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What Have We Learned About Participation?

by Michael Maccoby

Pofessor Einar Thorsrud Memorial Paper, Oslo, 21 November 1995., Revised December 6, 1995

In 1974, a generation ago, I brought a group of American managers, union officials, government officials, and academics to Norway and Sweden to learn about exciting initiatives to improve the quality of working life. Einar Thorsrud was our guide and teacher. He took us to Volvo, first to Gothenberg where P.G. Gyllenhammar described his philosophy and we visited the traditional assembly line at Torslanda and then to Skovde and Kalmar where we observed the redesign of work. We then travelled to Norway where we visited a paper and pulp mill in Hunsfoss and met union officials and researchers in Oslo. What did we learn?

Gyllenhammar stated that his directive to improve work was motivated by business realities, and not idealistic visions. Volvo required high quality products and motivated workers, but Swedish workers with increasing years of schooling, in a full employment labor market, refused to work on the assembly line. At Torslanda, as we could see, immigrants who could not even communicate with each other manned the lines. Since absenteeism was so high, it was hard for managers to plan and to control quality. By redesigning work, Gyllenhammar believed that Volvo would again attract Swedish workers and improve their motivation. By putting the car on carriers and increasing cycle times at each station, the workers would be able to function as craftsmen and take pride in their work. In Norway, the new initiatives emphasized participation and semi-autonomous teams that could work without supervision.

In both Sweden and Norway, we learned that managers supported participation in order to attract the young to industrial work and to increase competitiveness by improving productivity and product quality. Union leaders and researchers expressed a somewhat different agenda. They believed that participation, greater worker autonomy, and development of skills and knowledge were in themselves positive goals. They spoke of overcoming worker alienation by instituting industrial democracy and developing the worker's capability for self management. Their goal was not to improve competitiveness, but rather to increase democracy and union influence without jeopardizing economic growth. Some union leaders believed that union membership on company boards was the main road to industrial democracy. Thorsrud had a different vision: that participation was a means to human development, and union membership on boards by itself did not guarantee a change in the experience of the worker on the shop floor. He argued that unless the worker was fully engaged by work, unless he or she had a positive future, proper training, social support, and influence over decisions that directly affected him or her, no amount of represen tational democracy would overcome a sense of alienation that fed divisive political movements and sapped motivation at work. By concentrating on human development, companies would also benefit by less absenteeism, increased motivation, and greater social harmony. Thorsrud envisioned a humanized industry that would benefit employers, employees and the larger society.

The Scandinavian projects and others around this time in the U.K. (Shell) and U.S. (General Foods, Harman International) were first steps in changing work according to both economic and social criteria with the goals of improving both productivity and the quality of working life. These projects did demonstrate that worker participation in planning tasks, setting standards and solving problems improved productivity. But many of the projects were dependent on an idealistic manager and the researcher - consultants, and participation remained encapsulated in one part of a factory or one factory in a company. Eventually they disappeared. The General Foods plant in Topeka was well known among researchers in the US and Europe, but when I gave a seminar to the company's top management in the mid-80s, none even knew about it. The Harman factory was sold to a company that dismantled the project.

What has happened to participation during the past twenty years? In general, according to a number of studies, those firms that emphasize workplace cooperation and involvement of employees in decision-making report positive results. Beyond this, there is confusion about what "involvement" or "participation" means. How widespread is it? Is participatory management appropriate for all types of work? What is the relationship between participation and customer focus, Total Quality Management and Reengineering? In summary, how should a manager or union official today evaluate and employ participation?

We cannot answer these questions without considering major changes that have taken place in the industrial world since our trip to Scandinavia in the 70s. They include the following:

  • Global competition has pressured companies to innovate, cut costs and continually improve business processes.

  • Western companies have tried to learn total quality management and continuous improvement from the Japanese. However, these attempts have been only partially successful, in large part because of differences between Western and Japanese cultures.

  • Information technology has automated some jobs and upgraded the knowledge required for others.

  • The new generation of workers are self-developers who seek continual learning at work.

  • Organizations have become increasingly complex and are best managed by leadership which communicates shared values and operating principles which emphasize interactive and open participation.

We shall see that because of these changes, new forms of participation have become a necessity for managing change rather than a motivational tool for overcoming alienation.

