I was in Stoke on Trent yesterday: and despite wanting to report back on the British Ceramic Biennial – of which more soon – what’s on my mind is a conversation I had there, with one of the knowledgeable local BCB guides.
After a long talk about the beauty of the works displayed, the interesting use of the old Spode Factory, I started to talk about my own experiences of working in a factory – and the differences between British, European and American management styles. I much preferred the US style – at IBM,
for example, many senior managers had started work as secretaries – something inconceivable at the time in the British companies I worked with.
She told me of her husband, who had worked at Spode all his working life, made redundant at 47, now working for DHL. At Spode, workers’ ideas, needs and health were not respected; at DHL, his initiative is rewarded, health and safety are paramount, he feels a partner in the enterprise.
When I visited Wedgewood a few years ago, the rigidities of the management style there were pretty obvious: men designed shapes, women designed surface patterns, prototyping and manufacture (and any ideas they had) were kept far, far away.
If you still need convincing that it’s about management: Toyota’s green-field, Japanese-managed factory near Derby has higher productivity than Japan.
The view from Stoke Bus station is now rather lovely: maybe what it was like before the forces of capitalism came in a exploited the raw materials and the workforce before leaving for richer pastures.
Of course this is a really simplistic view: I love Spode china, there’s no going back to a bucolic past, there are fantastic modern building that are part of Stoke’s regeneration, the BCB are part of this future not a nostalgic view of heritage.
It’s very unfashionable to talk about the economics of artistic production (Marx, anyone?) – but visiting Stoke and Spode for the Ceramics Biennial, it’s hard to avoid.