Job design and work organization

Although the academic subjects of ‘organisational behaviour’ and ‘human resource management’ deal extensively with all issues concerning people in organisations, the design of people’s jobs is particularly important to operations managers. That is why we include this topic within the text (most other textbooks in this area also do the same). The important thing to understand about job design is that, more than any other subject in operations management, one can take very different perspectives on the task. For example, a traditional work study practitioner would look at job design in a very different way to an ergonomist or a specialist in team working. It is not that any of these perspectives are ‘wrong’ as such. Rather that they emphasise different aspects of job design. The reality of job design is that most of the perspectives presented in this chapter will have to be used. So, for example, it is not necessarily incompatible for an operations managers to use work study techniques to estimate how long each element of the job will take to perform, whilst at the same time considering the ergonomic aspects of how the working environment should be managed, and also deciding on the relevant level of autonomy to design into a work team. While there are very different principles implied in each of the approaches described in this chapter, they are not always incompatible. We have chosen to describe each approach to job design in chronological order. This is not because we are particularly interested in the history of job design, rather it is important to understand how one approach either built on the foundations of previous approaches, or, alternatively, reacted against previous assumptions.

Your learning objectives
This is what you should be able to do after reading Chapter 9 and working through this study guide.

  • Identify the main decisions in job design.
  • Describe how job design affects the performance objectives of the operation.
  • Describe the main principles of each of the major influences on job design.
  • Indicate how the different approaches to job design differ in terms of control and commitment.

The objectives of job design
There are clearly many alternative designs for any given job. For this reason, an understanding of what the job design is supposed to achieve is particularly important. As before, the five performance objectives give us a guide to what is relevant in job design decisions.

1. Quality
The ability of staff to produce high-quality products and services can be affected by job design. This includes avoiding errors in the short term, but also includes designing jobs which encourage staff to improve the job itself in such a way as to make errors less likely.

2. Speed
Sometimes speed of response is the dominant objective to be achieved in job design. For example, the way in which the jobs of emergency service personnel are organised (the range of tasks for which they are trained, the sequence of activities in their approved procedures, the autonomy which they have to decide on appropriate action, and so on) will go a long way to determine their ability to respond promptly to emergencies and perhaps save lives.

3. Dependability
Dependable supply of goods and services is usually influenced, in some way, by job design. For example, in the postal services’ working arrangements, multi-skilling, accurate use of sorting equipment through good staff-machine interface design, and the ‘design’ of postal staff’s clothing, can all aid dependable delivery of letters and parcels.

4. Flexibility
Job design can affect the ability of the operation to change the nature of its activities. New product or service flexibility, mix flexibility, volume flexibility and delivery flexibility are all dependent to some extent on job design. (See Chapter 2 for a full description of these different types of flexibility). For example, staff who have been trained in several tasks (multi-skilling) may find it easier to cope with a wide variety of models and new product or service introductions.

5. Cost
All the elements of job design described above will have an effect on the productivity, and therefore the cost, of the job. Productivity in this context means the ratio of output to labour input: for example, the number of customers served per hour or the number of products made per worker.
In addition, job design will influence two other particularly important objectives.

6. Health and safety
Whatever else a job design achieves, it must not endanger the well-being of the person who does the job, other staff of the operation, the customers who might be present in the operation, or those who use any products made by the operation.

7. Quality of working life
The design of any job should take into account its effect on job security, intrinsic interest, variety, opportunities for development, stress level and attitude of the person performing the job.

Division of labour
Although it is historically the earliest influence on job design, division of labour is arguably still the most important. If it were not all of us would do everything. The fact that we specialise is a tacit recognition of the advantages to be gained from division of labour. The main issue is the extent to which jobs are divided up. Although there are still some highly divided and very repetitive jobs, there has been a general trend in many jobs for division of labour to be reversed somewhat. But not totally eliminated, that is the important point, there is still some degree of specialisation in almost every job. The important objective is to balance the flexibility and increased job satisfaction which less divided jobs give most of us, against the degree of efficiency and learning which often goes with some degree of division of labour.

