Edition 46, Human Resources

In search of the magical link between continuous improvement practices and initiatives, and employee commitment.

By Luis Arciniega

A great number of companies have invested many resources toward establishing a culture of continuous improvement to reduce costs, improve the quality of their products or services and at the same time bring about increased employee commitment. Unfortunately, many of these efforts have failed…

While the mapping of processes and the establishment of specific metrics that provide a detailed picture of the efficiency with which different subprocesses are conducted are generally carried out successfully, employees consider a nightmare to have to calculate and monitor these metrics, and even more so having to hold frequent meetings to monitor the indicators and offer ideas for improvement.

Sometimes the discomfort is generalized and becomes a sort of “coup” that literally leads to the project’s failure, with the consequent loss of time and resources. In technical terms, the social empowerment does not become psychological empowerment. That is, the formal organizational practices and systems designed to transfer the power of monitoring and improvement in processes at the company’s operational levels is not able to become an individual perception that makes the employee feel that the company concedes power to him or her and at the same time that this perception turns into devotion to the company.

A recent study sought to identify the location of the magic link that connects the changes made in the work processes at the level of job positions, and employee commitment to the company (Arciniega and Menon, 2013). The results of the study show that the internalization of goals, meaning the degree to which the employee internalizes the goals of his or her business unit as if they were personal goals, plays a principal role. The following paragraphs detail the study’s findings.

The research was carried out in a huge beverage bottling plant in a city near Caracas. This unit was implementing a continuous improvement process based on the methodology of the multinational company that owns one of the two major brands of soft drinks.

Figure 1 schematically shows the three blocks of variables involved in the study. At far left are the three large variables that capture the effect of social empowerment at job level. In the center are the three dimensions of psychological empowerment, while on the right is the employee commitment to the company. The following sections describe the variables within each of these three blocks which then will allow to describe the relationships among them, and in this way, identify the magical link between the company’s continuous improvement practices and initiatives and the commitment among its employees.

Figura 1. Prácticas e iniciativas de mejora continua de una empresa y el amor a la camiseta. Dirección Estratégica. La revista de negocios del ITAM

Social empowerment and its effect on jobs

As was already mentioned, empowerment has two major expressions: social and psychological. The first refers to the actions undertaken by a company to transfer or share organizational power with mid-level or operational positions. For example, in many automotive plants, self-directed teams are responsible for a specific set of sub-steps in the manufacture of vehicles. Sometimes, a team also determines matters such as vacations, training periods, shifts, etc. In short, a group of employees is assigned a series of decisions and responsibilities which in another company would fall to a supervisor or manager.

From the view of a traditional model of job design (Hackman and Oldham, 1980), it would be expected that team members would expand both their vision of their actual participation in the overall process of manufacturing the vehicle. That is to say: What is their contribution (task identity), how to measure the contribution of their work (task significance).

Similarly, one would expect that the new tasks associated with the position that arise with an increase in responsibilities make greater use of the incumbent’s skills and knowledge (skill variety). In addition, by delegating power to employees, they would be responsible for monitoring the indicators and even, on occasion, they would have to calculate them, and this would also give them the formal task of generating and receiving timely feedback on their work (task feedback). In the study considered here, a test (Job Diagnostic Survey (JDS), Hackman and Oldham) was used to determine employee perception of changes made in their jobs in relation to the delegation of power.

Psychological empowerment

The other side of empowerment is that which occurs in the employee’s mind, and it goes beyond changes in processes, systems, etc. Psychological empowerment refers to the degree to which employees believe that the company gives them the authority to make decisions that affect the scope of their work, which is termed as perceived control, as well as the perception that the person has with respect to his ability to perform his job, called perceived competence, and lastly to the internalization of goals (Menon, 2001).

It is very important to emphasize that even though an employee perceives that his company has granted him power (social empowerment), this fact does not necessarily lead him or her to feel the psychological benefits of this empowerment (psychological empowerment). The three dimensions of psychological empowerment were also measured through a test (Arciniega and González, 2013; Menon 2001).

