Sie sind auf Seite 1von 17

New Technology, Work and Employment 17:2 ISSN 0268-1072

Employee empowerment in manufacturing: a study of organisations in the UK


Anna Psoinos and Steve Smithson*
Based on a postal survey and interviews, this paper analyses employee empowerment in the UK manufacturing industry, including how it is pursued and perceived, and the key factors that determine success. Success seems to depend on far-reaching changes in procedures, hierarchies and reward structures. This need to mobilise individual agents and structure reconrms the agency-structure duality.

Introduction
Empowerment has come to be widely regarded as a potentially effective way to manage organisations (Blanchard et al., 1996; Bowen and Lawler, 1992; Byham and Cox, 1991; Mills, 1995). Employee empowerment and involvementas it was known in the 1970s and 1980shas been a topic of recurring interest in management, particularly in manufacturing (Batstone, 1984; Marchington et al., 1993; Millward et al., 1992; Wilkinson, 1998). Detailed discussions can be found in the work of many authors, including Eccles (1993) and Claydon and Doyle (1996). Although empowerment is by no means new, managerial practices and discourses have changed signicantly over the last three decades. As economic contexts and management concerns change, these ideas evolve with them. Global competition (Lawler et al., 1992) and the turbulent business environment (Scott Morton, 1991) have put pressure on companies to constantly improve efciency and performance. This pressure has raised concerns regarding: effectiveness of the organisational structure and processes; cost control; exibility and speed of response to market demands; quality improvement.

* Correspondence concerning this paper should be sent to Steve Smithson Anna Psoinos is at Datamedia SA Information Systems, Athens, Greece and Steve Smithson is at Information Systems Department, London School of Economics & Political Science, Houghton Street, London WC2A 2AE, UK.
Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2002, 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JF, UK and 350 Main St., Malden, MA 02148, USA.

132 New Technology, Work and Employment

These concerns are all indirectly related to empowerment. Many companies have addressed process effectiveness through business process re-engineering (BPR), whose fathers, Hammer and Champy, argue that processes cant be re-engineered without empowering process workers (Hammer and Champy, 1993: 71). A common approach to cutting overheads involves reducing layers of management (Dopson and Stewart, 1993), resulting in delegating responsibility to low-level staff (Klose, 1993; Lawler et al., 1992; Mishra and Spreitzer, 1998). Similarly, the demand for exibility and speed of response has led to decentralisation and hence the empowerment of lower-level managers and staff (Kanter, 1984). The drive for improved quality has led to total quality management (TQM) (Deming, 1986; Juran, 1989), involving the introduction of quality circles, problem-solving teams, and autonomous work groups (McArdle et al., 1995). However, Argyris (1998) claims that, despite all the attention and effort, empowerment has not delivered the promised benets and still remains mostly an illusion. This failure is attributed to the traditional management systems and their contradictions with the philosophy of empowerment. Claydon and Doyle (1996) argue that empowerment seems to be more of a myth rather than a reality. From an analysis of the 1995 Australian Workplace Industrial Relations Survey, Harley (1999) nds no evidence of increased employee autonomy from empowerment schemes. He argues that any remaining hierarchy limits the extent to which management can give away power. Accordingly we decided to investigate the practice of empowerment in UK manufacturing organisations. One arm of this study, concerning the relationship of empowerment and information systems, is published elsewhere (Psoinos et al., 2000). This paper concentrates on the current practice of empowerment itself. Our focus is an extensive programme of eld research that collected empirical data through a postal survey and a series of in-depth interviews in selected companies. We focused on manufacturing organisations because their empowerment practices seem to be more common, and the impact stronger, than in service rms (Bowen and Lawler, 1992; 1995). Also they have more experience in empowerment (Lawler et al., 1992). While the harsh trading conditions apply generally, arguably manufacturing companies have undergone greater technological change and have had to focus more on the work content of employees and their well-being. This is related to the increasing adoption of advanced manufacturing technologies (Siegel et al., 1997). This has resulted in a considerable literature in the area (Edwards, 1989; Shani et al. 1992; Siegel et al., 1997). Despite certain benets (Zuboff, 1988), the shopoor reality is often still hard and inhuman. Therefore manufacturing rms might be more likely to consider the quality of working life in any rationale for empowerment. We begin with a critical review of the theory and practice of empowerment, based on the literature. After a brief description of the research methods followed, we present the ndings from the survey and the in-depth interviews. These are analysed to derive the reasons for the adoption of empowerment, its implications for employees, the perceived success of these initiatives and some critical facilitators and constraints. To conclude, the paper puts forward some implications for practice and outlines its main contributions.

Critical review of the empowerment literature


While it is easy to offer empowerment as a panacea for organisations performance problems, the concept does have various problems, both theoretically and in practice. Much of the popular literature is limited to descriptions of success stories and recipes of how to get there. This is exacerbated by the fragmented and diverse approach to implementation followed by many organisations in practice. We believe that both constitute major problems in the study and development of empowerment. Like many other everyday terms, empowerment is deceptively complex theoretically. Researchers such as Conger and Kanungo (1988), Mondros and Wilson (1994),
Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2002.

