Taking a cue from Japanese and German models, U. S. economists have long argued that a key to achieving greater productivity is to foster greater employee involvement in workplace decisions. But a recent study by economist Maryellen Kelley of Carnegie Mellon University suggests that achieving such efficiency gains is no easy task.
Kelley surveyed some 1,000 U. S. metalworking plants. About 70% of the plants had set up employee problem-solving committees. Although both management and labor praised the programs, she reports, worker productivity data revealed a surprising result: Plants with worker-participation committees proved to be 25% to 45% less efficient than those without such programs.
Kelley's analysis indicates that employee involvement actually had a negative effect on productivity, while unionization had a clear positive effect. The least efficient plants were those that had worker-participation programs but were nonunionized, and the highest productivity occurred in plants with unions but no worker-involvement committees.
What explains this result? Since the metalworking industry underwent a shakeout in the early 1980s, Kelley theorizes that the unionized plants that survived were the most adaptable and open to change. She also notes that unions are already structured to perform many of the functions that problem-solving committees are supposed to address. Worker-involvement programs in nonunion plants "may face difficulties because employees know all the power still resides with management."
That could change, however. Since many of the programs were relatively new, Kelley says, "it may simply take more time for employee involvement to pay off in higher productivity."