to being a good networking opportunity, the Q Visit to Unipart was informative, and inspiring. From the unified way of working, which had been carefully planned and constantly adapted to respond to both the needs of the organisation and employees, to the obvious high levels of enjoyment and passion in the teams that we met, all were attributes we wished to see in our teams. The Q members were each motivated in different ways to take back to their own environments and implement what we had seen. Brief daily agenda meetings, processes to potentially identify issues sooner rather than later and ensuring individuals are supported to go from ‘gate to great’ can only be steps in the right direction for us all and the NHS.

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