Employee empowerment in manufacturing

133

Mullender and Ward (1991), and Russ and Millam (1995) argue that the term is often used rhetorically, and has rarely been dened clearly. While employees may be empowered, according to some objective criteria, for various reasons (cultural, inappropriate comparisons with other staff) they might not feel empowered (Conger and Kanungo, 1988). On the other hand, management rhetoric may be so effective that employees perceive themselves to be empowered, yet this may not match external criteria. Some denitions of empowerment emphasise the transfer of responsibility and decision making authority (e.g. Peiperl, 1996). Others take a motivational approach, placing emphasis on perceptions and beliefs of power and competence (Harley, 1999; Klose, 1993; Mondros and Wilson, 1994), and control and self-efcacy (Conger and Kanungo, 1988; Parker and Price, 1994). Wilkinson (1998) identies ve types of empowerment: information sharing, upward problem solving, task autonomy, attitudinal shaping, and self-management. It is also unclear whether empowerment has to come from within the individual, or whether the organisation can indeed empower its employees. Most companies approach empowerment through an organisational change initiative which alters various procedures and responsibilities and urges employees to be more innovative, more responsible and so on. Thus, although empowerment may be proclaimed to come from within, companies often encourage it from the outside. Bowen and Lawler (1995) emphasise the need for high-involvement practices that create in employees an empowered state of mind, while Argyris (1998, 2000) stresses internal commitment and personal employee reasons and motivations. This issue is closely related to the dichotomy between structure and agency (Giddens, 1984). The third conceptual issue is whether there is a difference between participation, involvement and empowerment. It has been argued that empowerment has evolved from industrial democracy through participation and involvement (Batstone, 1984; Marchington et al., 1993; Wilkinson, 1998). However, these terms are often used interchangeably (see e.g., Lawler et al., 1992; Marchington et al., 1993; Millward et al., 1992). This confusion could be responsible for certain empowerment failures (Fantasia et al., 1988; Ogden, 1992; Wagner, 1994). We would argue that the major difference between these concepts is related to the transfer of decision-making authority. Whereas in both involvement and participation, management retains control, in empowerment employees haveat least to some degreeauthority to make and implement their own decisions. The conceptual problems are exacerbated when we consider the practice of empowerment. While it is frequently seen as a key ingredient of success for TQM or BPR programmes (Lawler et al., 1992), such programmes aim primarily at efciency, effectiveness and cost reduction, treating empowerment instrumentally. In such cases, empowerment becomes an empty rhetoric or a fortunate by-product. There are claims that TQMs job redesign often results in tightly controlled, simplied work and allows limited discretion to the employee (Bowen and Lawler, 1995). Crosby (1979) argues that quality management can only be effective if it starts at the top and then senior managers and supervisors orient employees; all employees have to do to solve quality problems is list the problem; the appropriate functional group will develop the answer (Crosby, 1979: 117). More recently, Powell (1995) proclaims that tacit, behavioural features such as open culture, employee empowerment and executive commitment drive TQM success, whereas Randeniya et al. (1995) identify empowerment as a leading cause of the failure of TQM. Similar inconsistencies have been highlighted with empowerment and BPR (Willmott, 1995; Boudreau and Robey, 1996). Hammer and Champy (1993) claim that BPR changes peoples roles, from controlled to empowered. As teams assume more responsibility, they must also be given the authority to make decisions. However, this does not easily t with BPRs emphasis on leadership, the key role of senior managers, and its top-down approach (Jones, 1994). In a review of BPR practices in Britain, few organisations attempted changes in organisational culture or work design (Childe et al., 1996). In its original meaning, to empower means to authorise, give power to (Tulloch, 134 New Technology, Work and Employment
Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2002.

1993) and accordingly, we argue that central to the concept of empowerment, is the delegation of power to staff to make and implement decisions. These decisionmaking responsibilities range from task execution to task design. Thus, employees assume more authority to control the coordinating, allocative, improving and control functions associated with their tasks. By dening empowerment as the decentralisation of decision-making authority we can capture the broader changes that are necessary for empowerment to be something more than rhetoric.

Research methods
We decided to adopt a mixed method research design (Gallivan, 1997), undertaking both a large-scale exploratory postal survey and a number of case-study interviews. The value of combining qualitative and quantitative methods has often been highlighted (Attewell and Rule, 1991; Giddens, 1984; Jick, 1979; Robey, 1994, Hartwick and Barki, 1994). Kraemer (1991) argues that survey research is enhanced when used with other qualitative methods. Surveys are essentially snapshots at a particular point in time, which yield little insight into the causes or processes behind the phenomena (Gable, 1994). The in-depth interviews provided us with rich insights into precisely these dimensions. Interpreting empowerment as the decentralisation of decision-making authority, as opposed to employees subjective feelings of autonomy, we decided to survey managers. Thus, the survey was addressed to the Personnel and Human Resource managers of the top 450 manufacturing companies in the UK. The questionnaire addressed changes in work organization, employee empowerment, and information systems in empowerment. The mailing list was selected from the Times 1000 and the Financial Times UK 500 companies. An overall response rate of 29.8 per cent was achieved, with a 23 per cent rate for usable questionnaires. Following the survey, interviews were undertaken in 17 companies that responded to the survey. Selection was based on the information provided in the questionnaires. We also aimed to include a wide range of products and manufacturing processes (process and discrete) in order to encompass different manifestations of empowerment. A semi-structured interview protocol was used with many openended questions. The interviews were scheduled for one hour but often lasted up to two hours. All the interviews were tape-recorded, transcribed and sent to the interviewees for verication. We then developed a higher level of abstraction and interpretation by applying the precepts of intentional analysis to the transcripts (Sanders, 1982). Particular attention was paid to seeking supporting documentation such as internal memos, documents and presentations, press articles and public annual reports. This allowed us to form a qualitative, interpretative approach (Walsham, 1995). Table 1 presents a summary of the companies interviewed. Respecting their requests for anonymity, all names have been removed.

Presentation of empirical ndings


Findings of the exploratory postal survey Changes in work organisation The responding companies appeared to be very active in improving their organisation of work;1 an impressive 88.3 per cent (91 companies out of the total 103) claimed to have introduced various change initiatives. The most popular approach was TQM (adopted by 63.1 per cent of respondents), followed by delayering (55.3 per cent),
1 In generalising from the results of the survey, particular attention needs to be paid to the inherent bias: the companies that returned the questionnaires are more likely to be pursuing empowerment. Therefore the results cannot be generalised to the entire UK manufacturing population.

Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2002.

