Manufacturing

The pun proved irresistible. “Mystery Ends, Mistry Begins”, ran the headline in India’s Economic Times on the appointment last week of Cyrus Mistry to succeed Ratan Tata at the head of the eponymous tea-to-steel holding company. If the succession was a mystery, it looked to have a pretty feeble final twist.

Andrew Hill

I think most obituaries of Robert Galvin – who helped take Motorola from a family firm to a $11bn leader in mobile phones – understate his contribution to management practice, for he was, at the very least, the godfather of Six Sigma.

The omission is understandable. Six Sigma – which focuses managers obsessively on improving quality and eliminating defects – was the process improvement technique of choice for large companies in the 1990s, but it seems to have faded from public view recently. I spent a day at General Electric’s Crotonville leadership development centre in September and I didn’t hear Six Sigma mentioned once. Yet 15 years ago, when Jack Welch was in his pomp, the air would have been thick with boasts about how many “black belt” leaders of Six Sigma initiatives GE had bred. 

Andrew Hill

It’s a cruel coincidence that the latest death knell for Saab comes within days of the latest extension of car guy Bob Lutz’s lease on life.

On Thursday, a Swedish court rejected the carmaker’s attempt to seek protection from its creditors, pushing a decision on potential insolvency into the hands of suppliers and employees awaiting payment for materials and labour. Saab is appealing, but the obituaries for the group – now selling well under 100,000 units annually – are already being written. 

John Gapper

Having spent the past couple of weeks in Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta, I found the obituaries for Keith Tantlinger, the engineering brain behind the shipping container, poignant.

I took a stroll along the Pearl River in Guangzhou on Wednesday, nearby the ports from which vast amounts of electronics and textiles are shipped via containers to the rest of the world. It was a reminder of how much Mr Tantlinger’s little-known invention in the mid-1950s revolutionised the transport industry.

As recorded in Marc Levinson’s book The Box, Mr Tantlinger was asked by his boss, the maverick entrepreneur Malcolm McLean, to make practical the idea of storing goods in box containers rather than in break-bulk ships which had to be loaded and unloaded at each port. 

John Gapper

Who would not want Brunello Cucinelli to succeed in his quest to produce luxury cashmere sweaters in the Umbrian hills while paying his local workforce a premium wage and offering them a three-course daily lunch?

Rachel Sanderson’s interview with Italy’s “King of Cashmere” is a great insight into how one manufacturer is trying to preserve artisinal traditions rather than outsourcing the production of his eponymous knitwear to China or Bangladesh.

It will be encouraging if he can continue with his idyllic-sounding approach to design and manufacturing – helped by the fact that he can sell the resulting products to investment bankers and others for luxury prices – while listing a third of his company on the Milan stock exchange

The ill-tempered struggle in Washington over raising the federal debt limit is enough to make anyone gloomy about the future of the US. Clive Crook, my FT colleague, rightly contrasts the stasis among politicians with the “unrivalled energy and ambition” of US workers.

Andrew Hill

Old companies may die, but old stock market indices ought to live for ever. Certainly, the longevity of the FT30 index, first published in 1935, suggests they can go on and on, even if their relevance ebbs and flows.

In fact, there could be no better moment to revive interest in the original benchmark of British stocks. 

Andrew Hill

When a Rolls-Royce engine on a Qantas jet blew up last November, the engine-maker and the airline joined Toyota and BP in a list of companies fighting to repair damage to their global reputations.

But the Rolls-Qantas incident was of a different order and degree from the Toyota car recall and the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion. The settlement announced on Wednesday seems to reflect that. 

Andrew Hill

Sony’s launch of its first tablet devices is bound to excite unflattering comparisons with revolutionary Sony products of the past – particularly because it falls in the same week as the death of Norio Ohga, the Japanese company’s former chairman and chief executive.

As every retrospective of Ohga’s extraordinary life has pointed out, he was the Sony executive who helped establish and drive the compact disc. By contrast, Sony’s “S1″ and “S2″ (their temporary names, thank goodness), already seem doomed to be mere “iPad rivals”. 

Andrew Hill

Sir John Parker’s arrival as chairman of Anglo American in 2009 may well have changed the miner’s destiny. He steadied the ship, stood in the way of a potential bid from rival Xstrata, and threw his weight behind chief executive Cynthia Carroll, who was under intense pressure. All this looks like evidence of the Northern Irishman’s legendary toughness. Except Sir John himself says he’s not tough.

In my latest Turning Points interview, he describes himself rather differently – as a believer in discipline (learnt on the family farm where he was brought up) prepared to be tough only where necessary. 

Andrew Hill

Having worked in Milan in the mid-1990s, I have a soft spot for Italy’s imprenditori – the enterprising corporate leaders, often company founders, who make up the backbone of the industrial economy. They must be ashamed of the way their government is stirring up protectionist sentiment against French takeovers of Italian companies like Bulgari. 

Andrew Hill

When it comes to his annual letter to General Electric’s shareowners, Jeff Immelt is no Warren Buffett. Not for him the jokey anecdotes and fables preferred by the Omaha billionaire in his own yearly communication. But the GE letter is still worth a read, if only because of the industrial group’s status as a training ground for future chief executives of global companies. 

John Gapper

Stephen Elop of Nokia surely wins the Lucy Kellaway prize for blunt speaking in a corporate memo when he warns that the Finnish company has a “burning platform”.

There are lots of things to admire in the memo in terms of clarity and the willingness of the new chief executive to spell out publicly exactly how dire Nokia’s crisis has become: 

John Gapper

The wave of suicides at the vast plant near Shenzhen owned by Foxconn, the Taiwan contract manufacturer, where 300,000 workers are employed, raises questions about the sustainability of China’s use of migrant workers from rural areas.

The FT was allowed unusual access inside the Foxconn plant in Longhua, which has in the past been kept out of view of reporters, and Kathrin Hille’s video interviews with Foxconn employees, as well as the company’s spokesman, are fascinating. 

John Gapper

My FT column this week is on the BP oil rig disaster:

Once upon a time, BP stood for plain British Petroleum. Under John Browne, its former chief executive, it was Beyond Petroleum. These days, it is more like Blame the Past.