Learning from the Japanese

At the same time that Scandinavians were experimenting with semiautonomous teams and longer cycle times in assembly work, the Japanese, influenced by W. Edwards Deming, were taking a totally different approach to improving quality and productivity. Rather than "killing the foreman", as some Volvo managers interpreted the Norwegian approach, at Toyota they were strengthening supervisory leadership. Rather than increasing cycle time, the Japanese were allowing workers to experiment with balancing the line and rotating assembly and pre-assembly work, while maintaining cycle times of 60 to 90 seconds. Rather than legislating participation, they were establishing systems of continuous improvement that encouraged focussed participation. In 1987, at a time when Volvo was planning the Uddevalla factory with the goal of the worker as craftsman building a whole car, I travelled to Japan with a group of Volvo production managers. At Toyota, a supervisor took me to his office where the wall was covered with papers filled with handwritten Japanese characters. I asked what they were and was told they were ideas for improvement by workers. I asked, "How many ideas do you get on the average." He pointed to a chart: "48 ideas per worker per year." "And how many of those do you use?" I asked. "80 percent," he answered. I could hardly believe it, almost an idea per week. He said, "I have been to your factories and you have a different view of ideas than we do. You are happy when there are no complaints from the workers, no grievances. For us, every complaint is an opportunity for improvement. We encourage workers to turn complaints into ideas."

When we returned to Sweden, the Volvo managers discounted what they saw at Toyota because they did not believe that Swedish workers would accept the demanding Japanese system. (At this time, the Volvo assembly plant in Ghent had adopted a version of the Toyota system and had the best quality and productivity results among Volvo factories, but this fact was not discussed in managerial meetings in Sweden.) Even though managers at Volvo preached participation in the 80s, researchers found that ten of twelve supervisors at Torslanda never asked workers for ideas. When asked why, they said that neither their superiors nor the process engineers would listen to them, so why should they raise false hopes in the workers.

In the 90s, Western management began to adopt elements of the Japanese approach in one or another form especially TQM (Total Quality Management), Time Based Management, and also what came to be called Reengineering. The results of these initiatives have been mixed. One can find value in all of them, but also a great deal of ideological fanaticism and just plain faddism. While some social democrats supported participation as a step toward worker control of the means of production, supporters of TQM and reengineering have also been driven by ideologies with different goals but similar fervor. In one global company, a senior manager was sent around the world to study forms of customer focus. He found "forty different religions, all with positive elements, none willing to learn from the others." Each religion believed it had found the path to being best in the world and at the same time forming virtuous people.

Many of these initiatives have failed because managerial thinking about organization remains on a mechanistic level. Managers do not understand that organizations are social systems within larger cultures. Furthermore, as we shall see, managers do not sufficiently take account of the changing nature of work and the needs of knowledge workers.

As Russell Ackoff points out, in the West, the organization was originally conceived as a machine run by an owner who played the role of a god-like prime mover, and this thinking still limits Western thinking. The analytic mind of the West tries to improve the machine by reengineering its parts. In this sense, Frederick Winslow Taylor the founder of scientific management was the father of reengineering as he attempted to make the machine run more efficiently by breaking work into the smallest parts possible and standardizing jobs. Thorsrud and others pointed out that scientific management was dehumanizing, but their solutions of greater participation and expanded jobs did not break through the limitations of Western thinking, even though they proposed new values of human development at work. They did not address the whole organization as a social system with a purpose, but tended to focus on improving a part of it. They were essentially thinking within a context of mass production with electro-mechanical technology. Perhaps, the closest the Norwegians came to creating a new paradigm was a more systemic design of organization and space in ships of the merchant navy. The aim was to flatten hierarchy and facilitate participation as a means of attracting young anti-authoritarian Norwegians. This required that the ship's captain be able to shift roles from facilitator in periods of calm to the traditional commander during periods of danger and entering or leaving ports.

Western vs. Eastern Management

In Scandinavia and the U.S., egalitarianism is strongly valued. Particularly in the US and Norway, the ideal is individualism: nobody should have a boss or be bossed. The semi-autonomous team which does away with supervision is emotionally appealing. Downsizing layers of management not only cuts costs, but also flattens the organization and is a blow against hated hierarchy. Western managers sometimes oscillate between overcontrol and anarchy, centralization and decentralization. In Japan, harmony and loyalty are strongly valued, and hierarchy is viewed as natural. According to the Confucian principles which have shaped Japanese managerial philosophy, benevolent leadership teaches and protects. It is essential to a good organization which is able to learn from experience gained by people at all levels. In the U.S. and Scandinavia, the business environment is shaped by the values of the market, and relationships are mediated by contract. In Japan, large companies like Toyota temper market forces with long-term relationships of mutual loyalty between management and workers as well as suppliers.

In Japan, the ideal organization is not a machine, but an extended family which can grow and improve itself by learning, as long as it maintains strong bonds of loyalty and open communication. The purpose of this organization is to satisfy the needs of customers, maintain employment, grow market share and return on investment, more or less in that order. Management's role is to align organization, information flow, reward systems and relationships to support these goals. One example of this alignment is the process of continuous improvement that I described at Toyota which allows the organization to learn from its workers and stimulates a spirit of innovation. Another example has to do with basing a worker's pay on a combination of seniority, profit sharing, and evaluation of how much he teaches others and creates harmony in the group. Those workers promoted to supervisor have already been recognized and rewarded not merely because of technical performance, but also for their leadership behavior. Furthermore, Japanese companies have increasingly focussed on breaking the bureaucratic walls between functions, in part by concurrent engineering projects. To prepare functional experts for these projects, engineers are required to spend time on the line and in marketing functions, so that in product realization teams, they understand issues of customer satisfaction and problems of producing to specifications.