Employee empowerment in manufacturing

135

Table 1: Overview of companies interviewed Company Annual turnover ( millions) 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17. 350 370 590 800 300 6000 3000 4100 180 9000 1300 470 N/A 4000 80 3600 5600 No. of UK sites 2 11 4 1 3 4 1 2 1 50 20 3 1 3 10 3 7 No. of employees (UK) 3500 (w/w) 2200 2800 2000 2000 30000 20000 8500 724 22000 10800 (w/w) 4300 2500 39000 1500 3900 7500 Main product lines Health science Building materials FMCG Electronics Electrical products; engin. materials Automotive Aerospace Automotive Commercial vehicles FMCG, chemicals, detergents Cables FMCG Automotive Automotive Engineering components Oil Pharmaceuticals

downsizing (52.4 per cent) and BPR (41.75 per cent). The question permitted multiple responses. These initiatives involved various changes, depicted in Figure 1. A considerable number of respondents (68 per cent) had delegated managerial decision making responsibilities to lower level staff. Figure 2 shows the respondents ranking of the reasons for the introduction of the change initiatives. The population comprises the 91 companies that adopted changes (100 per cent = 91). There was no signicant relationship between the type of change initiative and the reasons for its introduction. We could therefore reasonably assume that the most important concerns (quality, productivity, exibility, cost reduction) are common to all initiatives. In 68 of the 91 companies (74.7 per cent) that adopted a change initiative, layers of management were removed as part of the change. Regarding empowerment, in 79 companies out of the 91 (86.8 per cent), the change initiative resulted in some employee empowerment. Of the other twelve companies,

Figure 1. Changes in the organisation of work where: A = delegation of managerial decision making responsibilities; B = organisational restructuring based on business processes; C = integration of indirect with direct work; D = set-up autonomous or semi-autonomous teams; E = task reorganisation based on whole, identiable pieces of work; F = job enlargement; G = job rotation 136 New Technology, Work and Employment
Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2002.

Figure 2. Reasons for the introduction of a change initiative where: A = to improve quality; B = to increase productivity; C = to increase exibility; D = to reduce costs; E = to increase staff commitment to company goals; F = to improve employee skills; G = to improve employee job satisfaction and motivation; H = due to the introduction of advanced manufacturing technologies; I = to take advantage of new information technologies; J = to increase worker autonomy three claimed that the company is already sufciently decentralised and three admitted that their attempts at empowerment had failed. The most important constraint in the introduction of empowerment, according to these twelve companies is organisational culture (57.1 per cent). In the 79 companies where some empowerment took place, empowerment does not seem to be related to the type or stage of the change initiative. This suggests that empowerment does not come about with time; either the change brings about empowerment when it is implemented or not. On the contrary, whether the change results in empowerment does seem to be associated with the reasons for its introduction; the change is more likely to result in empowerment if: the desire to improve employee job satisfaction and motivation was a reason for change (the hypothesis that they are independent is rejected with a chi-square value of 8.509 and observed signicance level 0.014) it involves the delegation of managerial decision making responsibilities (chisquare = 9.48 and signicance = 0.002), or it involves job enlargement (chi-square = 4.659 and signicance = 0.03) or job rotation (Pearson = 5.325 and signicance = 0.021).

Employee empowerment Analysing the responses of the 79 companies that introduced empowerment, the most frequent changes in employee responsibilities concern quality responsibilities and problem solving and/or improvements (see Figure 3). This shows that empowerment in practice normally signies the encouragement of employees to look for improvements and solve problems (94.9 per cent) and additional quality responsibilities (91.14 per cent). The most common examples of delegated decisions were the allocation of persons to jobs and shifts (32.4 per cent), quality control responsibilities

Figure 3. Changes in employee responsibilities where: A = improvements, problem solving; B = quality responsibilities; C = planning and scheduling of their work; D = equipment maintenance and repair; E = sharing of team leadership responsibilities; F = supplier and external customer management; G = product modication and development decisions; H = no change in responsibilities; I = hiring and ring personnel decisions
Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2002.

Employee empowerment in manufacturing

137

Figure 4. Empowerment success

(27.9 per cent), production and maintenance scheduling (25 per cent) and plant modications and/or improvements (25 per cent). Furthermore, the impact of empowerment seems to be widespread, strongly affecting people (skills, job satisfaction, etc.) (71.8 per cent), organisational culture (65.4 per cent), tasks and procedures (56.4 per cent), and organisational structure (43.6 per cent). Regarding the success of empowerment, Figure 4 demonstrates the distribution of the subjective rankings (010 with 10 as very successful) that respondents gave to the success of empowerment in their company. Classifying rankings 04 as unsuccessful and 59 as successful suggests that in 24.1 per cent of the 79 companies empowerment is seen as unsuccessful, in 58.2 per cent it is successful. In addition, 17.7 per cent felt that it was too soon to tell or that data was unavailable. We attempted to trace factors that might be critical for success. There is no signicant relationship between age of the change initiative and empowerment success. Although not statistically signicant, it seems that BPR and downsizing are more successful than the overall average, whereas delayering demonstrates less success (ratio of 0.5). Empowerment success was found to be related to job enlargement (chi square = 4.624 and signicance = 0.03) and job rotation (chi square = 4.508 and signicance = 0.03). Figure 5 demonstrates the factors that inuence the successful outcome of empowerment, according to the respondents. The most common constraints are: the traditional division of tasks (76.7 per cent), hierarchical management structure (75.3 per cent), demarcation of status and skills (67.1 per cent), organisational culture (50.7 per cent), middle management (50 per cent) and the complexity and rigidity of the production system (46.3 per cent). However, culture and middle management are also ranked as important facilitators (46.7 per cent and 38.9 per cent respectively) together with employee skills (54.8 per cent) and decision making capability of staff (48 per cent). Interestingly 52.7 per cent of respondents regard computer-based information systems as facilitating empowerment while only 13.5 per cent see them as constraints.

Figure 5. Factors affecting empowerment success where: A = traditional division of tasks; B = hierarchical management structure; C = status and skills demarcation; D = organisational culture; E = middle management; F = complexity and rigidity of the production system; G = decision-making capability of staff; H = employee skills; I = trade unions; J = high investment in existing production technology; K = computer-based information systems; L = short work cycle; M = highly automated production system 138 New Technology, Work and Employment
Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2002.

In-depth interviews The survey revealed a broad range of approaches to empowerment but, as expected, the results failed to provide sufciently rich contextual data to explain the organisational situation. The interview data, described in this section, puts some esh on the bald statistics of the survey. Change initiatives and empowerment For most of the companies, empowerment came about as a result of a business change programme, such as BPR, TQM, downsizing or delayering. Empowerment is proclaimed as an inherent part of continuous improvement (TQM), in contrast to the Taylorist model where somebody else decides the best way to perform a task. Now, employees are seen as the ones that know their roles best and are asked to suggest new ways of performing a task.
I think empowerment to [this company] is actually giving employees exibility and the room to manoeuvre, to actually do their job and to do their job to a high standard. Its about providing them with the right training, providing them with the right skills and the right tools to actually look at their job and see how theyre doing their job, and are they doing their job in the best way. And giving them scope to actually make decisions and have some impact on what theyre doing (Personnel Manager, FMCG manufacturer).

