Ask the CHO: Motivation for production workers?

HappinessAs I wrote about previously, my post on motivation was translated into Chinese by Robin at lifebang.com. Even the diagram is in Chinese :o)

Robin then emailed me with the following question:

From my point of view, your thinking about the motivation is exactly what I am seeking in my job. I believe that most of the companies using the false ways for motivation is also true in China. To understand the need of their employee costs much more effort of managers. Managers are human so they tend to use the most simply ways even they only work in short term.

Someone left a comment on the post and mentioned that the positive and intrinsic way for motivation is more suitable for brain intensive work than labor intensive work. What do you think of it?

That is a great question. Is motivation only for creative types and less suitable for blue collar workers? Let me tell you a story.

Solange de Santis is a journalist who’d never held a blue collar job in her life. She wondered what it would be like, so she took a job as a factory worker at a GM van plant. For a year and a half! Now that’s commitment.

She wrote about her experience in the excellent book Life on the Line and the major lesson I take from that book, is that the stereotypical view of factory workers as wage slaves is dead wrong.

Many of the people she met at the plant were dedicated, hard working, highly skilled and creative. But the way they worked offered them no opportunity to use those sides of themselves. They were locked in a tight battle between management and unions that actually had them cheering whenever mistakes caused production to stop, giving them an unexpected break. This is not what they’re naturally like – it’s a reaction instilled in them by an inhuman system.

If the company had listened to these people, it would have discovered that they’re innovative, skilled individuals that have many ideas to offer to make production more efficient. But as things are, they end up using all their considerable creativity to cut corners and cheat the system instead.

American Airlines discovered this a while back:

Two mechanics didn’t like having to toss out $200 drill bits once they got dull. So they rigged up some old machine parts – a vacuum-cleaner belt and a motor from a science project – and built “Thumping Ralph.? It’s essentially a drill-bit sharpener that allows them to get more use out of each bit. The savings, according to the company: as much as $300,000 a year.

Another organization that gets this right, is the Brazilian company Semco which has a large proportion of blue collar workers. They give their workers an unusually large degree of freedom and responsibility, including letting them plan production, set their own work hours and choose the sites and designs for the factories they work in. As a result they’re very profitable, workers regularly develop and implement ideas for new products or for improving existing processes and annual employee turnover hovers around 1%. You can read more about Semco in the excellent book The Seven-Day Weekend.

So just to make it perfectly clear, my point is that:

  1. Blue collar workers shouldn’t be treated as mere wage slaves – they can be motivated and happy at work.
  2. When they are, the company can expect higher productivity, more innovation, higher quality and better worker relations. In short, the company will make more money!

How does that sound? What is your experience? Do you agree that production workers can be motivated and happy and that this makes a difference to the bottom line?

7 thoughts on “Ask the CHO: Motivation for production workers?”

  1. I have a strange feeling that the readership here is self selected “tech workers” based on this being 1) on the interweb 2) a blog. Perhaps this topic will be hard to find knowledgeable people to discuss online…

    My value add: in an auto repair shop I know there are two bosses. One of them is a somewhat traditional “I nag people until they get the work done” kind of person. The other is a Happy boss – he treats his employees with respect and compassion.

    The structural environment is the same: employees are incentivized to get more work done via a “pay per profit” system that pays more based on the profit that the mechanics can squeeze into a week. But the “nag” boss is always jealous of BOTH the loyalty/happiness of the employees of the happy boss AND the profitability that the happy boss gets. The “nag boss” even frequently says “I don’t know what he does, he’s so slow, never gets on people’s cases to work hard, he gets better profits and his employees would follow him to the end of the earth. So, from that anecdote I think your idea is applicable outside of the “desk working paper pushers” but that’s just one example from one industry.

  2. Thanks for the great story greggles – it shows that these motivational techniques have an application for non-desk-jockeys also.

    And really… why wouldn’t they?

  3. All people are inherently creative and are geniuses. They should be able to express these traits no matter what position they hold in a company.

  4. Pingback: Anonymous
  5. Theo: Yes. Especially if we treat them as such. If we treat them as uninspired, cynical wage slaves, then very often that’s what they become. Those that stick around.

  6. here is the case study if you don’t have it already:
    A textile factory Near Town X has problem of high labor turnover. The department concerned has a work that was unskilled and monotonous. the noise from the machines made conversation impossible.
    The laborers are expected without work.
    1)What would you do to motivate workers if you were the manager of the department?
    2) What would you advice to reduce turnover and increase productivity?
    or shortly
    1.Problem Identification
    2.The Cost of High Labor Turnover
    3.Identification of Root Causes to the Problem
    4.The Solution Space to the Problem

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