By Sunil G Wijesinha
“Why does the Shinkansen (Japan’s bullet train) travel much faster than an ordinary train?” was a question posed to us during a training programme in Japan.
None of our answers ranging from technology to the tracks were correct. “It is because unlike ordinary trains pulled by a powerful engine at the head, the Shinkansen is powered additionally, by power in every carriage”, explained the lecturer. I am not sure about the technical details, but he drove home the point. A good leader is essential for an organisation, but not sufficient. You need to empower your workforce as well, for the organisation to reach exceptional levels of performance. If the carriages have extra resistance the engine could try as hard as it might but would not realise even a part of its speed.
We have come a long way since Frederick Taylor, of Scientific Management fame, who introduced the one best way of doing work determined by efficiency experts, and only the hands of workers were used. He said that only efficiency experts (industrial engineers) should formulate how work should be done, and workers should work strictly in accordance with those standard methods. In fact when American management was introduced to Japan, soon after World War 11, under General MacArthur, the Japanese workers were reported to have joked that “we have to leave our lunch boxes and our brains in the lockers before we enter the factory”. They were not permitted to use their brains and change any method, even if an improvement opportunity was staring in their face.
Treating workers with hearts
The next wave was to treat workers with “hearts” on the basis that they have feelings. Managers were asked to treat workers as “human beings”, and talk to them well, look after them, in fact be nice to them. This wave was differentiated from the Taylor policy as migrating from a concept of treating a worker as a pair of hands, to a concept of treating a worker as one that has a heart and feelings too.
As time went on even this did not work. Workers were becoming more educated, demanding more freedom, and wanted more opportunity to realise their full potential. The third wave addressed this, and new theories of motivation were formulated. I have seen this change over the years. In my first job we treated workers a little better than slaves.
We even called them by their numbers and not by their names. A few years later, and particularly after a change to a more socialist Government, a senior engineer addressing us had good advice: call people by their names never by their number, inquire about their children, and try and relate to them. Over the years, I have seen very paternalistic CEOs, particular owners of businesses, who have been so disappointed because workers have reacted badly in spite being treated like the boss’s own children.
Recognition for potential
It’s obviously because they wanted more opportunity to realise their full potential. Being more educated and becoming more aware of their aspirations they were no longer willing to be mere cogs in the wheel receiving benevolence purely on the whims and fancies of the owner. Managing labour evolved from treating workers as having a pair of hands, to treating them as human beings with a heart to finally human beings with brains too, crying out to be used.
The Japanese realised this early and it was in the 1960s that they commenced their “small group activities” by translating quality control books into the Japanese language, and encouraging workers to study them during the lunch breaks and exhorting them to try implementing some of the techniques. They had realised that managers alone would not be able to improve quality and make their products internationally marketable. They wanted workers too to use their brains. Of course they had one major advantage; the Japanese worker was highly literate and well educated. The famous Japanese technique of Quality Circles was born thus. Quality Circles give autonomy to groups formed voluntarily to select problems, analyse and get to the root causes, and find solutions by themselves.
Quality Circles thereafter spread to service industries and to the neighbouring countries and finally became a world-wide phenomenon by the 1980s. Sri Lanka had Quality Circles from the 1980s, and many progressive companies realised the benefits.
The Hackman and Oldham Job Characteristics Model of Motivation provides the answer why Quality Circles, and for that matter any other form of employee involvement, enhances performance and satisfaction at work. The model suggests five job characteristics which lead to high intrinsic motivation and high job satisfaction; Skill Variety, Task Identity, Task Significance, Autonomy and Feedback. The experience I have with Sri Lankan workers is that their education is much more than that required for most front line jobs.
They also have many other skills and talents which are unused in the day to day jobs. When they engage themselves in work where they could bring out their skills, where they could see the significance of the task they perform, and where they could proudly identify with the improvement they have made, they are more satisfied. Autonomy and Feedback also greatly enhance satisfaction in the job they do. Individual activities such as Kaizen Suggestions, group activities such as Quality Circles, Cross Functional Teams, and Autonomous Work Groups provide all five characteristics in the job and is the reason why they have been successful in Sri Lanka while many sceptics cannot understand why workers should do anything extra for no extra financial reward.
A bank in Japan found that several companies to which they had advanced financial facilities had failed. The companies were well capitalised, they had a good product, a good market, and a good manufacturing facility, but they still failed. A study found one important factor was missing; motivation. The Bank thus came up with the formula:
P = MH x S x Mn
In the formula P stands for Performance, MH for the man hours, S for Skills, the M stands for motivation and n the power to which motivation can be taken. If n is zero, M comes to just one since mathematics tells us that anything to the power 0 is like dividing the number by the same number. Imagine the difference if n is two or more.
In Sri Lanka too some companies had collapsed because of mishandling of labour issues. It was for this reason that at Merchant Bank of Sri Lanka we conducted seminars to educate clients on avoiding industrial disputes and motivating workers.
I do not recommend for a moment getting workers involved in management. Worker involvement at operational level and worker involvement in management are two different concepts. In my evaluation, worker involvement in management, which was tried out in the state corporation sector in the 1980s, was a failure. I only recommend worker involvement at the front line through concepts such as Kaizen Suggestions, Quality Circles, Cross Level/ Cross Functional Teams and Autonomous Work Groups. Replacing the engine with a carriage will not work. Employee Involvement has been tried out from the 1980s in Sri Lanka and have proved to be successful. If employees at all levels are motivated and energised, our organisations too could travel like the Shinkansen.
(The writer is the President of the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Quality and Productivity)