However, it seems that the impact is bounded by the denition of an employees job:
. . . that doesnt mean to say that everybody can do what they like. Youve got to have a process to say yes, this is a good idea, and you put it in, in a way that enables you to control the changes (Personnel Manager, car manufacturer).

Also, in traditional production lines workers may not have any space to make decisions or think about how to do things as the line keeps rolling:
So around TQM we built concepts of cell teams in assembly areas, which is actually quite difcult in car assembly because an assembly line is a long beast and in effect the assembly line drives the work, it is actually very difcult for a local, small group within that line to make signicant differences to their work performance (IT Strategy Manager, car manufacturer).

Although the emphasis on quality and continuous improvement is dependent on employees developing a sense of ownership of their job, in everyday operations employee decision making ability and involvement in broader issues is often limited. However, in one company:
A group of operators put together a capital approval request, and then presented that to the vicepresident for Operations. So, rather than that being a management task, there are groups of operators around the business whove acquired those skills and have stood up in front of a couple of hundred of their colleagues, presented a business case for improvement, and secured capital investment approval (HR manager, FMCG manufacturer).

In many companies empowerment has come as a result of downsizing and delayering and improved efciencies. With fewer managers and employees on site, the remaining staff have to take on more responsibilities:
Before these redundancies there were seven layers of management. [. . .] From the shopoor, through the leading hands, the charge hands, foremen and all that sort of thing, all the way up to the manager, there were seven levels. Now theres just two. [. . .] So theres short reporting lines and obviously a lot of empowerment on the shop-oor (Personnel Manager, electrical products).

However, in a climate of downsizing and delayering, empowerment requires strong support and encouragement:
if were going to run businesses with shallow hierarchies, relatively few people, then those few people need to be highly-skilled, well-trained, well-motivated and thoroughly involved in the business. And so weve deliberately set out to, to deal with those things (National Manager, FMCG manufacturer).
Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2002.

Employee empowerment in manufacturing

139

In stark contrast, another company reports:


[. . .] morale is, I wouldnt say its completely demoralised but its pretty quiet at the moment, pretty low. Theres a lot of people working here who know theyre going to be made redundant during the course of the next year. [. . .] I think it [empowerment] has been forced upon people actually (Personnel Manager, electrical products).

Teamworking and empowerment One company developed a comprehensive approach to empowerment through selfmanaged work groups. The setting up of a new business in a new building presented an opportunity for teams to determine totally their work. The 3040 production operators with one manager were given the business requirements and they decided how they wanted to go about it. They designed their own shopoor areas and work organisation, and they decide their own workloads in terms of schedules and shifts, overnight, and weekend work. This was less easy in other parts of the company, where signicant changes were needed to the organisational structure. In one area, the new shopoor teams were incompatible with the functional management hierarchy and so the management group is now becoming a team too. The move towards self-managed teams cannot be isolated to only some elements of the organisation and has repercussions throughout the company (e.g. training content). The need to reect empowerment also made managers rethink the certication procedure:
and we have had a process in the past where weve assessed that person to say they are competent. When you bring in empowerment you start saying now what are the values of empowerment, who owns empowerment? All of a sudden youve got something which is actually internally owned by individuals. Is that in keeping with the system where in fact youre judging them from the outside? Well perhaps no, if we really mean empowerment we shouldnt be assessing from outside we should be allowing the individuals to self-assess and see what the requirements are of them [. . .] but they actually make the assessment of whether theyre there or not, because they own it (HR Manager, electronics manufacturer).

Within BPR, empowerment is seen as pushing decision-making down the organisation, with employees taking ownership of their part of the process. Speed of reaction and exibility to the market drove a large car manufacturer to redesign their order process. They decided to manufacture directly to order and not to maintain stock at dealers, but this meant a lack of a stable detailed production plan, since they could not know what the customer is going to order.
So you have to be very responsive all the way through the process and you cant do that centrally. You actually need to have people in the business empowered to take local decisions about local needs to get that exibility. So youre moving away from heavily centralised planning to distributed decision making (IT Strategy Manager, car manufacturer).

In most car assembly lines, centralised scheduling means that cars and their contents are determined at the start of the line and workers do not take decisions. In order to reduce delivery time, car companies are now launching cars down the line without being completely sure about their content. Thus although, for example, a sunroof has to be determined at the outset, decisions regarding accessories (e.g. radio) can be made further down the line. Operators decide which radio to t based on the customer order but they must also ensure that such parts are available. These issues introduce signicant decision making to production lines. A car manufacturing plant had been plagued by poor industrial relations throughout the 1970s and 1980s and hence had not been allowed to bid for new investment. In 1989 the site was given the opportunity to bid for a new engine shop, as long as they came up with a new employee agreement. The new investment was critical for the survival of the plant and an agreement was negotiated with the trade union. This agreement introduced team working and employee involvement ideas for the rst time. These were the rst steps in an unintentional process that has culminated in considerable empowerment for the workforce:
maybe we didnt completely understand what we were doing ourselves, to be quite honest, as regards empowering people, and how it would open the door to the involvement of the employees (Personnel Manager, car manufacturer).

140 New Technology, Work and Employment

Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2002.

The process was very difcult initially:


we were talking about, at that time, being here for 25, 26 years and having to turn over decision making to existing employees, who wed ignored. So to start with they werent very impressed about teams and thought that nothing would change. But gradually it has done (Personnel Manager, car manufacturer).

The changes in work practices included the introduction of teamwork, with hourlypaid team leaders, the removal of levels of supervision, and the delegation of supervisory responsibilities to teams. The change process dramatically improved the plants performance and the plant has become a key part of the parent company. In other companies empowerment may also have an unintentional and emergent character, depending upon specic structural and procedural factors (e.g. a decentralised organisational structure, autonomous business units, etc.).
Nobody specically set out to introduce empowerment. Empowerment has happened usually where youve got some better managers who have taken the opportunity whatever changes have come in, to create that and have got payback because of the empowered staff. So the opportunities are probably open to far more managers than those that have actually made it happen, but there hasnt been if you like a coordinated campaign to introduce empowerment (Personnel Manager, aerospace company).

