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Beyond mechanization.

Beyond Mechanization.

Larry Hirschhorn's thesis is compelling. The production technology of the processing plant and computerized flexible manufacturing systems require a new approach to organizational design and management. In the older electromechanical factories, work could be broken down into measurable motions, and the worker trained to perform repetitive tasks, coordinated and controlled at higher levels. The new technology makes this approach unsafe and unproductive, since complex technological systems are vulnerable to costly breakdowns. The alternative is a different vision of organization and work roles in which operators develop diagnostic and maintenance skills, and are prepared to deal with the unexpected. Working together in self-regulating teams, they share information and rotate jobs to expand their knowledge of what can go wrong, and why. In this system, supervisors become teachers and coordinators, not policemen. If this approach had been employed at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor, Hirschhorn believes operators would have been better prepared to have closed a valve quickly and avoided the danger of meltdown.

This concept is fully consistent with Joan Woodward's research in the 1960's showing that continuous processing plants (for example paper and pulp, chemicals, and oil refineries) were best run when operators had the training and authority to make decisions. It is supported by the sociotechnical theories of Eric Trist, Louis Davis, and Richard Walton, who was a consultant to the General Foods plant in Topeka, KS, which was designed according to the team concept in 1970. Hirschhorn points out that during the past decade, more than 500 American plants have been designed according to the team principle, generally with job rotation and salary, not wages, based on tasks mastered. "A worker may be a materials scheduler, a work assigner, a trainer, a financial coordinator managing the team's budget, a health and safety coordinator, a recorder, or the team's representative on a committee studying social-system issues throughout the plant' (p. 117).

Beyond improved safety and less likelihood of errors, what are the costs and benefits of the new plants? Writes Hirschhorn, "I know of no systematic study comparing the long-term performance of these plants with that over conventional ones. Cases studies and my own interviews with managerial and supervisory staff suggest that these plants produce a higher quality product than do conventional factories, while remaining profitable' (p. 120).

Yet, there are serious problems with many of these innovative work systems, and they are social rather than technical. Hirschhorn interviewed 22 managers and consultants, and two workers at 13 new plants. (The companies would not let him interview more workers.) He found one source of ineffectiveness when idealistic plant managers expected teams to govern themselves without skilled leadership and sufficient training in a group process. Disputes undermined effectiveness. Workers refused to discipline colleagues who abused trust. When teamwork broke down, disillusioned managers imposed traditional control. Most of these plants are nonunion, and it is notable that in one unionized factory, Hirschhorn finds better discipline, more effectiveness at resolving disputes. When there is experienced union leadership, utopian ideas are less likely to cloud the vision.

Hirschhorn touches on many factors that he believes impede the development of better sociotechnical solutions, including the problem of fitting the innovative factories into industrial bureaucracies. The new pay systems and job classifications clash with corporate policy. Here again, a strong union could help institutionalize a new approach.

Finally, Hirschhorn directs criticism at engineers for ignoring the human element in designing production systems. Like many who write today from a humanistic viewpoint, he blasts the founder of scientific management, Frederick Windslow Taylor, for having "introduced the study of human motion within a perspective emptied of psychological and physiological content' (p. 13). In his time, Taylor was concerned with the health and development of the worker. Like Hirschhorn, he complained of over-controlling managers. The difference is that Taylor's theory fit the simpler technology of his day and the poorly educated immigrant workers he first studies. Today's technology and work force require different organization, but as Hirschhorn points out, our social R&D lags behind technical development. The point is not to blame the engineers but to show them a viable, more productive alternative.
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Author:Maccoby, Michael
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1986
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