Management Beliefs


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Do you believe in self-help?

One of my favourite quotes is from Henry Ford:

Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right

Personally I am all for a bit of self belief, but does it work for organisations as well as people?

Does belief have a place in business?

In 1974 Albert King (a professor of Management Science at Northern Illinois University) carried out an experiment to improve employee engagement and productivity.

The subject of the experiment was interesting work; he hypothesised that if you give people wider, more varied jobs they become more productive.

To test the hypothesis he ran an experiment in two manufacturing plants in the US midwest.  The plants made clothing patterns.  Each factory was organised into ten crews of six men who printed, folded and packed clothing patterns.

  • In the first plant he tried high skill level job enlargement.  The crews were trained so they were multi-skilled and did different jobs on the line all the time.
  • In the second plant he tried a lower level job rotation approach.  Employees were periodically moved from one job to another according to a schedule.

He then sat back and measured output over the following 12 months.

Did either approach work?

The results from the experiment are shown below:

2 plants

It appeared that giving people more varied jobs has an impact on their productivity.  A 6% improvement in productivity.  Not too shoddy.  What wouldn’t you do for a 6% improvement in a year?

But it wasn’t that simple

Professor King put a wrinkle in the experiment.  He ran it across 4 plants not just 2, and into the mix he threw another variable; management belief.

In two of the factories the manufacturing director primed the management team and workforce.  He explained that the experiment was expected to improve productivity.  In the other two factories he explained that the experiment was simply to improve employee relations.

The experimental design looked like this:

Productivity Experiment

And the results looked like this:

management expectation experiment

The interventions didn’t matter

It didn’t matter which of the two approaches the factories tried, whether they practiced job rotation or job enlargement made precisely no difference to their output.

Expectations made all the difference

If the plant manager and the workforce believed that the change was going to make a difference to productivity, then it did.  If however, they didn’t then it didn’t.

What do you believe?

Can improve the way your organisation works?  Self fulfilling prophecies are powerful things.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

James Lawther
James Lawther is a middle-aged middle manager. To reach this highly elevated position he has worked for many organisations, from supermarkets to tax collectors and has had multiple roles from running a night shift to doing operational research. He gets upset by operations that don't work and mildly apoplectic about poor customer service.


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