John Coplin: managing a design team

John Coplin discusses the challenges of running a large design team at Rolls-Royce in the 1970s.

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I think the question then comes, well how do you manage 771 people? Well, first of all you subdivide and you have a first line of management, which might only be five or seven people. And these are very trusted guys. And they, in turn, have a span of control of some others. But this leads to a lot of levels. If you’ve got 771, well you can work out how many levels you require [laughs] and it’s far too many. But what you’re able to do, as a guy who’s very, if you like, qualified on all the basics, you can say, ‘Okay, I’ll have my formal meetings and I’ll have my formal reviews and I’ll go to the managing director’s formal reviews and look at the personnel relationships, look at the allocation of the salary distributions and all those sort of things. But, I will also allocate time to walk around at random, to meet people at their place of work, look at what they’re doing, give them some encouragement, maybe put in a few pointers.’ I was very good at arithmetic, and I knew the non-dimensional relationships between mark number and flows, and temperature ratios and pressure ratios and pressure losses, so I can actually stand at a guy’s desk, or his drawing board, and do some quick arithmetic which says, ‘Yes, this guy is clearly understanding it right, and yes if it’s twice as bad as he thinks it is, it’s still going to work, it’ll still be safe, that’s a good design.’ But the other thing was that clearly many of these people are extremely talented, and they will say, ‘Hey, we’ve been asked to do this, but it makes less sense than if we do something slightly different, and we have a jolly good idea and we think it will work. What do you think of this idea?’ they’ll say to me. And so I’ll take time with them, and it may give rise to them actually taking out a patent for some really important innovation that’s taking us in a rewarding direction beyond where we’ve been before. There’s a closeness between the designer, the top designers, and the people on the shop floor, and they will feed back.
  • Interviewee John Coplin
  • Duration 00:02:41
  • Copyright British Library Board
  • Interviewer Thomas Lean
  • Date of interview 1/11/2011
  • Shelfmark C1379/37

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