Like punching underwater, you never can hit what you’re trying for..
16 April 2021 by David Bott
Monday started as usual – it must have been the half-term effect, but I made it in record time and so hung around the office trying to invent things to do before the “start the week” meeting. The excitement of hearing what everyone was doing gave way to a now fairly standard TIC meeting, although David W was in Inverness, so Obi-Wan acted as local chairman. I think we are now resigned to the fact that the Governing Board and our political paymasters are telling us different things and so we have to make our own decisions. We tried to stitch together a compromise between the two extremes, but I am increasingly coming to believe we just need to back our own judgement, tell the world what we think is right and get on with making it happen. Too much consultation has given us too many options and we are beginning to feel like rabbits caught in the headlights! Needless to say, we ran over – but getting this right is probably the single most important thing we can do right now!
After a quick download from Jools, it was a Heads meeting. We started with Paul Tuffs asking us for help in sorting out the infamous accruals – there are some companies who are way behind in invoicing us and we need to know if they will charge us one day – and, if so, when, whether the project is inexorably slowing and will never complete, or whether there is some other kind of problem we haven’t imagined yet! That led us through into a discussion on budgets, PAFs and other things before TICMan and his apprentice joined us for a more focused re-run of the earlier conversation. We have a process for High Value Manufacturing, we are developing a process for Cell Therapies, we need to convince the Governing Board that Offshore Engineering is next and then implement that, but then…. There seems to be general agreement that something around smart cities is next, but we are worried that everyone’s interpretation of that is different so we need to define what WE mean by the term and what might go on in a TIC on the subject. Photonics and Sensors keep coming back around and we ought to develop them as cases. What about the rest?
I got a chance to say hello and goodbye to Alan Moore (who had come down to see Allyson and myself but took my leaving well!) drove to Warwick Parkway and caught the train to London to rendezvous with FL. This convoluted travel would mean that my car was in the right place late on Tuesday evening when I returned! On the way down I got a great text from FL saying that he was about to be ambushed by the Automotive Council over TICs. I made several increasingly desperate offers of intervention and he agreed that I should call pretending to Ernst Stavro Blofeld and pull him out of the meeting. I did actually think about it!
I got to Kings Cross for the Darlington train and bit early, but found Cyrus and Anne on their way to Leeds. Cyrus was seemingly excited about the idea of travelling to Leeds, and was more animated than usual, so we managed to do some residual business before they caught their train from Platform 0! FL was supposed to have escaped from the Automotive Council at 4.30, but there were tube problems, so we didn’t have the anticipated leisurely saunter down the platform to find our seats! The trip up was useful for catching up with a whole range of issues. We should have taken notes. We were scheduled for an already late dinner, so the 40-minute delay due to signalling problems didn’t make us happy. We dragged our sorry arses into the hotel around 9 and had to hurry to order before the restaurant closed (this is the north of England!). Dinner was with Nigel Perry (CEO of CPI) and Bob Coxon (Chair of CPI, involved with Carlyle and a northern godfather). We started talking about the High Value Manufacturing TIC but ranged far and wide on related topics. On the TIC they are concerned about internal politics and the division of funds – they are pressing for project and return on investment criteria, but feel (suggested?) that others wanted a 1/7th approach. There is obviously still much to do to build a single TIC organisation with externally focused success criteria, but they could be debated into a reasonable position with care and persistence.
The next morning FL and I availed ourselves of the full Yorkshire breakfast (the relevance of this point will become apparent in 14 hours time) and ruminated on the dinner conversation. Then we were whisked to Wilton for the visit to CPI. It started with 90 minutes of PowerPoint but was none the worse for a good explanation of where they are coming from. Then we got to crawl over the National Industrial Biotechnology Facility (NIBF see http://www.uk-cpi.com/3_pages/focus/susproc/services/national-industrial-biotechnology-facility/) and have its links to the Sustainable Processing and Advanced Manufacturing Centre (SUSPROCsee http://www.uk-cpi.com/3_pages/focus/susproc/) explained. It really is an impressive facility and they all seemed to recognize the challenges of simultaneously running an open access facility and a contract manufacturing facility in the same metalwork. Then it was up to Sedgefield for a look around the National Printable Electronics Technology Centre (PETEC see http://www.uk-cpi.com/3_pages/focus/petec/). I commented that they seemed to have added the word “National” to all their titles – Nigel smiled the sort of smile a Bond villain uses! Once again, it is a great facility, operating much more in the open access mode because there are less obvious contract opportunities yet. We saw a nice set of demonstrations, although they too seem to have difficulty capturing the excitement of some of the projects without a talking head next to it – a challenge for us all! We finished with a (rushed) sandwich and plastic of orange or apple juice and went to collect our hire car. I had forgotten the pot luck approach to travel that only travel agents can achieve, so we accepted the Vauxhall Zafira we had been allotted in this cruel game of fate and set out for Blyth. I think it is fair to say that FL lost some of his F appellation as I tried to wring some kind of cornering performance out of the lump as we navigated a surprisingly sunny road north. L was impressed by the shear scale of the Nissan plant at Sunderland and makes a passable navigator! We arrived early at NaREC and met Alan Rutherford coming out of the toilet. We then went through the same sets of excuses and logic we had heard the week before on London. The once predicted £7.8m overspend is now down to £5m by the simple expedient of not buying something most people seemed to reason they didn’t actually want. They told us that another £3.5m could be covered by ERDF money if only BIS would let ONE pay it (do you know, in all my years of working with