Interview: Nissan's European CIO is accelerating change

For any organisation in any market sector to transform itself and its brand image is an incredible feat. It is a challenge that requires all levels of the organisation to be committed and for the company to have a culture that embraces change and ideas from the bottom to the top. Spending a day with Stephen Kneebone, vice president of corporate information systems, organisation development and external affairs (European CIO) for car manufacturer Nissan at its ultra-successful UK factory, it was evident how this company has gone from the makers of dowdy but reliable hatchbacks to an exciting brand well known for innovative cars such as the all-electric Leaf.

Nissan has six regions to its global business, with Kneebone based in Paris – the Japanese giant struck an alliance with French manufacturers Renault in 1999. The deal is a cross shareholding deal, which means they retain their individual brands, but act together both in the development of engineering projects and where it is beneficial to both businesses.

“Organisations within the regions are very strongly focused on the regional requirements. Yokohama is still our base and we have a long Japanese heritage,” Kneebone explains in the Nissan factory cafeteria where he and other senior management sit alongside factory line workers.

Nissan employs 185,000 people globally. Last year, its UK factory made 501,756 cars and since the plant opened in the 1980s it has manufactured over seven million cars.

“We don’t have any cars in compounds,” Kneebone tells me as we walk along the Sunderland factory line that is creating Juke, Quashqai and Note cars at an impressive pace. While many manufacturers focus on volume and fill fields with cars in the hope that they don’t depreciate too much, Nissan has an information-led strategy to its in demand manufacturing facilities.

“We can slow the line down and we can provide that build visibility to the dealers,” he hollers as dashboards are bolted in at speed. Nissan has a three-month waiting list for its Quashqai model.

Reinvigorated company

A three-month waiting list for a vehicle that has been in production since 2007 is impressive and almost unheard of in the highly competitive car manufacturing industry. But that hasn’t always been the case. Nissan was once known for models such as the Sunny and the Bluebird. These were very reliable but uninteresting. In today’s competitive, digital retail industry, manufacturing a product that is uninspiring guarantees you will be overtaken.

Since the turn of this century, Nissan has reinvigorated itself and is now a company with innovative products to match its culture. Talking to former motoring journalist friends, all agreed that models such as the Leaf and Quashqai have totally changed the consumers perceptions of Nissan. Today’s car buyers, as the waiting list shows, consider Nissan a modern and exciting company that retains a reliability record. It was with this transformation of products and customer perception ringing in my ears that I was fascinated to see if the CIO role and business culture of Nissan was akin to its products.


“Monozukuri is about having a state of mind, the spirit to produce not only excellent products but also have the ability to constantly improve the production system and its processes,” state the management professionals, and Kneebone tells me the principals run throughout Nissan. He gestures across the cafeteria, telling me that everyone present has the opportunity to constantly improve the production processes and products.

“It is a mindset to constantly improve, not just in the making, but also the bringing to market,” he explains. “How we set the business objectives, KPIs and how they are translated through the organisation through this model.”

Returning to the product range, Kneebone believes the fact that Nissan has a volume and realistic all-electric car on the market keeps the innovative culture alive in the company. More electric models are on the way and Nissan is demonstrating the strength of its electric car engineering by entering the gruelling Le Mans 24 Hour sports car race for the second year running in 2014. For this year, it will take a vehicle that uses delta aircraft wing technology combined with electric power-train and Nissan Micra parts to the French race.

“We created the Crossover market segment in 2007 and it’s been the company’s most successful launch globally,” he says of the Quashqai that looks like an SUV, but has the practicality and efficiencies of a normal car. Globally two million have been sold.

Englishman Kneebone is proud of the Quashqai for its British heritage. “Globally Nissan runs a competitive process for the design, development and manufacturing of vehicles. Quashqai was designed in our studio in Paddington, London, engineered at a facility in Cranfield and it’s made here in Sunderland. That is a huge success for Nissan Europe and a testament to the skills of the UK.”

Quashqai came about, Kneebone explains, because Nissan analysed the prospects of the compact hatchback market, which it competed in with the unloved Almera. This market is dominated by the VW Golf and Ford Focus, but according to Nissan was a declining market sector.

“We needed to do something different, so we went through the design process and came up with a new type of vehicle. It is relatively easy to demonstrate an innovative product, the challenge is to embrace that as something in the way we work, but as a culture we are expected to bring innovation to the table and the key to that is always, what does the innovation mean to the customer and making sure that the innovation has as broad an impact as possible.

“As a mindset it is a culture you have to sustain,” he says of the challenge.

Being innovative has enabled Nissan to grow. A year after the Quashqai was launched, the financial crisis slammed the brakes on the world economy and credit dependent car sales. Kneebone says it’s been a major challenge for Nissan and partners Renault, but they remain third in the European market by sales and manufacturing, selling 10 million vehicles. Nissan alone has six per cent of the market share.