Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Features Industry Watch Opinion
Goal for 2015: Connecting work with meaning

Nov. 24, 2014 – Up until the industrial revolution, the typical working man (forgive the political incorrectness for now) was able to easily measure the achievements of his efforts by, for example, how much wood was chopped; how many cows were milked; how many miles of fences mended or rows tilled; how much seed was sown and how much crops were harvested. The payoff for every day’s effort invested was not just the tactile results, but also the pride and satisfaction that went with it.

The assembly line kicked the industrial revolution into a higher gear, and that yielded a lot of benefits to the middle class, and to our society as a whole. Cars and many other things became affordable for the average person, not just because the cost to produce them came down, but because the wages being paid went up as well. Another great benefit attributable to that revolution is the freedom we continue to enjoy today. Without North America’s superior manufacturing capacity, the Second World War would have had a different outcome.

The industrial revolution has come with some costs. One of those, in my opinion, is the individual’s sense of satisfaction that used to come with simply doing a good job. The feedback in today’s plants, if any, is indirect. A lot of the time, it’s only given when the desired or expected results were not achieved, or when a new deal needs to be negotiated. In most plants, individuals are no longer driven by intrinsic motivators (such as their natural sense of pride in a job well done, and the satisfaction of achieving an objective); they are driven by extrinsic motivators instead, and often these are negative — the threat of demotion, or the fear of losing a job or having a plant close, for instance. Positive extrinsic motivators, such as financial incentives, promotions, etc., are short-lived, and sometimes they are counterproductive. Intrinsic motivators have the most benefit for both the company and the worker, and they have the longest lasting positive effect.

Deep down inside, people are more comfortable being measured by others when they are confident in what they are doing, and when they know what they are being measured by. The first step to helping them become more confident and comfortable is to allow them first to measure themselves. That’s the way it used to be before industrialization made it management’s job to measure them.

Having people measure themselves is just one way to connect work with meaning, and it’s an important connection to make. After all, most people’s personal self-image and identity is connected to what they do for a living. What they do for a living matters greatly to them. Why, then, don’t we tap into that connection, and make the work they do more meaningful to them every day? Looked at from the other perspective, most companies’ biggest investment is the wages they pay to their workers, and they often boast that their strength and biggest asset is their people. The engagement question looms even larger.


Let’s go back and look at two significant changes that occurred during the Second World War. The first was that women flooded the manufacturing work- places to fill shortages as men left for the battlefields. The second change was not as obvious, but was just as significant. Production work not only had value, it had real meaning. The women were motivated every day to arm, equip, feed and clothe their men oversees — their husbands, brothers, boyfriends and fathers. I know that this extreme level of connecting work with meaning was only possible because of the circumstance, but I visit plants every now and then that are able to make that connection. They are able to engage their workers by connecting work with meaning.

As our industries pursue competitive advantages and sustainability objectives, applying lean practices and investing in more equipment, I wonder how much improvement is possible simply through engaging our workforce better. Productivity would be better, people would be happier, and stresses and tensions would be removed from the workplace. The bottom line would be healthier, and people would be, too. I believe that the next new “thing” in industry needs to be engagement: connecting work with meaning. That should be our continuous improvement goal for 2015.

This column originally appeared in the November/December 2014 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.