Putting himself out of a job

Peter Sinclair, managing director of precision engineering company Main Tool, has developed a highly original management strategy – the central object of which is to make himself redundant. He talks to Arlene Foster

Five years ago, when Peter Sinclair inherited the family company, Lanarkshire-based precision engineering firm Main Tool, he set himself and his team of chargehands the unusual challenge of getting him out of the business within five years.

The company had not only lost direction, but had no obvious successors to carry on the business. `I had been working at a tremendous pace, doing everything on my own and did not look to see who was running with me. When I turned round, there was nobody there,’ he says.

He could have brought in new management but from the outset he decided to work with the people he had. `There were a lot of people around me with more brains than I had, but what was I doing with them?’ Job enrichment had always been at the back of Sinclair’s mind, ever since he had worked as an apprentice in the firm set up by his father in the 1960s. `My challenge was to develop people who were set in their ways, who had been reared in the tradition of “managers manage and workers work”,’ he says.

As part of this process, Sinclair began writing a book about his experiences, which was published earlier this year. The Shopfloor Man is unlike many other management books because instead of anonymous case studies, it contains the actual experiences of real people. It details in often gritty language the blood, sweat and tears of bringing about cultural change.

`Writing the book was my way of putting myself out of my own comfort zone, just as I was putting the men out of theirs,’ he says.

To promote a culture which encouraged the personal growth of staff, Sinclair did away with the hierarchical structure of management. He put in place what he describes in his book as the `bubble’ structure. This is a much flatter structure, in which managers move from above the shopfloor to the sidelines. This enables each worker to develop within their own `bubble’, with management freed to play a more supportive role.

`There’s no longer anything blocking their promotion path. The only route available to them is self-promotion. White Mercs for all, as we like to say.’

Sinclair says that although his workers are rewarded well, money is not their prime motivator. `The shopfloor man is not a donkey who needs the carrot of money. He wants security but he also needs recognition and trust and responds to it. That is what job enrichment is about,’ he says.

Doing away with the old structure was easier than developing the `bubbles’, however, which proved to be a time-consuming process. Sinclair employed some of the usual personal development methods, such as management training courses and input from a consultant. But there was also plenty of arguing and talking – indeed Sinclair encourages this: `If I make a decision and the men stand up against it, I want to be proved wrong. If they do so, then I know that they’re becoming better than me and that’s what I want.’

The worst thing to do, says Sinclair, is to tell people how to change. `People have to see ideas for themselves, which is why change takes so long. They have to change in their own way, in their own time and with their own ideas.’

Sinclair cites one of his greatest successes as Raymond Davies, a 49 year-old toolmaker, who has designed and set up a new division building tools and providing services for the electronics industry.

Another former chargehand is responsible for estimating investment decisions and looking at new markets. `I’m giving them the opportunity and the fun of running their own business without the risk,’ says Sinclair.

Alongside changes in culture the company has experienced rapid growth, with turnover up four-fold since 1995 to £4m.

For the future, Sinclair is optimistic that the core oil industry division will bounce back and that more business will be won in new markets such as aerospace.

`It’s difficult to know in a declining manufacturing industry how to get into the growing market for intangibles like knowledge,’ he admits. The vision of five years ago has already happened, however: `I sit here and do nothing,’ he says, before returning to work to ensure things stay that way.

The Shopfloor Man is published by Management Books 2000 and costs £12.99.

Peter Sinclair at a glance

Age: 55

Education: Chartered accountant (failed); engineering apprenticeship at Main Tool; BSc Production Engineering, University of Strathclyde

First job: Production engineer at Rolls-Royce

Current job: Managing director, Main Tool engineering

Interests: Tree-felling, hill walking, fishing.