In spite of what you may have heard to the contrary, everyone, managers and employees alike, are interested in improving productivity. In the majority on Canadian companies everyone has come to realize that increased productivity will lead to greater job security, higher profits and increased wages. At the same time, no one is interested in working harder or in making the job managing any more difficult than it already is. Nevertheless, there is a way to improve productivity without unwanted side effects.
There isn’t any magic formula that will make your firm leap into the Fortune 500 next year, nor do you have to fire half your staff and brainwash the remainder. The solution lies in the way you and your people work together and the way in which you structure your organization to allow this to happen.
This involves some basic common sense, a realization of how people in the work force have changed, and a willingness on the part of management to adapt to the realities of managing in the 80s. Traditionally, managers have focused their attention on managing materials, finances, and processes, but they have not spent much effort learning how to manage their people. Yet more than any other resource the company may have, people are the most important element if one is to improve productivity.
Even now, too many Canadian managers think that people are not important and that a new product, a better marketing strategy, a more efficient process or perhaps computerization will solve their problems. They are wrong. The facts are that the truly excellent companies have learned that people are the most powerful resource that can possibly possess. Don’t be mislead!
The current interest in the principles proposed in In Search of Excellence shows just how deep the concern for increasing productivity through people really is. According to the authors of the book, “there was hardly a more pervasive theme in the excellent companies that respect for the individual.” The top companies know how to treat people and how to help people reach their potential. What about your firm? Is it doing the same thing? If not, why not?
Let’s assume that you would like to be one of the excellent companies. Where do you start? First of all, you must truly believe that people are important. You must accept the idea that most people are intelligent, mature individuals who are willing and perhaps even eager, to work hard, that they have good ideas and that they have the best interests of the company in mind. You must also understand that greater productivity through people doesn’t occur overnight. It requires changes in management style, internal organization and commitment from the top CEO right down to the fellow who sweeps the floor.
This has to be translated into actions which will develop a spirit of trust and respect; actions in which employees are viewed as partners and are treated with dignity. This does not mean galloping democracy, nor an abdication of management decision-making or authority. It involves tough-minded respect, which has to be earned by both sides, and the need to train both employees and management for a new working relationship.
Many firms have found that a good way to move toward excellence is through a conscious effort to improve Quality of Working Life (QWL). While QWL is a wide-ranging concept that encompasses a variety of techniques and programs, one approach that has been successful for many firms is the use of teamwork for problem solving. The process involves training to set the tone for what is about to happen and to create the proper environment for a new employee/management working relationship. It’s paying high dividends to the firms that are using it.
None of this is easy nor can it occur overnight. However, the payoffs are dramatic and will lead to increases in morale and productivity, improved labour/management relations, decreases in absenteeism and grievances and a better working environment for everyone.
There are two important prerequisites that must be in place before you begin. First, there must be some assurance that the firm is really ready for the QWL concept and that the program will have a chance for success if it is implemented. A good way to determine this is to measure the management and employee attitudes about the firm, its people and the working environment.
This will uncover any hidden problems that could sabotage the program. Secondly, there must be public and sincere acceptance of the program and the philosophy behind it by the senior managers. If the top levels approach the program as something that doesn’t involve them, but is a new fad that will keep the natives from becoming restless, the process is doomed from the start. Lack of management commitment is the leading cause of failure in QWL programs.
What proof is there that it works? The best way to answer this is to look at some examples of what can happen if QWL is put into operation. Company A is a dairy where the QWL team was involved in a boring, powdered milk-filling job. Within a few weeks, the team had not only found a robot to do their job, they had redesigned the layout of their job, they had redesigned the layout of their department and had made important suggestions for the improvement of the lighting and air quality of the new plant facility that was being built.
Company B is a large, custom machine shop that manufactures equipment for the auto industry. In this case, a team of welders chose to work on the problem of not having the right tools to do their jobs the way they wanted. The management was not only surprised to find that the team wanted to work on this problem, but they were delighted with the team’s solution which eliminated hours of lost time, improved product quality and saved the firm $14,000 a year.
Company C is a footwear manufacturer. In this case, the team came from the shipping department. They chose to work on a labeling problem that they hated because it was an awkward, messy job. In matter of weeks the team had conducted a time and motion study, developed a new procedure, arranged with a supplier to produce the needed change and effected a cost saving of $3,500 a year for the lifetime of the firm. In this case, it cost the firm nothing to implement the new procedure.
Productivity gains can be affected through people. The process is a simple one based on common sense and the application of motivational psychology and up-to-date management practices. It’s not so much a question of whether you can afford to initiate such a program; it is really a matter of whether you can afford not to get involved.
Canadians simply cannot afford to sit back and rely on old-fashioned procedures, attitudes or values. As William Coates, executive vice-president of Westinghouse has said, “In factory after factory in Japan, everyone inside is trying to whip us. If we don’t get that attitude, we literally won’t survive.”
With the QWL movement in place in North America as well as Japan, Coate’s remarks no longer apply just to Japanese competitors. Canadian firms that want to get to the top and stay there must develop their human resources far better than they have in the past. Instead of being the lowest priority on the totem pole, people must be one of the highest. The firms ranked as “excellent” have already realized this. What about your firm?