In fact, today's factory workers make significant contributions to their organizations, are quite interested in their work and lead full lives outside the factory walls, says Joan M. Chesterton, associate professor of organizational leadership and supervision at Purdue's North Central campus.
"Too many years of reading -- from Frederick Taylor to 'Rivethead' -- had convinced me that all factory workers live lives of not-so-quiet desperation," she says. "Through my work in team building, I've found that many of them are highly creative individuals who like what they are doing and are the very heart and soul of their organizations. As team members, hourly employees are being asked to become active participants at many levels within the organization and to depend less on management to make all the decisions. They are in the midst of what appears to be a second Industrial Revolution, with little precedent to guide them or their leaders."
The revolution Chesterton speaks of is the implementation of work teams in production-oriented organizations. She is studying the effects of such teams and says more and more companies are taking this approach. Research shows that employees are more productive and produce a higher-quality product working as a team, she says.
Chesterton has 20 years of experience as a line manager and consultant for manufacturing and service organizations involved in re-engineering, employee empowerment and improving relationships between management and unions. She has developed and conducted more than 75 management and organizational training programs in the United States and two in Eastern Europe.
Her experiences have convinced her that some commonly held assumptions about blue-collar workers may not be completely true in today's industrial environment. These are excerpts from a larger article, "Team Building With Hourly Workers: An Experience of Discovery," which appears in the Sept./Oct. issue of the American Management Association's Management Review.
"As managers, we are too often blinded by the idea that a college degree determines who matters in an organization," Chesterton says. "Consequently, managers tend to see so-called 'uneducated' employees as nothing more than robots who do what they are programmed to do and provide little, if any, creative input."
Chesterton says all employees, regardless of education, contribute to an organization.
"Valuable intelligences -- logical, mathematical, spatial and conceptual -- are found at all levels in the workplace," she says. "The stereotype 'If they were smart, would they be hourly workers?' is insulting and is counterproductive to a successful organization."
While working to implement work teams in factories, Chesterton says, she has uncovered aptitudes and conceptual abilities that are smothered in the traditional manufacturing environment.
"We don't work solely with team members," she says. "We teach managers as well. Managers have to be taught how to relinquish control to release creativity and productivity."
Chesterton says management is inevitably shocked at the quality of ideas and the thinking behind them when work teams are allowed to be active participants in the overall process.
"Technological advances have turned previously mundane jobs into technically challenging and rewarding endeavors," Chesterton says. "An organization's re-engineering frequently precedes the team-building effort, and many employees arrive for training already involved and interested in new designs and processes. There is more confusion, but there's also less monotony."
Pay and the work itself are two of the most frequent responses workers give when asked what they like best about an organization, Chesterton adds.
"Some of the most creative presentations to management come from teams of women seeking to modify machines, parts and tools for improved productivity," Chesterton says.
"Workers are being challenged on the job to perform at higher levels than ever before," she says. "They appear to carry those challenges over to their personal lives. Many employees are continuing their education, are leaders in school, community and church organizations and are active in numerous family and cultural activities."
Chesterton says frequent changes in management and management solutions lead to constant policy changes and inconsistent administration of those policies. It all adds up to a lack of respect for management. But that lack of respect isn't necessarily a bad thing, Chesterton says.
"As employees start to question management, they become more involved in the decision-making process," she says. "That brings them off the assembly line and into the board room."
Source: Joan M. Chesterton, (219) 785-5297; home, (219) 874-0038
Writer: Victor B. Herr, (765) 494-2077; Internet, firstname.lastname@example.org
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