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Norman Bodek  |  10/27/2009

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Quality of Work Life: It’s More Than Wages and Benefits

Our products and services may be world class, but what kind of work environment are we giving our employees?

When I started Productivity Inc. Press in 1979, quality of work life (QWL) was a very popular symbol for American unionism. Unions wanted workers to have a quality of work life, however, I don’t believe they understood what quality of work life really meant. The unions wanted workers to have a very good salary, decent working conditions, good health, and retirement benefits. Unfortunately, they didn’t understand what really makes a quality of work life. Sure, the benefits are important; sure, giving the workers a decent wage was important; but quality of work life is much more.

Whenever I keynote a conference, I ask the attendees, “What is your favorite day of the week.” Almost everyone immediately says, “Friday.” Why Friday? What makes Friday so special? Obviously, Friday comes before the weekend and everyone looks forward to having the two days off. Why? Why don’t people get up each day excited about going to work? On Monday morning, why don’t they say TGIM (thank God it’s Monday)? What is missing at work that really represents quality of work life?

Look carefully and you will see that most work is not designed for people to use their brains and to use their ingenuity. Most work is boring, repetitious, and rarely are people asked to solve problems and to be creative at work. If you go back more than 100 years, you see skilled craftspeople who fully knew their entire craft from beginning to end. Then along comes Frederick Taylor and Henry Ford and the work process is redesigned and segmented for high productivity and high profits, but not for human beings.

Sure, we want to produce world-class products and deliver world-class services but we almost totally ignore making a world-class process from the people’s perspective. We don’t give our employees a world-class environment that is equal to our products and services. I’m amazed when I walk through factories in America and see the awful work environment: loud noise that requires people to wear earplugs instead of making the tools and the machines quiet, oil and grease on the floor instead of keeping the factory as clean as your office or your home. I am not living with my head in the sky; I’ve seen factories in Japan, especially Canon Corp., where noise, grease, and dirt are nonexistent.

A week ago, I keynoted an American Society for Quality audit conference and did not hear any of the attendees talk about auditing the quality of work life. They were concerned about ISO standards and the quality of the products and the quality of the services, but no one was looking at the conditions under which people work.

It is not complicated. It is not difficult. And in the long run it is not expensive to treat people with real respect.

Toyota has two pillars for their success: one is just-in-time (JIT) or lean and the other is “respect for people.” Respect for people means allowing people to use their intelligence, their brains, and their creativity, and empowering them to solve problems and to improve the working conditions around them. An empowered worker does not have to continually wait for management to tell her what to do. An empowered worker can identify the myriad of problems around him and come up with solutions to those problems and implement them on his own.

Last year, Autoliv in Ogden, Utah, received 63 ideas in writing from their employees. Just imagine how employees feel when they are asked to use their brains to solve problems found around their work area? Also imagine the millions of dollars Autoliv saves from those ideas. Toyota at one time received 70 ideas per worker. The average company in Japan receives 24 implemented ideas per worker, per year, and saves close to $4,000 per worker, per year. The curious question is why isn’t this system prevalent in America? Why aren’t you doing this?

I heard on the radio recently an interview with a former Ford Motor Co. factory worker who talked about his high wages but said that he hated his job because it was so boring. He left Ford and opened a dollar store, made a lot less money but was so much happier to be free to use his mind. American unionism for many years got what they wanted: higher wages and better benefits, but surely both the union and the workers lost out.

I don’t believe the “game is over.” I’m sure we can once again be internationally competitive if we can only open the American work force to their maximum capability and open them to their creative potential. This can happen once American management stops and rethinks and revalues the talent inherent in the American worker.

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About The Author

Norman Bodek’s default image

Norman Bodek

Norman Bodek is president of PCS Press and the author of The Idea Generator: Quick and Easy Kaizen, written with Bunji Tozawa (2001), Kaikaku: The Power and Magic of Lean (2004), and most recently, All You Gotta Do Is Ask, written with Chuck Yorke (2005), all published by PCS Press. His latest book, How to Do Kaizen: A new path to innovation, is due out November 2009.

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