Japanese build on teams

March 24, 1995

Workers at Japanese manufacturing firms in the United Kingdom are involved much more in the running and management of their plants than employees in British and other foreign-owned companies, according to a new study.

The research was carried out between 1990 and 1994 by Stephen Wood, a reader in industrial relations at the London School of Economics. It compared the use of "high commitment practices" in a sample of Japanese manufacturing plants in the UK with those in a similar sample of non-Japanese plants. He says: "With Japanese practice the demands made on workers are greater, the recognition given to them is greater and their quality consciousness is higher."

The report says that "high involvement methods" associated in industry with greater worker involvement - such as flexible job descriptions, teamworking for production workers, merit pay, formal assessment and an explicit policy of designing jobs to ensure full use of worker skills and abilties - were more likely to be used in Japanese plants. Further analysis by Dr Wood showed the difference is attributable to the plants being owned by Japanese firms: "It is not accountable simply by their being young and engaged in markets which require more attention to quality or having certain technologies."

There is little evidence, however, that non-Japanese firms are absorbing the labour strategy being used by Japanese firms. "If anything, the divergence may be increasing," said Dr Wood.

Japanese firms also tend to use methods of boosting workforce involvement in distinctive ways. In the majority of Japanese plants studied, the concept of the team was the basic building block for the plant. This interpretation of teamworking was less established in non-Japanese firms where the notion of the "job" remained central.

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