It Can Be Done Differently

October 1 st 1987

Contrary to militant rhetoric, real life instances keep showing us that when they are determined to get along, labour and management can and do so to immense mutual benefit.

The health of our economy depends on mutual respect and cooperation in the workplace. That's why the labour relations climate at a General Electric plant in Bromont, Quebec, deserves mentioning. This airplane parts plant has implemented a Quality of Working Life (QWL) program, which restructures plant operations from a traditional, hierarchical system to a cooperative one. Dick Pelletier, Bromont plant manager says: "Our philosophy is to try and allow people to manage their own jobs as responsible human beings and to behave as though they were managing a business for themselves."

Mr. Pelletier is overseeing a new training and selection program that prepares employees to perform a variety of jobs, while work teams are given overall responsibility for certain whole jobs. There are no foremen or quality controllers at the Bromont plant. The $80 million plant turns out sophisticated aircraft engine parts that must meet exacting standards. This requires the best efforts of everyone involved. Money alone cannot buy that. As this management has discovered, it needs an entirely different approach.

However, Margot Gibb-Clark reports that the QWL method is not devoid of friction: "It is a system that can burn out managers and rob foremen of their authority. It creates almost inevitable conflict and doesn't necessarily improve productivity. Yet sometimes when it is well done, it works." It works at the Bromont plant. The determination to solve problems and meet challenges together has resulted in a rise in worker morale and substantial improvements in safety and production (Globe and Mail, October 3, 1987).

The change from an authoritative management style to a cooperative, open relationship between employer and employee requires a lot of hard work. Experienced consultants can facilitate this transition. One such adviser is Dr. Bill Westley, partner in a Montreal consulting firm. He says that it is especially hard for foremen to be persuaded that there is a better way than the old one. Foremen tend to suspect that any change will threaten their authority. Westley believes that foremen should be retained to become skilled at interpreting the reactions and even gestures of others.

According to Westley, sometimes the work itself needs to be redesigned to make the best use of both people and technology, and consultants can help. It's not much use to set up excellent work teams if they are forced to work with inferior methods and materials, so employees must be given the authority to deal with such problems. Workers must also be kept informed of their performance in terms of quality, waste, absenteeism, etc. "For participatory decision making to work in an organization, there must also be common goals, trust and cooperation" between management, workers and union, says Westley. Profit-sharing schemes, he suggests, are one way to foster shared goals. Westley cautions that internal politics can destroy worker morale, and stresses that for QWL to work, the system must be well designed and management must display a clear commitment to it (Globe and Mail, October 5, 1987).

It Is Done Differently At Volvo

"For a worker to feel involved with the product, he should be responsible for the work." (Volvo Plant Manager)

"I want the people in a team to be able to go home at night and really say, 'I built that car.' That is my dream." (Pehr Gyllenhammar, Chairman, Volvo)

A $315 million (U.S.) Volvo automobile plant now under construction in Uddevalla, Sweden, will be without the traditional mass-production assembly line. Instead, building on concepts pioneered at 13-year-old Kalmar plant, work teams will assemble a complete car on a movable platform that is supplied with parts as they are needed.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Volvo found it difficult to attract workers who cared about the product they were making. "It was clear we had to offer something besides pay," said Volvo Chairman, Pehr Gyllenhammar. Management redesigned the workplace to provide workers with more variety and responsibility and a voice in the company's affairs. Even the building itself—a hexagon—was designed to insure that all workers are near a window and daylight. According to reporter Steve Lohr, "Volvo has discovered that workers are much happier under the Kalmar approach. And that has resulted in sharply improved productivity and improvement in quality, as well as profits that are the envy of the world auto industry."

At the Kalmar plant, 20-member work teams assemble entire units (such as the engine or electrical system) of a car. Each worker is responsible for a series of tasks, rather than one repetitive task as on an assembly line, and learns several jobs to provide variety as well as flexibility. The work team approach means that problems can be spotted and corrected much more quickly than in the old method. At the Uddevalla plant, workers will enjoy even more variety in tasks, and work teams will assemble an entire car from start to finish. Even when the workpace is faster, 90 per cent of Volvo workers have said they prefer the new methods to the assembly line (Globe and Mail, August 20, 1987).

The Volvo experience once again underscores that labour and management are not necessarily adversaries and that both can benefit from cooperation and the sharing of responsibility. It is an example that should be imitated by many Canadian companies and their workers.

 

Harry Antonides came to Canada in 1948, initially working as a farm hand and railway labourer. After over a decade working in a chemical plant in Sarnia, Ontario, Harry joined the newly forming Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC) in 1962 as a field representative. By 1970 Harry became director of research and education. In 1974, he was a founding member of the Work Research Foundation (now Cardus) and publisher of their sole publication, Comment magazine. A prolific writer and dynamic speaker, Harry delivered lectures all over North America and published numerous articles, reviews, and essays. He is author of several books on Christianity, labour, and economics, including Multinationals and the Peacable Kingdom (1978) and Stones for Bread: The Social Gospel and its Contemporary Legacy (1985). Harry is retired and lives with his wife Janet in Willowdale, Ontario.

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