What can advice firms learn from the Asian car industry?

Ben Goss

Ben Goss

So, what can the advice industry learn from another industry where getting quality right at scale was critical?

If you look at the JD Power Vehicle Dependability Study over the years, it is dominated by Asian manufacturers: Toyota, Kia and Hyundai have consistently topped the rankings. What can we take from their success?

In the late 1980s / early 1990s, the US car manufacturing industry was trounced by Japanese car makers who built quality into their products with a mantra of ‘lean production’, ‘right first time’ and ‘Kaizen’ continuous improvement.

Toyota’s workers for example were empowered to make changes and improve the system as problems arose – a Japanese factory worker was expected to stop the entire production process if a mistake was spotted so it could be corrected before it was too far into the build.

By contrast, on a Ford mass-production line the process was never stopped and quality problems were often only discovered at the end of the assembly line, requiring large amounts of rework by which time plenty of other flaws had slipped through too.

I was a post-grad student in the US mid-west at the time and had the opportunity to study this transition. This new wave of competition was devastating to the domestic manufacturers, their businesses and the livelihoods that depended on them.

Three strategies were and remain core to the winners’ approach:

  1. Customer first. Just-in-time or lean production which produces minimal waste, including the reduction and ultimately the eradication of rework, is a central goal of the systems used by Toyota and other winning manufacturers. They are based on a customer-first mindset which expects that each team member has an understanding of the whole product and process, such that that they care about and influence the quality of that whole product. In FCA parlance this is culture and teamwork focused on good client outcomes. Joined up, collaborative teams are essential within advice firms as they scale, because work such as paraplanning or managing the investment proposition is increasingly undertaken by specialists not directly client-facing.
  2. Higher levels of investment in technology per head than the competition remains key to successful strategies. This investment means that production lines, while enabling specialisation – a key component of scaling, are more flexible and can cope with a greater variety of models and circumstances. That said the leading manufacturers recognise that technology is only a tool to help them scale production. “Human wisdom and ingenuity are indispensable to delivering ever-better cars to customers” is part of Toyota’s vision. The challenge for advice firms is to find the right balance between human wisdom and process automation.
  3. Measurement and communications. Continuous improvement relies on skilled and empowered employees, and is in large part dependent on strong communications alongside the measurement and monitoring of every aspect of the design, production and sales process. Information needs to flow readily between departments, suppliers and retailers. More informed engineers are less likely to introduce un-manufacturable designs into plants for example. Advice firms have significant amounts of information at their disposal to understand who their customers are, their Target Market under MiFID II Product Governance, their needs, the financial planning and advice process and, given the duration of most client relationships, the client outcomes that actually materialise. Advice firms that use this information stand a much better chance of refining their processes and proposition to get their ‘product’ right first time, with all the benefits this will have for their cost-income ratios.

So the key to getting advice ‘right first time’ is a customer first mindset, investment in technology which complements adviser ‘wisdom and ingenuity’ rather than restricts it, supported by strong measurement and communication between teams. That is good for the client, more enjoyable for the adviser and advice team, and good for the firm and its owners too, whatever their size.

Ben Goss is chief executive of Dynamic Planner