Many shops have undergone remarkable transformations since the scary times of the 1980s. They've made the investments not just in chip-making machines, but also in technical process improvements, systematic efficiency improvements, and perhaps most important, the broader and deeper utilization of their precious human resources. People have learned how to do more with less, and the companies they work for are much healthier for it.
But how are those people now coming to view their work? Four or five years ago they were grateful just to have a job; they are far beyond that now. And maybe it's time again for management to reexamine what's on the minds of workers in the middle and lower echelons of the organization.
Consider what they have been through in the last several years. Many companies, through the employment of team-building techniques often in combination with the virtual obliteration of their middle management, did indeed push responsibility down to the shop floor, but typically paid its recipients little or nothing more for it. To be sure, their gain did have an enfranchising, even intoxicating, effect on many shopfloor workers. But perhaps that motivational effect is fading with time.
Then there are the companies where the team-building rhetoric was followed by business as usual--where the promise of shared decision-making lubricated the path to a new order, but one in which workers felt little more influence than before. Even under the best intentions, the process of continuous improvement is difficult to sustain. Are the people who worked so hard to break out of the old modes settling into the new modes just the same?
And consider what is happening in workers' personal lives. Companies seldom think about quality of life beyond the work environment. While people may be grateful for manage-ment's efforts to make work a better place to be, most people I know feel like they've spent more time there than they'd like over the past several years. Their spouses have too.
Yes, we have achieved a lot. But it's risky to assume that the management methods that delivered us from the manufacturing crisis of the 1980s will sustain us in the future. Why not start thinking now about how to preempt worker dissatisfaction before it reaches a critical mass once again?