Many Western managers particularly in the US view the purpose of the company as increasing shareholder value. Customer and employee satisfaction are seen solely as means to this end as opposed to seeing these as goals which must be balanced with owner satisfaction in order to insure the long term viability of the corporation.

Western managers have also tended to focus change efforts on frontline workers and to pay much less attention than the Japanese to making all parts of the organization learn together. The class system is reinforced by unions, which defend worker dignity through solidarity against managers. Yet, according to Professor Naoto Sasaki who has observed factories in Japan and Sweden, the Japanese worker is treated with greater respect which he repays with increased motivation as well as loyalty.

There are strengths and weaknesses in both the Western and Japanese approaches to organization. The weakness of Japanese companies results from dependency and conformity in the patriarchal family, especially on the managerial level. A very few companies like Hewlett-Packard and Motorola have combined Western individualism and teamwork with a Japanese style commitment to people, customers and continuous improvement. Neither of these companies has unions, and employees on all levels are treated respectfully as members of a learning community. In both, the culture of excellence in product and continual improvement was instituted by entrepreneurial innovators, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard and Robert Galvin of Motorola. Hewlett and Packard from the start thought about the kind of people they wanted to hire and the relationships they wanted with them. They sought entrepreneurs who were loyal to the company, a seeming contradiction since entrepreneurs are typically independent. Hewlett and Packard wanted people who remained loyal, because the company helped them to improve themselves through university courses and take initiatives within the company, but it was understood that some of these entrepreneurs would treat the company like a graduate school and eventually leave to start their own companies, as has been the case. Many of these new ventures have become suppliers or customers to Hewlett Packard, thus building a silicon valley network based on trust and mutual respect.

Many large companies in the U.S. and virtually all in Scandinavia do have unions which sometimes resist the changes management wants to make quickly. While managers are focussed on future challenges, unions tend to look back at the past achievements they have struggled to win. To create change, union leadership must be brought into the strategic process, and educated about business logics. I have found that while unions may resist productivity improvements that impact jobs, they accept the need for changes required by customers, especially if invited by management to participate in the design of processes and work roles. Increasingly, unions that represent knowledge workers must be concerned not only about fair wages, benefits and safe working conditions, but also about representing the interests of their members in process change and facilitating their continual learning so that they remain employable in an uncertain business environment. This does not imply that the unions want to co-manage the business. Rather, they want to represent their members "before the fact", as has been the case in some of the best managed Norwegian and Swedish companies. They recognize that just as they represent one group of stakeholders, management is accountable to another, the owners. However, when both sides share a commitment to all the stakeholders, traditional bargaining is transformed into continual planning.

After 20 years of facilitating union-management cooperation, I conclude that a union can add value and make a firm more competitive only if management is participative. They then help strengthen trust and two-way communication and they help resolve the inevitable conflicts that occur in the front line. If management rules by fear, a union will resist and make it harder to run the business.

Changing Work and Organization

In the early 70s, researchers in Scandinavia and the U.S. were surprised to discover that some workers did not want to participate in making decisions. They were satisfied in doing a limited job. This was due in large part to the type of work they were doing and also a social character which valued autonomy and stability at work. In the early 60s, Michel Crozier found that French bureaucrats resisted invitations to participate because they wished to maintain autonomy and the right to object to management decisions. In 1979, I met with senior managers at Hewlett Packard to discuss issues of job design and participation. One manager suggested that the jobs of machine operators should be expanded, that they were boring and monotonous. The CEO at that time, John Young, demonstrated a quality rare in top executives, learning from the frontline. He had already met with some of the workers and raised the possibility of enriching the job. Some of them said that they preferred a job where they were not likely to make mistakes even if this limited their responsibilities. However, these tasks have subsequently been automated, and the worker's job has become one of programming and maintaining machines. In this case and many others, the new jobs require knowledge and willingness to take responsibility. This is no longer a case of offering participation to increase motivation and overcome alienation. If the work process is properly structured, participation and learning will become part of the knowledge worker's job description.

As companies adapt to the business environment, all levels of the organization are affected. The management of change requires new structures and supporting skills and systems. For example, ABB of Canada finds no growth in its traditional strategy of separately selling products by different business units. Opportunities lie in strategic partnerships with large customers, but this requires changes not only in structure ‹ creating an account management organization ‹ but also information systems, increased knowledge by account managers, and open communication across business units. Changing the corporate culture requires participation from all levels starting with the top.

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