The results in these cases are mixed and in general one should be sceptical of such circumstances being able to produce much in the way of empowerment. Similarly, we found evidence of both completely independent change initiatives within one single company, as well as a series of changes resulting from a coordinated business review. Also, while some companies use a top-down approach, ensuring senior management commitment, others dismiss formal change programmes as ineffective.
It is always most successful if it comes from the divisional managers [bottom-up] (IT Manager, engineering company),

Whereas in another company:


there was certainly no formal programme that launched anything. My experience is those things are not sustainable, are seen as gimmicks, so there was effectively a very slow kick off to this process (HR Manager, FMCG manufacturer).

Changes in work practices of lower level employees Although the various initiatives tend to give a slightly different twist to empowerment, in essence they involve similar basic principles. Employees usually have broader tasks and responsibilities, they have more control over their work and they are called to continually try to improve their part of the process:
But really the most constructive step was to get beyond the management levels in the organisation to the people who actually do the work, giving them much greater autonomy than they ever had in the past for inuencing their own work environment [and] managing their own work processes (HR Manager, health science company).

Employees jobs have become signicantly broader, moving from single, narrow tasks to multiple tasks and responsibilities, linked to broader business goals. In many respects, employees are much more responsible for managing themselves:
We dont really have foremen any longer in the old-fashioned sense. So there arent hordes of people waiting to be told what to do (National Manager, FMCG manufacturer).

In many companies, shopoor employees are responsible for their own production, for obtaining parts and reducing stock levels. Many companies communicate the business vision to employees and encourage them to drive quality, efciency and cost improvements. Employees are often now better informed about the business as a whole, so that they can see where they can contribute. Team leaders have assumed tasks that were traditionally the responsibility of supervisors, like balancing workload, replacing absentees and ensuring team members understand the days task.
Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2002.

Employee empowerment in manufacturing

141

Supervisors can concentrate on planning, while quality responsibilities are delegated to team members, including self-inspection and problem solving. There were some interesting changes, where particular tasks had been shifted from salaried engineers to hourly-paid operators. In developing a new model, the maintenance personnel in a car manufacturer get closely involved at the planning stage of the new shopoor equipment, well before its introduction. In this way, these coordinators can help the equipment manufacturers to design equipment that is easier to use or maintain.
Weve got to the stage that, because theyre so competent, you know, they are making decisions which in the past would have been made by quite senior engineers. . . . in the past there would have never been a time when an hourly-paid guy would represent [our company] with a supplier. . . . And now we just feel comfortable with that particular hourly-paid girl, being our representative with the manufacturer, if its to talk about a decision of new equipment (Personnel Manager, car manufacturer).

While these additional responsibilities seem to make jobs more interesting, they clearly put more pressure on employees. Effects of empowerment on the organisation As expected, the promotion of empowerment affected other elements of the organisation apart from just employees tasks and responsibilities. Wherever organisational properties remain in their previous form, they are likely to constrain empowerment.
But its the boundary setting bit, they [teams] dont have total freedom. So if the managers or the people that are looking after the rest of the system arent reviewing what that is like and what empowerment values mean for that, then you can actually end up with it in conict (HR Manager, electronics manufacturer).

In such cases, empowerment is unlikely to become ingrained. The most successful adoptions of empowerment have entailed signicant changes in all parts of the organisation:
and when I say, change the whole way we worked, that meant changing pay systems, meant changing organisations, meant changing attitudes, and meant changing management style, it meant changing communication processes. It meant changing health and safety systems. It meant changing everything in the company. So its a very, very dramatic change (Personnel Director, commercial vehicle manufacturer). If our base view is that people should have big jobs with lots of scope, lots of opportunity to manage their own situation, then clearly the structure in which we allocate accountabilities and responsibilities, the management structure needs to change to reect that philosophy. So we have certainly altered our management structure (HR Manager, FMCG manufacturer).

Empowerment also affects recruitment policies as companies may want to hire a different type of employee. Furthermore, it affects established procedures and hierarchies. In many cases, employees have been given authority to approve expenses up to a certain level and the budgeting procedure has to be amended accordingly. One company that introduced cell teams on the shopoor had to thoroughly redesign their grading structures, while another had difculties with demarcation issues. In one plant of a food manufacturer all shopoor employees are now salaried, no payments are made for overtime and the reward procedures were adjusted to support empowerment.

The success of empowerment?


One key issue is to gauge how successful empowerment schemes have been to date and to identify factors that inuence that success. We provided above the respondents overall perception of success, which was relatively positive. However, a deeper examination involves consideration of empowerments acceptance by the workforce, measurement issues and success factors. 142 New Technology, Work and Employment
Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2002.

We found little evidence of staff resistance, assuming that the empowerment initiative is promoted seriously and consistently:
I think employees, once they realise that this isnt actually a ve-minute wonder, that actually were talking about [. . .] the way we want our employees to operate, then people dont turn down the opportunity to actually put up suggestions about their job, or look at their job and how they want to change things (Personnel Manager, FMCG manufacturer). but it took quite a long time for them [employees] to recognise that we meant it, and that something was going to change. [. . .] And weve got to be consistent from a management point of view and not consider it just to be the avour of the month, which, weve had that before. . . . So what were trying to do is build a sort of process that will withstand changes at the top. And if there are future changes, we wont be changing course signicantly (Personnel Manager, car manufacturer).

Regarding the measurement of success, most respondents quoted business performance measures, such as prots, sales, volumes, customer satisfaction, response times to customers and delivery levels. More detailed indicators such as the number of hours necessary to assemble a product, the quality of the product, accuracy rates in terms of invoices sent out and so on, were also used. Although these do not precisely measure empowerment success, they do suggest improved employee performance:
If you focus on quality [. . .] bearing in mind that a car has probably got 4,000 part numbers and the opportunity that there is of producing a bad-quality vehicle, you cant just get good quality built into a vehicle, just by telling people that you want good quality. Youve got to get their understanding and support (Personnel Manager, car manufacturer).

