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A systems perspective on the death of a car company

Nick Oliver (University of Edinburgh Business School, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK)
Matthias Holweg (Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK)
Mike Carver (Oxford, UK)

International Journal of Operations & Production Management

ISSN: 0144-3577

Article publication date: 23 May 2008

Abstract

Purpose

The aim of this paper is to understand how large and apparently successful organizations enter spirals of decline that are very difficult to reverse. The paper examines the case of Rover, once one of the largest car producers in the world, which collapsed in 2005. An analysis of strategic and operational choices made over a period of 40 years investigates the reasons for, and consequences of, a growing mismatch between the context faced by the company (industry dynamics, market conditions) and its operational capabilities, a mismatch that ultimately brought about the company's demise.

Design/methodology/approach

The paper is based on interviews with 32 people, including senior managers (including four chief executives), government ministers and union officials who were key decision makers within, or close to, the company during the period 1968 and 2005. Secondary sources and documentary evidence (e.g. production and sales data) are used to build up a historical picture of the company and to depict its deteriorating financial and market position from 1968 onwards.

Findings

The company was formed from a multitude of previously independent firms as part of a government‐sponsored agenda to build a UK National Champion in the car industry. The merged company failed due to several factors including poor product development processes, poor manufacturing performance, difficult labour relations, a very wide product portfolio and a lack of financial control. Although strenuous efforts were made to address those issues, including periods of whole or part ownership by British Aerospace, Honda and BMW, the company's position deteriorated until eventually production volumes were too low for viable operation.

Practical implications

The case of Rover highlights the importance of what has been termed “the management unit” in complex systems. The management unit comprises processes and routines to deal with challenges such as managing product portfolios, connecting strategic and operational choices, and scanning and responding to the environment. In the case of Rover, a number of factors taken together generated excessive load on a management unit frequently operating under conditions of resource scarcity. We conclude that viewing corporate failure from a systems perspective, rather than in terms of shortcomings in specific subsystems, such as manufacturing or product development, yields insights often absent in the operations management literature.

Originality/value

The paper is of value by showing corporate failure from a systems perspective, rather than in terms of shortcomings in specific subsystems, such as manufacturing or product development; and yields insights often absent in the operations management literature. The Rover case featured in the paper demonstrates the usefulness of systems ideas to understanding at least some types of failure, not as an alterative to capability‐based approaches, but in addition to them.

Keywords

Citation

Oliver, N., Holweg, M. and Carver, M. (2008), "A systems perspective on the death of a car company", International Journal of Operations & Production Management, Vol. 28 No. 6, pp. 562-583. https://doi.org/10.1108/01443570810875368

Publisher

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Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited