What if factory foremen treated their workers less like the machines they operate, and more like people, with personality strengths and differences? Surely the workers would benefit, but might the employers also see positive results in the workplace, as well as being able to cut costs?
That's what Concordia researcher Mohammed Othman set out to prove in his paper "Integrating workers' differences into workforce planning," recently published in the journal Computers & Industrial Engineering.
Currently, explained Othman, two types of researchers study production workforces: industrial engineers like him, who try to organize machines and people to maximize efficiency; and industrial psychologists, who design personality tests. Beyond personality type, such tests can determine a worker's motivation level and triggers, work capacity, and even his or her ability to learn. But the test results are generally only used in a pass/fail capacity, to determine whether or not to hire an individual, says Othman. "There are many things you could use this rich data for – training, motivating workers, determining salaries – but they don't use it."
Othman's model takes this psychological data and, crossing disciplines, employs it to better engineer workforce planning – hiring, firing, scheduling and training. "Workforce planning is usually done in the manager's mind – what he or she knows about the workers and their abilities," says Othman, adding that the manager seldom notes down these estimated measures.
In fact, fearing charges of unfair discrimination leading to union grievances, many managers and foremen expressly avoid taking personality into account when assigning tasks, because they "don't want to make it a personal thing." But, Othman insists, such grading systems do not aim to harm or downgrade workers. "You're trying to help them, by putting them in an appropriate position. At the same time, you're trying to train them and improve their skills – at their level."
In his paper, Othman ran a complex mathematical model to determine the cost of running a manufacturing shop floor over an eight-week production period. He first ran a control in which workers deemed hirable were slotted into positions without regard for their training, skills, capacity for work, personality or motivation. Then, using his mathematical model, Othman took these factors into account before the production period began, placing workers in more appropriate positions with a view to minimizing hiring, firing, training and overtime costs.
The result? Othman's model created a cost savings of 7.1 per cent, a significant figure that could keep more jobs in Canada, in this competitive, globalized economy.
Beyond manufacturing, Othman says his model could also be applied to the service industry. What's more, "there is also an opportunity for another researcher to incorporate cognitive ability," he adds, "clearly an important factor in human differences." And, clearly, the factor that most differentiates us from machines.
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