A number of more specic, employee-related measures such as absence and turnover rates are used to capture how people are reacting to empowerment. Investor In People (IIP) awards are frequently quoted as an indirect indicator of the companys commitment to the development in employee skills.
So its not an accident that we now have in the UK 32 Investors in People Awards. Its no accident that most of our businesses now have had ISO 9000 quality awards for several years. The importance of those things to this topic [. . .], is that they all feed off each other. You cant become an Investor in People plant without involving everybody, making sure that the basic systems are working (National Manager, FMCG manufacturer).

Other organisational changes imply that empowerment is progressing. Spans of control have increased dramatically and changes are also visible in grading and job evaluation exercises:
I am responsible for grading and theyll come to me and theyll say this job has changed, this persons now doing this, theyre now doing this, theyre now doing this, and Im thinking, my God I know where the job was six months ago, and this is now what theyre doing (Personnel Manager, FMCG manufacturer).

Softer changes in employee attitudes are also used as an indicator:


one of the big changes that Ive seen over the years, people used to say, well if you want me to do that, youd better come along with your wallet, and well talk about it. They dont talk that way now. People are hungry to take on additional responsibility, hungry to do it (Personnel Manager, car manufacturer).

However, the need for objective measures may be questionable after all:
we dont have the measures to actually measure the extent of empowerment. [. . .] So I could put some surrogates in there to say because of these things we have some sort of measure, but really what we are after is behaviour and action, arent we? (HR Manager, electronics manufacturer).

Based on their experience, the interviewees noted various factors as facilitating or constraining empowerment. The most important constraints seem to revolve around the attitudes of managers and the established hierarchies and procedures. Many companies noted that managers posed signicant difculties, either due to a failure of the company to guide them through to the new situation or due to their own personal reluctance to relinquish control:
Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2002.

Employee empowerment in manufacturing

143

I think that one of the biggest problems of empowerment is senior management letting go [. . .] And if there was a criticism of management here, is that we have not sort of devolved enough, quickly enough (IT Strategy Manager, car manufacturer).

The difculties with managers do not simply apply to the senior levels though; middle managers and supervisors are threatened by the institutionalisation of the team leader who appears to assume many of their traditional responsibilities:
one of the problems of course of focusing on the team leader is the change in the role of the supervisor. So some of the older supervisors, [. . .] feel under threat because part of their job that they used to do, is now taken over by the team leader. So were trying to sort of balance the two (Personnel Manager, car manufacturer).

The second major constraint that companies seem to face is the traditional structure of the organisation in terms of procedures and hierarchies:
we havent really let go enough of some of these management controls, for empowerment to be as successful as it could be. [. . .] you cant really be as successful in terms of empowerment as you might wish if youve got a plethora of senior management controls layered on top of whatever sort of programmes you are trying to run, because people will still regard those as either a sanctioning process or a control process, something that limits their empowerment (HR Manager, health science company).

Other production-related aspects can constrain empowerment:


If youre talking about very tight time deadlines, you have short production cycles, short work cycles, then theres probably very little room to actually manoeuvre in terms of looking at how you do things differently (Personnel Manager, FMCG manufacturer). You wouldnt want the person who comes in and makes it [the car] on rst shift, to be doing it differently from the person who comes in and makes your friends car on second shift, whatever that bit they do, youd want it to be done the same (Personnel Manager, car manufacturer).

To conclude, interviewees were asked to pinpoint critical factors for the success of empowerment. Firstly, a clear link needs to be established between employees and the nal customer:
one of the differences was they [employees] have got control of the whole process; instead of being the bit at the end of the process which is being deluged with product coming in and getting product out, they actually were responsible for trying to keep the customers, satisfy the customers (Personnel Manager, aerospace company).

Secondly, senior management commitment is crucial.


You then need extremely good management so you need usually strong and effective leadership, a leader, somebody whos got the vision. Because there are all sorts of difculties, its easy to talk about empowerment, in getting it done there are lots and lots of (difculties) (Training Manager, building products manufacturer).

Discussion and conclusion


These ndings suggest that UK manufacturing companies are involved in various changes to improve their work organisation, primarily TQM, delayering, downsizing and BPR. These often result, intentionally or unintentionally, in employee empowerment, where this is interpreted as the decentralisation of decision-making authority to shopoor level. In such cases, the primary changes in employee responsibilities relate to looking for improvements and solving problems, additional quality responsibilities and workload planning and scheduling. The reasons given for these changes are mostly business related, seeking improvements in quality, productivity, and exibility, as well as a reduction in costs. Relatively few companies seek empowerment for the benet of the staff in terms of giving them increased autonomy, job satisfaction or skills. While companies generally do not explicitly seek to improve the skills of their workforce, they do recognise the importance of employee skills as a key success factor in empowerment initiatives. 144 New Technology, Work and Employment
Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2002.

