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14 October
UK manufacturing: good news gets better

The UK government has announced this morning that one of the best things that it does, the Manufacturing Advisory Service, is to go on, and, in the current climate of cuts upon cuts, survival for a government-funded scheme is a matter for celebration. MAS has been around for a few years and builds on several similar schemes of the recent and distant past, none of which got it quite as right as MAS seems to. The gist of it is that experts in manufacturing efficiency and effectiveness go into companies, often small ones, to help them to raise their performance on a range of measures, but primarily down to customer focus and getting the processes right: supply chain stuff, shopfloor stuff, some innovation stuff.

MAS works, but up to now it’s been organised on a regional basis, and the new-ish government has banned the use of the word “regional” from any sentence that also contains the word “government”. Once the Regional Development Agencies were put to the sword, some of us feared for MAS.

In fact – and you have to give them credit when they get things right – the government has done a wise thing and taken the best of the regional people who’ve been delivering MAS to the masses, the West and East Midlands people and the South West lot, and told them to go do it for the whole country. There will still be a regional or local element, but it’ll be a national scheme. As these people are the folk who’ve to my eyes been making the current scheme work best, then it’s only sensible to use them.

But behind the announcement there’s some even better news and it goes back to stuff I’ve been associated with for the past decade. Just over 10 years ago, when I was working for the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, we relaunched the Manufacturing Excellence Awards to become a national competition in which companies could benchmark their manufacturing activities on things like innovation and customer focus against world-class performance. The crux of the relaunched MX Awards was a hugely comprehensive “audit” that enabled company performance on things that made for competitiveness to be measured.

Lots of the companies that have gone in for the MX Awards in the past 10 years have said that the audit is, in fact, the single most valuable part of the exercise: good to win an award and get a nice dinner out of it too, but better to know where you are and what you have to do to be more competitive. The audit was drawn up by Dr John Garside, a fellow at the Warwick Manufacturing Group, who knows more about manufacturing than any one person has the right to know.

The difficulty with the MX audit is its bulk, which has been a bit of a deterrent, so Dr Garside has been working over recent years on a slimmed-down version, a kind of MX-Lite, that could be used as a basic diagnosis tool so companies and their advisers can check how people are really doing on the basic measures. And inside the new pack of goodies for the new MAS, what do we find? It’s the MX-Lite tool, probably not called that, but the real thing.

So we have the government making the right decision for manufacturing, the right people being picked to take the idea on, and the right tools in their toolkit. I’m slightly overwhelmed by all this good news. I may need to sit in a darkened room for the rest of the day.

4 October
The universal sub-editor

A former colleague of mine had a sign above his desk that read: “The strongest emotion known to mankind is not love or hate: it is the need for one person to alter another person’s copy”. I’ve never doubted it, and I also recognise it in myself. Show me a bit of someone else’s journalism, and my mental blue pencil comes out. Even if it’s only to tut-tut about whether a full stop is inside or outside some quote marks.

Anyway the corollary to this truism about the latent sub-editor in all of us is the desire/need/imperative for people you write about to change whatever it is that you’ve written about them. If you give them the chance. And there’s the thing: throughout my working life as a journalist, I’ve taken the view that you don’t show copy to people before it’s published, because they’ll change it, and your journalism will subtly become their PR. The easiest way to do this is to have a hard and fast rule. “No, we don’t do that. Terribly sorry,” you reply when they ask you for a sight of the copy. And when they then say, as they will, that really all they’re doing is to ensure that nothing factually incorrect is published, you reply, with an insouciant toss of the head if you can manage it, that of course you don’t want inaccuracies either, so they’d better ensure they tell you only the truth.

Anyway, that’s been the policy, and while I was employed by people who paid my expenses, it was fine. There’s always a risk that someone will turn around and say: “Then we won’t talk to you” – but if they do, you walk away. It may waste your time and your employer’s expenses, but it’s the right thing to do. And because there’s a grey area as to whether they own the words that come out of their mouths or not (how the 1988 Copyright Act muddied the waters in this area!) it’s really not worth fighting. Because you’ll end up losing: if you compromise on a principle, then you’ve lost the principle.

As a freelance, though, it’s more problematic. If I trot halfway across the country to interview someone and they then turn around and say they want to see copy, I have to weigh up whether to waste my own time and money (and earning potential) or comply. Often, it can be fudged: you can see the quotes I’m using, and because I’m taping the interview there won’t be any words in them that you didn’t actually say,  but you can’t see the article as a whole. All right, it’s a bit of a cop-out, but if pressed I can live with it.

Except, of course, that that isn’t enough. Verbatim quotes that used to read, when you sent them, like something someone once said come back polished and “upgraded”, often now reading like something out of a sales brochure. The context – to show them where their quotes fit into the article as a whole, without showing them the whole article – gets completely rewritten. Nice people become nasty when given their quotes to check; confident people become mealie-mouthed; definite statements take on uncertainty; and, with engineers in particular, Large Numbers of Words suddenly acquire Capital Letters. (That last one’s easy to deal with: they don’t often own an English grammar book, I do.)

The answer, of course, is not to do it: publish and be damned. But my suspicion is that that is not now the norm, and particularly not the norm among those of us who don’t have the warm embrace of someone to sign our expenses for us, and I think it’s a shame.

NB This blog got five replies on johnpullin.wordpress.com

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