Affective commitment

Organizational commitment is the psychological attachment that employees develop toward their company (Meyer and Allen, 1997). That is, it is a link created in the mind of the employee and which can range in intensity. Such psychological attachment has three major dimensions.

The first and the one most studied in the literature on management is called “affective.” It arises through the identification of the employee with the philosophy and values of the company. Thus, the employee remains with the company because he wants to, and he likes it. The second dimension is of a material and instrumental nature because in the employee’s mind there is created a psychological process that weighs everything he or she has through the company (salary, status, reputation, etc.), and everything that would be lost if he or she left the company, as well as analyzing the opportunities available at the moment in the labor market. This dimension is labeled “ongoing commitment.

Lastly, the third dimension of commitment has to do with the moral obligation to remain that an employee can develop toward the company, and which is termed “normative commitment.” (For a detailed description of organizational commitment, review issues 27 and 38 of Dirección Estratégica).

The first decades of research on organizational commitment found that the affective dimension is a powerful predictor of highly desirable work behaviors, such as productivity or employee involvement in company problems. That is why it took on a leading role and why there is a strong interest in knowing the psychological and organizational variables that are associated with the employee and which can stimulate affective commitment, and this explains why the study under discussion here also considered its inclusion as the major leading role.

Given all of the above, and referencing Figure 1, the question arises: What elements of social empowerment, reflected in the work positions, and which psychological empowerment variables most influence the development of affective commitment among employees.

To understand the example given in Figure 2, it is best to analyze it from right to left. The arrows indicate the relationships that actually have significant weight, meaning they have statistical significance. The numbers above the arrows point to the importance of the relationship on a scale of 0 to 1.

The stronger the relationship, the greater the number. If attention is focused on the central variable of the study – affective commitment – it can be seen that there are three variables that have an effect on its generation. Without a doubt, the one with the greatest weight is the internalization of goals, showing twice the weight of both perceived control and task significance (identity plus task significance and range of skills).

So, it can be said that the variable which most impacts the employees’ affective commitment is the degree to which they feel that the goals of the business unit are their own. However, it is of utmost importance to take a step back and see which are the variables that influence the contributor’s feeling that the company goals are his or her own. By checking Figure 2 again, it can be seen that task feedback is the greatest influence, followed closely by task significance.

Figura 2. Prácticas e iniciativas de mejora continua de una empresa y el amor a la camiseta. Dirección Estratégica. La revista de negocios del ITAM

To summarize the study’s findings, it can be stated that when employees have available the metrics, systems or mechanisms that allow them to objectively measure the effort they put into their work, and at the same time these mechanisms, systems or metrics allow them to quantify the importance of their job and the tasks that they find challenging but gratifying, the collaborators will start to feel that the company’s goals are their own, and that will affect their devotion or development of an affective commitment toward the company.

If we make a comparison to daily life, it is worth reflecting on what it is that makes a person seriously follow a diet. The person starts the diet, but within a week or two sees few results of the effort he or she is making to control food consumption. However, when the person begins to see results through formal metrics such as a scale or a tape measure, he or she starts to take the diet seriously, especially if this is accompanied by social feedback, such as a relative or friend saying, “Hey, you’re looking good. Are you on a diet?”.

This analogy encourages the reader to reflect. If the company is responsible for implementing metrics, systems and other mechanisms that allow collaborators to measure the impact of their effort to improve processes, then who is in charge of doing the comment equivalent to saying, “Hey, you’re looking good …”.

References

  • Arciniega, L.M. y Menon, S.T. (2013). The Power of Goal Internalization: Studying Psychological empowerment in a Venezuelan Plant. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 24, 2948-2967.
  • Hackman, J.R., y Oldham, G.R. (1980). Work redesign. Reading, MA.: Addison Wesley.
  • Menon, S.T. (2001). Employee empowerment: An Integrative Psychological Approach. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 50(1),153-180.
  • Meyer, J.P. y Allen, N.J. (1997). Commitment in the workplace: Theory, research and application. Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage.

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