large sums of money, it has never been as simple as people make out, and I am sure this is no exception) and the final £1.5m could be value engineered out. They went through their rhetoric 3 times to make sure we understood! Then we went out onto the site. The first large room in a building was full of “stuff” in storage, but then we got to see some high voltage electricity test cells – but with not much visible activity. After a short ride around the building site, we got to look at another large building, but had apparently missed a test because the blade had broken “early”. As they explained what they did, I came to realize that it is essentially phenomenological – they never mentioned modelling or basic materials science, merely saying that it hadn’t met design performance! One guy did make a go at explaining why they did things but at least 3 layers of management seemed to not follow his logic! Then we went onto the building site for another large building – sadly all we saw was a piling operation, before being dragged quickly through the photovoltaic operation. We had suggested they close it because it is loss making and a distraction from the offshore renewable work but they claim to have a new potential contact with the MOD and be only a year from break-even. Once again, explanations were technically incorrect and the operation seemed to consist of a lot of people soldering up units by hand. Depressingly retro! We made our excuses and left. Firing up the mighty inline four, we trekked on back to Newcastle, FL (his F now reinstated) using his BlackBerry to navigate. It is probably that last fact that caused us to turn a roundabout too soon and we were lucky to see the Enterprise offices as we went around a very large roundabout in Byker! We had been promised a lift to the railway station and we got the office junior – who was from Belfast so didn’t know the geography very well and had only just passed his test that day! These factors combined with the Newcastle traffic meant we got to the station with insufficient time to grab any food and so would be at the mercy of Cross-Country Railways. As we passed through Chester Le Street, we realized that the only sandwiches on the train were sad and old, and that we would have to subsist on snacks for another 5 hours! FL left the train at Birmingham a drained man – I hope he got a burger or something as he transited. The train then missed my connection at Leamington and all the concessions where closed. I arrived home a bit hungry!
Wednesday was mostly spent at home – I took a telephone interview with Business XL first thing and had a few other calls, but mostly just exported my wife.
Thursday proved to be more exciting, with my monthly catch up with Transport Man curtailed by a (admittedly planned) electricity cut. I then went into Stratford to have lunch with Neil Crockett of Cisco and Jamie Butterworth Of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation – see http://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/. Cisco are obviously looking for non-cost things they can do to support the EMF (?) and I think we fall into that category. Notwithstanding what I thought was an awful speech by Ellen at the CBI dinner last year, I think what EMF are trying to achieve is laudable. They are aiming at both 14-19 year olds and the business community and focusing on energy and resource efficiency. They are obviously content light but Jamie quickly understood our growing realisation that “stories” were a powerful stimulus for change – there is nothing quite like hearing that one of your competitors has used sustainability for commercial advantage to get people thinking! We agreed that FL should meet Ellen for dinner – but that we should probably chaperone them. I think Cisco will come too to claim ownership/sponsorship. Neil kept talking about engaging us more in the Cisco Olympic activities and promised a follow up call.
I got home to find the electricity back on, so could take part in the Innovate 2011 meeting (although phones are self-powered, no-one uses a phone that doesn’t have all sorts of gimmickry in in, so no power means no phone!). After hearing that there are indications that we have approval for our exemption case, we went through the various options – a linear descendant of Innovate 2010 (don’t forget how much we change each year!) with book-ended Technology World, sharing Excel with TW in November and giving up and being a part of TW. We went around the options several times before the batteries in my phone gave out (they last 65 minutes) and I think we decided to stick with our current plan for one more year and go for integration next year.
On Friday, in an attempt to make some changes, I used my wife’s car to make the run to Swindon. I took exactly the same time I did on Monday – suggesting that the time is car independent. I was there for the “moderating meeting”, an annual attempt to get buy in to our HR policy on performance related pay. Anne had tried even harder this year to get people to understand things before the meeting – she had come to the Innovation Programmes meeting twice to answer questions – but to no avail. Different people had used different interpretations of the scoring system and this, combined with a natural distribution of what constituted “performance” meant that we took 2 hours to go through 80 odd people and agree what they should get as PRP. I am conflicted over this part of our systems. On one hand, people are our ONLY real asset and the ones we have are amongst the most talented and committed I have ever worked with. They deserve to be considered, assessed and rewarded in a professional manner, with inputs from around the organisation. The idea of starting with the line managers assessment and moderating it based on others experiences is therefore a good one. On the other hand, we have a system that amplifies the problems and ends up giving only a few hundred pounds more to someone who has done exceptional work (I am indebted to the increasingly cynical Business Process Man for this insight, which I have subsequently tested and found to be depressingly true) and for which the HR team get only marginally deserved opprobrium.
I then had a quick chat with Energy Man (where we only mentioned NaRec in passing to show how we can have a wider view of the world) and a Funders Panel for the first phase of the Home & Away part of Independence Matters. Once again, and too late in the process, we asked questions about the use of “Super Panels” and there seemed to be real surprise that the timelines in the PAF (which luckily we hadn’t published) were achievable. We so need a better integrated approach to competitions before we make a large and visible mistake.
Once home I ended up in a 3-way text exchange with FL and UKTIMan but only agreed to talk next week.