Scientific management
As far as scientific managements influence on job design goes, method study and work measurement are its twin legacies. Both are still practiced, though neither are as popular as once they were.
Method study has some advantages in its systematic approach to questioning why jobs are design in a particular way. Indeed, the conventional method study approach is very close to some more modern approaches such as business process reengineering. The main criticisms of method study (and indeed business process reengineering) centre around its limited objectives. It pays little attention to even the most obvious aspects of motivation. But the principles of method study are still valid for most jobs. For example, compare the way an experienced cook moves around the kitchen, automatically sequencing tasks so as to save effort or time or both. Compare that with the less experienced cook who does not have the innate ability to perform his or her tasks in an efficient or effective manner.
Work measurement is less widely used now. Time standards are still important of course. Any business still needs an estimate of how long jobs will take, if only for planning and control purposes. However, the use of time standards to underpin payment systems or control work rate is less common. Again though, it is still practiced in some operations. Supermarket check-out staff for example, or call centre operators generally work against time standards. And where they do, the practice can still be contentious. The boxed example on NUMMI on pages 272 and 273 is an interesting example of how some of the basic principles of work study have been used by staff rather than on staff. The idea of thinking about staff from a physiological point of view, but in a systematic manner, goes back at least half a century. As such it was once regarded as a little ‘old fashioned’ in job design circles. However, health and safety legislation in many countries has prompted a renewal of interest in the subject. So, for example, on automobile assembly lines the car is normally positioned at a height convenient for the assembly line staff to do their job without excessive bending or lifting. This not only eases strain on the assembly staff themselves but also helps to promote smoother, faster and higher quality working.
The way in which controls and displays are designed is also treated by ergonomists. The figure below demonstrates what ergonomists call the ‘person-work place loop’.
A much quoted but illustrative example of how the design of displays can affect the effectiveness with which the operator senses the information displayed by them is shown in the figure below. The seemingly obvious way of laying out a bank of dials would be toarrange them so that the zero mark is at the top. When switched on the dials are all likely to display different levels but often the ‘normal’ range is marked on the dial. However, detecting a dial which is displaying an ‘out of normal’ reading still takes some effort by the operator. Alternatively, the dials could be arranged so that their normal ranges are all pointing in the same way when the dials are switched on rather than off. Any deviation from the normal range then is very easily detected.

Behavioural approaches to job design
The title ‘behavioural’ approaches in clumsy but reasonably descriptive. This approach is the first so far to take the feelings and motivation of individual members of staff into account. Now the ideas of job rotation, job enlargement and job enrichment are well established in job design practice. Nevertheless it is important to understand that this approach still keeps the responsibility for designing jobs with operations management (or personnel management, or human resource management, etc.). It does not pass any responsibility or power to the people doing the jobs. In that sense it is not fundamentally different from earlier approaches to job design. Its motivation and objectives may be different but its practice is still very ‘top-down’.

The idea of empowerment, for the first time gives some responsibility for job design to the individuals who will perform the job. But, as the chapter discusses, the extent of autonomy can vary significantly. At its most limited autonomy can merely involve asking staff for their suggestions as to how jobs should be designed. At its maximum, only the broadest and most general of objectives are set by higher management and the whole nature of the job and its organisation is left to those who perform it. In between these two extremes there are any number of levels. In that sense ‘empowerment’ can mean almost anything. What many companies discovered is that empowerment ‘did not relieve them of the task of job design’. It has been found to be very important to be clear in drawing the boundary between those aspects of the job which staff can directly control and those which management still reserve the right to define. So, for example, an operation might draw up a list of issues which it reserves the right to impose such as types of behaviour which are not acceptable (racist, sexist, etc.), safety practices (compulsory wearing of protective headgear etc.), timing (when the process must start and when shift changeovers occur, etc.), and so on. However, it may also define a list of specific job issues which staff can decide for themselves, sequencing of activities, scheduling of activities, appropriate work methods, and so on.

Team-working and job design
The significance of this influence on job design is that the ‘unit of analysis’ of job designchanged. So, rather than automatically assume that job design involved defining the content of a job for each individual, a further variable was introduced – the team. A team is a group of individuals who, together, have a set of tasks to perform. From the point of view of the staff who form the team there may be a number of advantages in working on a team basis rather than an individual basis. The interest, motivation and fun which can be gained from working closely with colleagues can make any job more attractive. From the operations point of view several people working together can be not only more efficient and more flexible but also more creative in the way they seek solutions to continually improve their part of the operation.

Flexible working
Three types of flexible working are described in the chapter,

    • skills flexibility
    • time flexibility
    • location flexibility.

In some ways this sequence of different types of flexibility is in order of difficulty. Skills flexibility involves individuals being able to do more than one job. This allows the operation to be more responsive as markets or other conditions change and also (arguably) makes jobs more interesting. It is not always easy to achieve skills flexibility, but at least most people are together in the operation at more or less the same time. Time flexibility, on the other hand, can present more difficulties because (by definition) not everyone will necessarily be together at the same time. Location flexibility can present even more problems, especially if individual members of staff rarely, if ever, meet up.