Empowerment, then, is often emergent or unintentional (see e.g. Foster-Fishman and Keys (1997) versus the results of Kanter (1984) and Fenton-OCreevy (1998). In fact, empowerment is generally perceived instrumentally rather than as an objective in itself. Similarly, our respondents do not see empowerment resulting from the need to adapt to advanced manufacturing technologies or techniques. The overall focus is one of cost-efciency although there is evidence that empowerment has had a wider impact, affecting the people concerned, the organisational culture, the tasks and procedures, and the organisational structure. Managers perceive the adoption of empowerment as rather successful, although clearly the measurement of such success is difcult (Klose, 1993). In particular, it is difcult to disentangle changes due to the broader change initiative from those brought about by empowerment. We are sceptical about assessing empowerment based on external criteria. For example, criteria which are relevant to various industries in the USA (Lawler et al., 1995) may not be totally relevant to British manufacturing (Kochan and Weinstein, 1994), which has a very different history and culture (Batstone, 1984; Millward et al., 1992). We recommend an evaluation based on internal and more specic criteria. Regarding success factors, it seems that the more successful promotions of empowerment are rstly, underpinned by a solid business rationale and secondly, have affected many organisational elements and effectively mobilised both individual agents and structure. Specic success factors are employee skills, organisational culture, decision-making capability of staff and availability of information for decisions. In addition, the initiative needs to be serious and supported consistently over time, with widespread senior management support and not just presented as this weeks fad or panacea. Constraining factors include the traditional division of tasks and the hierarchical management structure and associated culture. Empowerment often affects organisational culture because it demands a move from a traditional culture, where staff are given their job description and responsibilities, to one where they know most about their job. They are now encouraged to think about what they are doing and how they could improve things. These moves affect both the belief systems regarding the organisations core values and its patterns of desirable behaviour (Smithson and Psoinos, 1997). This change in culture illustrates the need to address the concerns not only of the workforce but also of management at all levels, from supervisor through middle management to senior management (Argyris, 2000; Eccles, 1993; Fenton-OCreevy, 1998; Foster-Fishman and Keys, 1997). Giving or sharing power with the workforce is unlikely to come naturally to many (especially older) managers. The managers we spoke to seem very aware of the difculties of empowerment, as well as of the cynicism of employees regarding initiatives such as BPR or TQM. On the part of employees, they have to be interested in the success of the enterprise and personal recognition is extremely important. The employees of many large organisations nowadays appear overworked and stressed by the constant threats of downsizing and cost reduction (our case studies included Rover and Ford shortly before plant closures). Therefore before putting more pressure on the workforce, any shift towards empowerment must provide the staff with real benets. This is much easier with smaller companies, as employees can discern more easily their part in the business but more difcult in a climate of downsizing and delayering where survivors have to respond to change (Mishra and Spreitzer, 1998). Similarly, the workforce also have to believe that their personal contribution is important; after decades of being told what they are not allowed to do, it is unnatural to expect them suddenly to reverse this state (Shapiro, 2000). Hence empowerment has a lot to do with the agency and structure duality where if the one is affected then the other has to be too (Giddens, 1984). Empowerment needs to address both dimensions. Even if employees are motivated and highly skilled, if they work in a highly structured, constraining environment where they do
Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2002.

Employee empowerment in manufacturing

145

not feel that they have the power to take decisions, they will conform to that and empowerment is unlikely to succeed. On the other hand, if structural elements change and employees are not triggered through, for example, recognition or rewards, they may not respond. The main contribution of this study is the collection of original empirical data on empowerment in British manufacturing. This work provides an interesting contribution by combining an extensive survey with a series of interviews. Naturally like any study, it has limitations. The interviews did not provide the depth associated with case studies since they only depicted the views of one or two individuals in each rm. Similarly, we did not interview lower-level employees. This would have involved a much larger study beyond the scope and resources available. Sometimes it is preferable not to extend the boundaries, rather than to attempt a complex topic supercially. Furthermore there is a bias towards larger organisations and towards organisations that are active with empowerment. However, the research provided rich original insights into the way empowerment is pursued and perceived, and the effects it has on employee work practices and other organisational elements. References
Argyris, C. (1998), Empowerment: the emperors new clothes, Harvard Business Review, 76, 3, 98105. Argyris, C. (2000), Flawed Advice and the Management Trap (Oxford: Oxford University Press). Attewell, P. and J.B. Rule (1991), Survey and other methodologies applied to IT impact research: experiences from a comparative study of business computing, in K.L. Kraemer (ed.) The Information Systems Research Challenge: Survey Research Methods, Volume 3 (Boston MA: Harvard Business School Press), 299315. Batstone, E. (1984), Working Order: Workplace Industrial Relations over Two Decades (Oxford: Basil Blackwell). Blanchard, K., J.P. Carlos and A. Randolph (1996), Empowerment Takes More than a Minute (San Francisco CA: Berrett-Koehler). Boudreau, M.C. and D. Robey (1996), Coping with contradictions in business process reengineering, Information Technology & People, 9, 4, 4057. Bowen, D.E. and E.E.I. Lawler (1992), The empowerment of service workers: what, why, how and when, Sloan Management Review, 33, 3, 3139. Bowen, D.E. and E.E.I. Lawler (1995), Empowering service employees, Sloan Management Review, 36, 4, 7384. Byham, W.C. and J. Cox (1991), Zapp! The Lightning of Empowerment (London: Business Books). Childe, S., R. Maull and B. Mills (1996), Scoping study: UK experiences in Business Process Reengineering. EPSRC Research Grant Report/Innovative Manufacturing Initiative, No. GR/K67328, Plymouth, University of Plymouth. Claydon, T. and M. Doyle (1996), Trusting me, trusting you? The ethics of employee empowerment, Personnel Review, 25, 6, 1325. Conger, J.A. and R.N. Kanungo (1988), The empowerment process: integrating theory and practice, Academy of Management Review, 13, 3, 471482. Crosby, P.B. (1979). Quality is Free: the Art of Making Quality Certain (New York: Mentor). Deming, W.E. (1986), Out of the Crisis (Cambridge, MA. MIT Press). Dopson, S. and R. Stewart (1993), What is happening to middle management?, in C. Mabey and B. Mayon-White (eds), Managing Change (London: Paul Chapman). Eccles, T. (1993), The deceptive allure of empowerment, Long Range Planning, 26, 6, 1321. Edwards, J.R. (1989), Computer-aided manufacturing and worker well-being: a review of research, Behaviour and Information Technology, 8, 3, 157174. Fantasia, R., D. Clawson and G. Graham (1988), A critical view of worker participation in American industry, Work and Occupations, 15, 4, 468488. Fenton-OCreevy, M. (1998), Employee involvement and the middle manager: evidence from a survey of organizations, Journal of Organizational Behaviour, 19, 1, 6784. Foster-Fishman, P.G. and C.B. Keys (1997), The person/environment dynamics of employee empowerment: an organizational culture analysis, American Journal of Community Psychology, 25, 3, 345369. Gable, G.G. (1994), Integrating case study and survey research methods: an example in information systems, European Journal of Information Systems, 3, 2, 112126.

146 New Technology, Work and Employment

Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2002.

