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back to index backEUROtalk September,  2005

The road to perfection: Cross-border collaboration on the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren

The aim was clear from the outset: when Mercedes-Benz and McLaren joined forces in July 1999 to build a road-going production sportscar that would prove a worthy heir to the legendary Silver Arrows, they were out to produce nothing less than the ultimate road car in terms of performance, safety, comfort and design. The idea was to blend 100 percent of the comfort and quality of a Mercedes-Benz with 100 percent of McLaren's Formula 1-bred performance, with neither aspect being allowed to compromise the other. McLaren was responsible for the overall packaging, body design, suspension, aerodynamics and handling. The AMG tuning experts at Mercedes-Benz built the engine and transmission package. And the Mercedes-Benz styling department was responsible for the car's appearance.

This distribution of labour speaks volumes about how many people from different fields and corporate cultures were involved in building this masterpiece of automotive engineering. If, together, they were to reach their ultimate goal of perfection, the resultant diversity would have to be managed to perfection.

At the core of the SLR project was a small team of highly motivated, high-calibre, like-minded people with a focused outlook and a high degree of understanding of what it took to build a creatively designed high-performance car. Many of them had been involved in developing the McLaren F1 road car – 100 of which were built in its lifetime. But,” says Antony Sheriff, Managing Director of the McLaren Group's Automotive Division, there was a lack of experience and little understanding of what it would take to build a car in higher volumes and to a very different standard of testing and reliability.” Some of the necessary departments did not really exist at McLaren: quality and purchasing, for example, were handled by just one or two people. Experts in these fields were added to the team as the project began.

As most of the people in the company were British there were few cultural issues at this level, but with all their different backgrounds they brought a second layer of cultural diversity to the project. The third layer of diversity came with the integration of development partner Mercedes-Benz. The Mercedes people fell into two different categories: those who worked on the development project on site in England and were integrated into the team, and the reference people outside the team.

Adding to the complexity, the venture also had to assemble a supplier base which was very different from that of a typical automaker. Large-scale car production usually involves a standard set of suppliers. With the SLR, the situation was very different because some of the larger suppliers were not interested in turning out small volumes. So while we do have some suppliers from among the leading names in the automotive industry,” says Sheriff, we also have a number of very small suppliers. They are lean and effective in developing low volumes.” Working closely with them may add another diversity factor, but Sheriff sees the potential here to leverage competitive edge: We believe that this is one of our key competitive advantages for the future. We work closely with these smaller firms to bring up their levels of competence, which leaves us well positioned for future projects.”

Having diverse people with different viewpoints and different experiences involved, Sheriff believes, can be a very powerful thing – in a positive sense if managed properly, but otherwise in a negative one. In the SLR project the managerial challenge was to integrate everyone into one common team and to focus them on one common goal. It was a function of building trust,” explains Sheriff. If you work with a person for a while and you see that they can add value, you begin to trust them – and at that point you start benefiting from the diversity they bring.”

A similar thing happened at the third level of diversity, with the people from Mercedes-Benz. In many ways they had a different approach to work – more systematic and structured than the McLaren way, but also slower and less nimble, derived as it was from dealing with larger volumes in a more regimented environment. Initially the McLaren crew expressed doubts about the Mercedes people's knowledge of dealing with low-volume sports cars but, as Sheriff explains, Once the Mercedes people were on site and working side-by-side with the our people, those doubts rapidly gave way to an awareness that there is a lot of knowledge we did not have at McLaren. And the Mercedes people came to appreciate the knowledge of their colleagues at McLaren.”

The critical integration factor was not so much the different nationalities as the characters of the people involved. The real challenge,” Sheriff recalls, was getting the right people with the right character in place. Then my job as a manager was to put the right spin on them, to make sure that those characteristics got working in the right fashion. Like diversity, people's character can prove a positive or a negative factor depending on how well or poorly they are managed.” Creativity and entrepreneurialism can be developed effectively even within major companies, but mismanage them and they will lead to chaos, uncertainty and lack of structure. Managed effectively, the Mercedes tendency to approach things in a rigorous, structured way can be a real asset. Manage it poorly and it rapidly descends into bureaucracy.”

In the meantime, the Mercedes-Benz people who came to work at McLaren have all become valued members of the team. The production manager,” says Sheriff, is now as much a McLaren person as a Mercedes person. Before his appointment to the SLR project, he ran the Mercedes-Benz plant in India, so as well as understanding a large company mentality, he also knew how to get things done in a smaller unit in less structured circumstances. As a result, he understood where the process needed to be more structured, and where structures and rules added no value and were better discarded.”

Having diversity is valuable if you are able to leverage it. You have to be prepared to embrace diversity, learn from it and integrate it into the company,” says Antony Sheriff today. But in this respect I have an easy job because everyone in the team is here for one reason – they love sportscars and they are absolutely passionate about building the fastest, highest quality, best sportscars in the world. If they were not interested in the pursuit of perfection, they wouldn't have come to work for a company like McLaren.” The basic motivation, the driving force is the same for everybody, be it a British engineer who has been with the McLaren Group for ten years, or a German quality manager who joined the team three months ago. The ultimate goal is clear to all concerned. What is sometimes more difficult, Sheriff admits, is reaching a consensus on the right path to that goal.

Leaving aside for a moment the excitement of building a super sportscar, the basic challenge of manufacturing a car – be it is an ultra high-performance model or a small family car – is fundamentally similar. The car that we sell costs 375,000 euros because it is very sophisticated. It has to be safe and stable at 334 kilometres an hour. It has to be absolutely reliable. And creating that performance in a car that is as compact and light as possible is a real engineering challenge. The cost management and quality challenges, for example, are the same as for any large manufacturer,” says the former Fiat manager, speaking from personal experience.

One crucial difference at McLaren is that people can interact in their daily work in ways that are impracticable at a large company. At the Group's Woking headquarters, a futuristic structure designed by UK star architect Lord Norman Foster, Sheriff can meet any employee face-to-face within a matter of seconds. If we have a problem, we gather a small group of people and we solve it directly – because everyone works within reach, and people can see each other.” In a large company, such flexibility is not feasible. Instead there are more formal processes which must be respected. Coming back to the topic of diversity,” comments Sheriff, this kind of direct contact provides a much better mechanism to pull people into the process and get them involved on a day-to-day basis.”

Summing up the main characteristics of the McLaren organisation, Sheriff lists a clear goal, competence, a team approach and real cooperation. The Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren, meanwhile, he calls comfortable, extremely safe and reliable, beautifully trimmed and luxurious – with enough luggage space for two or three suitcases for a weekend trip, and yet also one of the quickest cars in the world around a racetrack.” The outcome of all the carefully managed diversity in this high-calibre joint venture offers the best of both worlds: a luxury grand touring car that is also one of the fastest automobiles ever built.

Source: Egon Zehnder International

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