Are Transformed Workplaces More Productively Efficient?

By Fairris, David | Journal of Economic Issues, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Are Transformed Workplaces More Productively Efficient?


Fairris, David, Journal of Economic Issues


For almost two decades now, the organization of production has been undergoing rapid transformation in both developed and developing economies. The changes represent an attempt by employers to improve productivity and product quality through increased flexibility in the use of labor and greater participation by workers in various production decisions. Flexibility refers to the ease with which workers can be hired and dismissed, as well as to the ease with which they can be moved between job tasks in production. Worker participation involves the elicitation of ideas from, as well as a shifting of the burden of responsibility to, the labor force regarding productivity and product quality.

The various institutional changes in production that these developments have brought forth include the following:

* The multi-skilling of workers and the increased use of job rotation.

* The freedom of management to transfer, promote, and dismiss workers

* Quality circles (labor-management committees that meet regularly on company time to raise problems encountered in production and to brainstorm over solutions).

* Work teams (typically composed of between ten and fifteen workers, and responsible for things such as quality control, troubleshooting, and assigning workers to job tasks).

* Total-quality management techniques (management-driven reforms, wherein top management determines the quality priorities, establishes the systems and procedures to be followed, provides resources for worker training in quality control techniques, and then holds workers responsible for quality and its continuous improvement).

* Just-in-time production (wherein buffer stocks are eliminated in order to identify and repair problem areas in production).

While there is evidence to suggest that these institutional transformations at work have resulted in minor improvements in labor productivity, there are lingering concerns regarding their negative impact on workers' work lives. Granting management the unilateral right to assign workers to job tasks may lead to increased labor productivity, but it also prevents workers from blocking the arbitrary transfer and promotion decisions of management, something that most twentieth century labor movements have struggled hard to accomplish. Participatory work teams and total-quality management techniques may allow workers to offer insights into production that result in increased productivity and product quality, but they also shift the responsibility for achieving management's output and quality goals directly onto workers, which may burden them with increased labor effort and stress.

Indeed, critics of workplace transformation argue that the recent focus on increased worker participation in production is more rhetoric than reality and that the organizational changes have essentially reduced the ability of unions to achieve certain workplace rewards for their members (Parker and Slaughter 1994). Other critics have documented the consequences of these transformations at work for worker speed-ups, stress, and certain compromises in the area of health and safety (Rinehart, Huxley, and Robinson 1997). Recent workplace transformations might offer workers a greater voice in production, but they grant little (and perhaps even entail a diminution in) actual decision-making power.

Despite evidence to suggest that transformed workplaces are more productive, the implication of these criticisms is that workplace transformation leads to a worsening of workers' working conditions. This leaves societies that are currently undergoing transformation of the workplace with difficult questions to answer. Is workplace transformation truly bad for the work lives of workers? If so, is it possible that the positive consequences of workplace transformation for labor productivity are completely offset by their negative consequences for the working conditions of workers, thereby rendering the workplace transformation movement bad for society as a whole? …

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