Gallivan, M.J. (1997), Value in triangulation: a comparison of two approaches for combining qualitative and quantitative methods, in A.S. Lee, J. Liebenau and J.I. DeGross (eds), Information Systems and Qualitative Research (New York: Chapman & Hall), 417443. Giddens, A. (1984), The Constitution of Society (Cambridge: Polity). Hammer, M. and J. Champy (1993), Reengineering the Corporation: a Manifesto for Business Revolution (London: Nicholas Brealey). Harley, B. (1999), The myth of empowerment: work organisation, hierarchy and employee autonomy in contemporary Australian workplaces, Work, Employment & Society, 13, 1, 4166. Hartwick, J. and H. Barki (1994), Hypothesis testing and hypothesis generating research: an example from the user participation literature, Information Systems Research, 5, 4, 446449. Jick, T.D. (1979), Mixing qualitative and quantitative methods: triangulation in action, Administrative Science Quarterly, 24, 4, 602611. Jones, M. (1994), Dont emancipate, exaggerate: rhetoric, reality and reengineering, in R. Baskerville, S. Smithson, O. Ngwenyama and J.I. DeGross (eds), Proceedings of the IFIP WG8.2 Working Conference on Information Technology and New Emergent Forms of Organizations (Ann Arbor MI: North-Holland), 357378. Juran, J.M. (1989), Juran on Leadership for Quality (New York, Free Press). Kanter, R.M. (1984), The Change Masters: Corporate Entrepreneurs at Work (New York: Allen and Unwin). Klose, A.J. (1993), Breaking the Chains: the Empowerment of Employees: How to Evaluate, Monitor and Improve Employee Empowerment Levels (Lincoln NE: Continental Business Books). Kochan, T. and M. Weinstein (1994), Recent developments in US industrial relations, British Journal of Industrial Relations, 32, 4, 483504. Kraemer, K.L. (ed.) (1991), The Information Systems Research Challenge: Survey Research Methods, Volume 3 (Boston MA: Harvard Business School Press). Lawler, E.E.I., S. Albers Mohrman and G.E. Ledford (1992), Employee Involvement and Total Quality Management: Practices and Results in Fortune 1000 Companies (San Francisco CA: Jossey-Bass). Lawler, E.E., S. Albers Mohrman and G.E. Ledford (1995) Creating High Performance Organizations (San Francisco CA: Jossey-Bass). Marchington, M., A. Wilkinson and P. Ackers (1993), Waving or drowning in participation? Personnel Management, March, 4650. McArdle, L., M. Rowlinson, S. Procter, J. Hassard and P. Forrester (1995), Total Quality Management and participation: employee empowerment or the enhancement of exploitation?, in A. Wilkinson and H. Willmott (eds), Making Quality Critical: New Perspectives on Organizational Change (London: Routledge), 156172. Mills, Q.D. (1995), The new management system, European Management Journal, 13, 3, 251256. Millward, N., M. Stevens, D. Smart and W. Hawes (1992), Workplace Industrial Relations in Transition (Aldershot: Dartmouth). Mishra, A.K. and G.M. Spreitzer (1998), Explaining how survivors respond to downsizing: the roles of trust, empowerment, justice and work redesign, Academy of Management Review, 23, 3, 567588. Mondros, J.B. and S.M. Wilson (1994), Organizing for Power and Empowerment (New York: Columbia University Press). Mullender, A. and D. Ward (1991), Self-directed Groupwork: Users Take Action for Empowerment (London: Whiting and Birch). Ogden, S. (1992), The limits to employee involvement: Prot sharing and disclosure of information, Journal of Management Studies, 29, 2, 229248. Parker, L.E. and R.H. Price (1994), Empowered managers and empowered workers: the effects of managerial support and managerial perceived control on workers sense of control over decision making, Human Relations, 47, 8, 911928. Peiperl, M. (1996), Does empowerment deliver the goods? Financial Times, Mastering Management, Part 10, 24. Powell, T.C. (1995), Total quality management as competitive advantage: a review and empirical study, Strategic Management Journal, 16, 1, 1537. Psoinos, A., T. Kern and S. Smithson (2000), An exploratory study of information systems in support of employee empowerment, Journal of Information Technology, 15, 211230. Randeniya, R., N. Baggaley and M.A. Rahim (1995), Total quality management: the need to uncouple empowerment, Total Quality Management, 6, 3, 215220. Robey, D. (1994), Modeling interpersonal processes during systems development: further thoughts and suggestions, Information Systems Research, 5, 4. Russ, D.E. and E.R. Millam (1995), Executive commentaryempowerment: a matter of degree, Academy of Management Executive, 9, 3, 2931.
Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2002.

Employee empowerment in manufacturing

147

Sanders, P. (1982), Phenomenology: a new way of viewing organizational research, Academy of Management Review, 7, 3, 353360. Scott Morton, M.S. (1991), The Corporation of the 1990s (New York, Oxford University Press). Shani, A.B., R.M. Grant, R. Krishnan and E. Thompson (1992), Advanced manufacturing systems and organizational choice: sociotechnical system approach, California Management Review, 34, 4, 91111. Shapiro, E.C. (2000), Managing in the cappuccino economy, Harvard Business Review, March April, 177183. Siegel, D.S., D.A. Waldman and W.E. Youngdahl (1997), The adoption of Advanced Manufacturing Technologies: human resource management implications, IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management, 44, 3, 288298. Smithson, S. and A. Psoinos (1997), The impact of emerging information technologies on the empowered organization, Proceedings of the 30th Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, Hawaii, IEEE Computer Society Press, Vol.III: 720. Tulloch, S. (ed.) (1993), The Readers Digest Oxford Wordnder, (Oxford: Clarendon). Walsham, G. (1995), Interpretive case studies in IS research: nature and method, European Journal of Information Systems, 4, 2, 7481. Wagner, J.A.I. (1994), Participations effects on performance and satisfaction: a reconsideration of research evidence, Academy of Management Review, 19, 2, 312330. Wilkinson, A. (1998), Empowerment: theory and practice, Personnel Review, 27, 1, 4056. Willmott, H. (1995), The odd couple? Re-engineering business processes; managing human relations, New Technology, Work and Employment, 10, 2, 8998. Zuboff, S. (1988), In the Age of the Smart Machine: the Future of Work and Power (Oxford: Heinemann).

148 New Technology, Work and Employment

Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2002.