Rochester Revisited

Posted on 10 Jul 2013 by The Manufacturer

A year after first visiting BAE Systems’ UK Electronic Systems division in Rochester, Jane Gray returned to see new shop floor-led improvements to production management and explore more of the cradle-to-cradle capabilities on site.

The Typhoon fighter pilot helmet produced at BAE Systems Rochester incorporates unique sensory technology

BAE Systems’ Rochester site is home to the UK arm of its Electronic Systems (ES) business and to production of some of the most exciting defence technologies on the market.

Perhaps most prominent among these is the fighter pilot’s helmet for the Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft. A triumph in electronic systems engineering and aerospace ergonomics which uses augmented reality, delivered through an integrated head up display to provide pilots with unique target tracking capabilities and much faster reaction times.

Thanks to strong orders for the Eurofighter towards the end of last year – Oman bought 12 in December – demand for new product at the Rochester site is robust. But the site also keeps busy by providing MRO services to inservice products, testing for continuous improvement opportunities in current designs and creating new generation technologies. It is a unique cradle-tocradle manufacturing environment within the defence industry says manufacturing director, Darren Patterson, and also spins out benefits for civil markets through manufacturing low carbon bus engines and providing test facilities.

More than the sum of its parts

But the technology produced and managed at BAE System’s Rochester site is not the only thing which makes it special. When last visited in early 2012 we discovered how the aim of achieving the Shingo Prize for operational excellence set Rochester on a transformation journey addressing business competitiveness, manufacturing efficiency and, critically, cultural excellence.

The plant at Rochester has been on its lean journey for fourteen years. There was a lot of focus on improving tools, systems and processes leading up to the introduction to a second ERP system in 2009. Shortly afterwards, there was a recognition that culture offered the next step in improving operational performance.

Proof of high levels of operational excellence were confirmed within a preliminary report submitted to Shingo Prize administrators in January 2013. Today, while continuos improvement of processes remains important, the tests Patterson hopes most keenly to pass when the site is audited in Q3, are those relating to employee engagement and proof of sustainable autonomous decision making at all levels in the workforce.

This drive for workforce independence has meant a reappraisal of accepted wisdom in organisational structure. The impact of ideas implemented in one function on other areas needs to be seen quickly. The solution is a shop floor-come-office environment where production buzzes around admin islands.

We heard during the last visit that the integration of office functions into the shop floor had been an unpopular move with staff at first, but today Patterson says it is embraced from both sides of the former divide. “Having someone in design or procurement working right next to someone in production means that the connections between different people’s work are far more obvious and we can react quicker when something has a negative impact.”

Internally aligned

Free flowing communication and common purpose in problem solving
is further supported at ES Rochester by the evolution of a flat management structure. “We’ve really reversed the management concept,” says Patterson. “Traditional management structures are top down, with senior staff approving the training of their teams. But because our BIT [Business Improvement Techniques] training is the same for everyone, no matter what their job title, and because training cohorts include staff from across company departments and pay scales, we are enabling bottom up influence on behaviours and consistent understanding of the way business challenges should be approached.”

The company wide BIT training scheme is integral to the Rochester site’s cultural profile. Two years ago, management committed to putting 50% of the workforce through the course – no small investment when the direct costs of an individual’s government subsidised training is around £1000 and the workforce numbers 1500.

The BIT training is progressing apace. When visited in 2012, three cohorts, each made up of around 40 employees, had completed the 12 week course which is led by Develop-u’s Laurie Heald who is permanently located on site for training (P55).

Today eight cohorts have passed through the training and staff are more than ready with comments on how the experience has changed their attitude to work and their relationship with colleagues:

Michael Tierney, site executive lead and operations & supply chain director: “BAE Systems is one of the world’s leading companies engaged in the development, delivery and support of leading-edge aerospace and defence systems in the air, on land and at sea. In partnership with our industrial partners who are trusted to deliver the mission critical technology they need, we trust our employees to draw on their ingenuity and passion to deliver those solutions. Our Leadership team is open to ideas, collaboration and engagement, driving retention by fostering an inclusive environment of exciting work and innovation, and providing full guidance and mentoring to employees. This leads to an empowering culture for our people.”

Gary Somerset, senior buyer: “I completed my 12 week BIT Project on the 15th May 2013. I could not believe how quickly those 12 weeks passed. I found the whole learning experience very fulfilling and the techniques that I learnt can be used in my day job. I would certainly recommend undertaking a BIT project to anyone who works in a manufacturing environment.”

Darren Andrews, facilities controller: “BIT is a great way of bringing everyone together using the same thought process, helping them break down problems and issues as a team and giving them the tools to look for solutions.”


Patterson hopes this forthcoming enthusiasm, backed up with confident business and production process acumen will stand ES Rochester in good stead next quarter when Shingo auditors descend. They can pick any staff member at random and ask them to demonstrate their awareness of overall business values, objectives and best practices. To be continued!