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The following article was written by Coleman Patterson and appeared in the Business section of the Abilene Reporter-News.

Emphasis on value of workers vital for companies, March 9, 2007, 2D.

It has been just a little more than a century since Henry Ford and his engineers created and perfected the assembly line.  With the development of the assembly line, all types of products could be manufactured in quantities and at prices never before seen in the history of mankind.  Assembly line manufacturing technology ushered in the heyday of industrial production in the United States and around the world.

The metaphor that dominated management thought during the industrial revolution was a machine metaphor.  Organizations were viewed as elaborate machines that existed to transform raw materials into completed products.  Workers were viewed as parts of the production machine and as such, were replaceable and interchangeable.  Little attention was paid to the high-level personal needs of workers—for example, growth, trust, recognition, affiliation, responsibility, appreciation, and self worth.  The focus was instead on pay, performance, efficiency, and having a job.

The consequences of ignoring high-level needs were that the workers felt alienated, powerless, unappreciated, and undervalued.  Turnover and absenteeism were often very high.  It was not until the Western Electric Studies of the 1920s and 1930s that researchers and organizational experts began paying serious attention to the high-level needs of workers.  In those studies, researchers discovered that productivity could increase when workers were allowed to contribute input to decisions, consulted on work-related issues, and permitted to interact with co-workers and form interpersonal relationships.  

Even though it has been more than 70 years since the end of the Western Electric Studies, too many organizations still cling to outdated ideas about ways to manage and control their workers.  Many still view workers as expenses rather than assets.  In other words, they see workers as necessary costs instead of what they are—the actual organization.

Without people, organizations are simply empty buildings and unused equipment.  It is people who give them life, purpose, and meaning.  Healthy and vibrant organizations are those with healthy and vibrant workers.  As learned from research and experience, organizations that promote feelings of growth, trust, recognition, affiliation, responsibility, appreciation, and self worth tend to have healthy and vibrant workers.

Starbucks Coffee is one company that does an exemplary job of putting an emphasis on its workers.  They have built a successful company around the idea that their people are the most important asset of the business.  The culture, values, policies, and reward systems are all designed to impart and reinforce the ideas that their workers, or partners, are the reasons for their success.  Employees return the trust, respect, and appreciation shown toward them back to the corporation.  Starbuck’s success using this business philosophy has been tremendous. 

The old saying that “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it” holds true for managers and organizational leaders.  Those who hold to antiquated industrial models of control and management will see the same results as managers of a century ago.  Valuing employees and creating cultures that promote respect, growth, dignity, and appreciation are ways to build and run vibrant and successful organizations.

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© 2006, 2007, 2008  Coleman Patterson, All Rights Reserved