Driving growth in NW SMEs by solving the productivity puzzle

Understanding what drives productivity growth is vital to tackle the UK’s “productivity puzzle” and to exploit the opportunities presented by Industry 4.0. Lancaster University’s expertise in the productivity agenda is making Lancashire the place for people based productivity solutions – and its Manufacturing & Engineering SMEs are feeling the benefits.

This powerful message was delivered to policymakers and industry leaders at a recent “Future of Productivity and Innovation” event, which the university held at the Houses of Parliament. Delegates heard how the University’s Management School (LUMS) successfully channels its groundbreaking research into pioneering collaborations to improve SME productivity and foster innovation.

Helen Wilkinson is Programme Director for Productivity through People and the Made Smarter Leadership Programme, two of

LUMS’ flagship SME programmes. She believes that LUMS’s leadership in the productivity arena reflects its ability to develop programmes tailored to the local business base that also deliver on UK economic policy priorities. This ensures that the university is a significant player both locally and nationally in the drive to make the North West and the UK more competitive, productive economies.

“The LEAD programme provided the catalyst for our engagement with SMEs. Its success lay in the application of our Integrated

Learning Model (ILM), including masterclasses, shadowing exchanges, coaching, action learning, experiential events and reflective practice. The use of different formats reflects the fact that people learn in different ways. For many SMEs, this diverse approach to learning was transformational. More than 90% of people who’d been on the programme said that it had made a major impact on productivity, sales and profits.”

Innovative Collaboration

Since 1999, LUMS has worked with over 3,500 SMEs on over 50 programmes and initiatives. Collaboration is key to all of this, bringing together academics, industry, policymakers and businesses to identify opportunities and tackle economic challenges. This is exemplified by LUMS’ Centre for Productivity, which utilises the latest multidisciplinary, place-based thinking to inform government policy and programme development.

The School’s partnership with global manufacturing and engineering firms promises to have far-reaching impact. In 2015, LUMS joined with BAE Systems to develop and pilot a leadership and innovation programme for North West SMEs. This would ultimately evolve into Productivity through People (PtP). The impetus behind PtP came from a government backed review of the UK’s productivity performance, which found a strong link between better workplace practices, employee engagement and productivity. The programme was co-designed with BAE Systems, Siemens and Rolls-Royce and further developed the ILM to enhance the leadership, management and innovation skills of North West SME managers.

Following a successful pilot in 2017, the 12-month programme is now on its third cohort and is being rolled-out in other regions. Whilst the intention is to generate long-term culture change, early indications are that participating businesses are already showing improved productivity.

Complementing the innovative thinking behind PtP, the Made Smarter Leadership Programme answers a similar call from Government, in the shape of the 2017 independent review of industrial digitalisation led by Professor Juergen Maier, CEO of

Siemens UK. As part of the Made Smarter North West pilot, LUMS is delivering a 10-month leadership development programme, designed to help the region’s manufacturing and engineering SMEs to accelerate their adoption of industrial digital technologies.

The programme builds on the proven ILM model, combining masterclasses, workshops, site visits to ‘smart’ SMEs and the creation of a powerful peer network. It also provides an opportunity for participating leaders to test ideas on ‘sprints’ in their own organisations. As Helen says, “Industrial digitisation can seem daunting, so these short projects break that down, generating quick wins and demonstrate the benefits to the business. More importantly, it will build confidence and get SME leaders into the mindset of making changes.”

LUMS’ interventions offer the chance for SME leaders to go on a transformational journey – making them aware of new possibilities for their business, adapting their business model or their whole view of leadership beyond the short-term bottom line.

Another part of that transformational journey supported by LUMS and their partners is supporting SME leaders to develop workforce skills. The EnginE project helps Lancashire-based manufacturing and engineering SMEs to plan, recruit, grow and retain the most effective workforce by identifying future needs and providing access to training opportunities, and flexible, low-cost apprenticeships for both new recruits and to reskill existing employees. EnginE has been co-designed with industry and education partners including Blackpool & Fylde College, Blackburn College and Northern Automotive Alliance.

Keeping Ahead

“Productivity isn’t just a buzzword, it’s about being competitive,” Helen says. “Increasingly, that means in a global marketplace, if you’re up against an overseas business that has better processes, or whose employees are better engaged, or that’s adopted digitisation, you have to compete on those terms.”

One of LUMS’ programmes’ great strengths is combining this drive to compete with the opportunity to feel part of something. Through its unique peer networks, and by virtue of its role in the region as an anchor institution, LUMS has become the go-to place for learning how to adopt new behaviours, techniques and technologies, ahead of the curve.

“Our programmes enable SMEs to access research, best practice and new ideas not normally available to them,” Helen says. “This is a big reason why they work with us. We’ve been supporting SMEs for 20 years and we’ll continue to do so well into the future.”