Innovation comes in many forms, and it’s not always about pioneering technology or groundbreaking hardware. Sometimes, such as in the midst of a global pandemic, the real innovation is found in identifying new ways of working, in decision making and in revamped processes, rather than production.
During the course of the past 18 months or so, plenty of companies have been forced to reinvent their long-established working methods. But few in the car industry have done so more successfully than Bentley, which didn’t just weather a seven-week shutdown and months of sales disruption but went on to end last year recording record levels of production and sales.
Key to that success was the innovation shown in the decisions and actions of Bentley’s Crisis Management Taskforce (CMT) and executive board. Its efforts to combat Covid-19 extended beyond filling its Crewe factory with the masks, Perspex, social distancing and one-way systems that are now so familiar to all of us, but were rooted in developing a new way of working that allowed it to respond quickly to an ever-changing, frequently uncertain situation.
It did that by making decisions at a speed that before last year would have seemed unthinkable in the car industry, especially for a 102-year-old company such as Bentley. “We had one board meeting in March when I proposed shutting the employee gym and stopping travel between our sites,” recalls Dr Astrid Fontaine, board member for people, digitalisation and IT who chairs the CMT. “The board said: ‘Why should we do that?’ That was one Thursday. The following Thursday, we agreed to shut down the plant and send everybody home. That was the speed with which things moved.”
By the time Bentley suspended production on 19 March 2020, the CMT was holding multiple meetings a day. When the first was held that January, it was to gauge the impact of the novel SARS-Cov-2 virus on China. “We were looking at what it meant for our supply coming from China, our people travelling there to test cars and our Chinese customers. For whatever reason, we didn’t even think it would hit us,” says Fontaine.
After more than a year of lockdowns and restrictions, it’s easy to forget how quickly, unexpectedly and completely Covid-19 changed the world in 2020. “The challenge with Covid was the breadth of ways it affected a business,” says Stephen Blanchard, Bentley’s risk and governance manager. “We had a crisis management plan but it very much focused on smaller incidents: a fire at a supplier’s depot, for example. We had to rebuild it to capture all the operational and sales impact.”