autonomous working groups

It’s true, working too hard can kill you

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CNV00004_1It seems a life-time ago when stress management courses were de rigueur and people, including me, were making a living from them. (Now it’s either resilience training or mindfulness but that’s another story).

There was plenty of research about to back up what we were doing. The famous Whitehall studies which showed that the more senior you were the less likely you were to die early. In industry after industry it was the same story. Employees at the bottom of the hierarchy suffered more ill-health than more senior ones.

One of the factors contributing to this was the amount of control people had – over decision-making and the way they spent their working day. The more control or autonomy people felt they had, the less stressed they tended to be.

Now a recent study in the US has confirmed once again that people in stressful jobs with little control at work were more likely to die.

The research followed more than 2,000 Americans in their sixties over a seven-year period.

Those in low demand jobs reduced their death risk by 15% and those who were able to set their own goals and had flexibility at work were 34% less likely to die.

They also found that the people in the higher risk jobs were heavier. Comfort eating? Less time for exercise?

26% of those who dies were in front-line service jobs and 32% worked in manufacturing – both sectors with high demand and low autonomy.

55% of the deaths were from cancer (linked this week with high levels of anxiety and depression), and 22% from circulatory system diseases.

Erik Gonzales-Mulé at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University said employers didn’t need to reduce demand on their workers but should allow them more flexibility in how jobs were done. “You can avoid the negative health consequences if you allow them to set their own goals. set their own schedules, prioritise their decision-making and the like”.

I’m having deja vu here.This is like re-inventing the wheel. We knew all this decades ago. Remember autonomous working groups? Have American businesses forgotten about US contributions to organisational psychology and research on motivation? In America most workers still don’t get sick pay or maternity pay and have minimal holidays.

Japan has its own problems with employees working too hard (see recent post)

And we aren’t much better in some respects in the UK with the worst sick pay in the EU!

Recently experts and members of parliament have expressed concern about working conditions in call centres and on-line distribution centres. Sports Direct and Asos have been criticised for having Victorian working conditions. Some of these places are like “warehouses” on the edge of towns with no windows for natural light, just like giant container units.

Perhaps I should brush off my old notes and get back on the road again. Why do businesses never learn how to get the best out of people?

Hierarchical Management had it’s day

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down_the_chain_1600_wht_5908Back in the 1960s when behavioural scientists roamed corporate boardrooms every executive claimed to know about Herzberg’s two-factor theory and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Even here in the UK where firms like ICI invited Herzberg over and took his and others’ ideas on board, introducing a Weekly Staff Agreement (moving employees from hourly to weekly pay) and similar initiatives.

One idea that came out of this approach to motivating people was the introduction of autonomous working groups in the mid 1970s. In the UK we heard reports of how Swedish companies had adopted these methods in car production and Philips TV makers at Eindhoven (overlooking work by the Tavistock Institute in British coal mines starting over 20 years earlier). 

A lot of water and ideas about managing production have passed under the bridge since then although you could argue that with companies either mechanising or offshoring to reduce production costs Taylorism is still alive and kicking

Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology recently published the results of a 13 year study into a Norwegian company which adopted autonomous work groups and moved away from a hierarchical structure in line with the national and organisational culture of labour empowerment (reported by A Fradera in The Psychologist)

They described a system where different team members took on the spokesperson role for a week at a time. The workforce was initially enthusiastic saying things like ” the flat structure has come to stay” and “.. no more foremen pointing fingers and telling us what to do” .

After 8 years however some problems were identified. The transient role of the spokesperson meant they could skimp on onerous duties or things they thought less important like sharing information. Because the spokesperson was responding to team needs it was more difficult for them to resolve disputes or enforce decisions that were unpopular for individuals but good for the organisation.

They concluded that self-management optimised the comfort of the individuals and the team but possibly to the detriment of the company.

So they introduced a system where different people were responsible for different aspects, a distributed leadership model. The 5-M model had someone looking after staffing (Man), someone looking after Machine and so on. This was an improvement and also meant the M-leaders could get together to decide plant-wide issues in their own area of responsibility.

Unfortunately not every problem falls neatly into one category and sometimes problems were passed backwards and forwards. Concrete and immediate problems were resolved but not those requiring coordination, clearly a challenge to a company that wants to empower the workforce.

The researchers don’t say whether or not the company reverted to a more hierarchical system – perhaps that would have been admitting defeat.

It also raises some interesting questions about whether people can develop their leadership skills when they don’t have continuity (doing it only 1 week in six) and whether everyone is temperamentally suited to undertake a leadership role?

Historical note

9780486147758_p0_v2_s260x420Post WWII manufacturing industry was largely adhering to Scientific Management or “Taylorism“, an economic approach and belief that there was one right way.

People known variously as “Time and Motion experts” and “Work Study or Industrial Engineers” analysed jobs and broke them down into (very) small chunks so that operators on production assembly lines were more easily able to assemble a switch or put wheel nuts on cars (before robots took over).

So Scientific Management both de-skilled workers and led to mechanisation where possible.

Dividing the total assembly time of a product into tasks of a few minutes and of equal duration was sometimes quite a challenge. The work was pretty boring and relentless and conveyor belt breakdowns, often operator induced, provided welcome breaks from the monotony.

In the UK the Tavistock Institute for Social Research had been using a socio-technical approach (combining social, technical, and economic needs in coal mines since the 1950s and were later involved in Quality of Working Life initiatives, a forerunner of the concern about work-life balance. But their work wasn’t widely known.

Following the introduction of new ideas about employee motivation by Herzberg and others ie it wasn’t just the financial incentive (although it appeared to be for car assembly workers whose objective was to earn as much as possible to buy consumer goods (called instrumental motivation) and which was said to have enabled the growth in package holidays – but I digress) many companies tried to make the work more interesting. In some cases they also tried to reverse the de-skilling that had been the hallmark of previous approaches.

Job rotation was one easy way to provide variety and it also up-skilled the operatives. Job enlargement was combining similar jobs together on a permanent basis and thereby increasing the cycle time. Job enrichment was vertical job enlargement which usually meant including some quality/inspection or supervisory element.

And then in the mid-70s we heard that in Sweden at Saab and at the Volvo Kalmar plant, and at Philips in Eindhoven they had gone a whole step further and introduced autonomous working groups. The Kalmar plant was new and small teams worked in assembly bays rather than straight assembly lines. In both the new Volvo plant and the re-organised Saab plant assembly cycle times rose from 2-3 minutes to 20-30 minutes.

Autonomous working groups can include single skill workers or incorporate features of job enlargement and job enrichment by taking responsibility for purchasing, quality control and absence management. There was usually less need for first line supervisors.

Teams were given the facilities to organise the work themselves, within limits. For example, at the Philips plant teams were allowed to decide how they assembled TV sets either in the traditional flow line method or with each person assembling a whole set.

Sweden had a well-educated workforce and companies had high absence rates put down to boredom with the production lines. By the 1980s we were hearing that autonomous working groups had improved job satisfaction and helped to reduce absenteeism but not necessarily improved productivity.

Eventually new methods and approaches came along eg Quality Circles and the use of BPR, and autonomous working groups seemed to fade from the spotlight.