UK: IM SOUNDING BOARD - HOW 'THEM AND US' BECAME 'WE'. - Many organisations are discovering that they need an alternative strategy to 'business as usual' if they are to meet today's challenges and secure a prosperous long-term future. An essential elemen

by Keith Orrell-Jones.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Many organisations are discovering that they need an alternative strategy to 'business as usual' if they are to meet today's challenges and secure a prosperous long-term future. An essential element of such an alternative strategy is the improvement of organisational effectiveness and hence competitive edge by maximising the contribution of everyone in the organisation.

In the early 1980s the UK cement industry was threatened by increasing world competition and Blue Circle was determined to meet this challenge by improving efficiency and productivity. Using the opportunities presented by major capital investment at two of its UK cement works, Cauldon in Staffordshire and Dunbar in Scotland, BCI's UK cement division aimed to develop a business unit culture for the whole organisation that would be at the leading edge of best work practice, labour relations and productivity.

This was achieved by developing broader, more challenging jobs and creating a work environment which provided job satisfaction and better rewards while greatly increasing the performance and effectiveness of the business. This meant the involvement of employees throughout the organisation - treating people as assets with skills, knowledge, experience and commitment.

Fifteen years ago the UK cement industry was characterised by high manning levels, relatively low wages combined with excessive overtime levels, restrictive working practices and strict demarcation. Additional payments were made for unsocial hours and working in adverse conditions. Under this system, the more breakdowns occurred, the more overtime had to be worked and the more employees earned. Not surprisingly, productivity was low, supervision high, morale poor and conflict common. Management and employee relationships were characterised by low levels of trust. All change was regarded with intense suspicion, and the situation required radical changes to ensure long-term survival.

The programme adopted involved a complete overhaul of working practices, reward systems and, not least, company culture. The benefits included a flexible, multi-skilled workforce, higher productivity and lower unit costs - all reflected in the financial results. The programme enabled management/employee relations to move from a 'them and us' adversarial culture to one of employee involvement and shared goals. This has been manifested in improved business awareness, increased job involvement and enhanced quality of working life.

The first step was the formulation of a new vision; the next to ensure it was acceptable to the trade unions. The elements of the new vision included a highly skilled workforce with greater flexibility, working in integrated teams with the most up-to-date technology; the introduction of a simple pay structure with the elimination of paid overtime and bonuses; an increased basic wage; a significant reduction in manning levels; and a cut in labour costs.

The new working practices would be developed into an employment package called 'integrated working'. This involved a twin-track approach. There were negotiations on matters of broad principle at group level with national trade union officials, and discussions of substance and detail at the works level with local managers and shop stewards. Communication, flexibility and interchange of personnel between the two levels helped in reaching an agreement.

One of the basic principles of integrated working is a fixed annual hours contract of 2,250 hours, made up of 2,028 hours worked in a seven-shift system, and a bank of 222 flexi-hours which have to be worked only if there is an operational need.

An essential aim of integrated working was to provide motivation and job interest and improve attitudes. A second key element was the move away from narrowly defined jobs to larger, broader roles based on team working and total flexibility. In order to increase mobility and reduce problems of pay differentials, traditional job specifications and job descriptions were eliminated and a three-grade structure of process operator, senior process operator and craftsman was introduced. A large investment in skills training was made to ensure that employees acquired four additional skills. With more skills, they would be able contribute elsewhere in the production process. The third key element in the new package was the move to a continuous seven-shift system. This allowed total cover to be provided and worked well with the annual hours contract.

Finally, the ability of everyone to work together with mutual respect was considered essential to the evolution of the new culture, and an extensive training programme on team working was introduced to help break down the entrenched attitudes based on a lifetime of demarcation and suspicion of management motives.

Together with the investment in new equipment and technology, the new working practices gave us the foundation which was necessary for real involvement of employees. In addition they dramatically improved productivity and efficiency. They were self-financing - with reduced staffing levels and labour costs and increased output per employee; this resulted in higher wages and an average reduction in working time of eight hours per week.

Of course all this did not happen overnight, and the company has spent the past 10 years seeking ways to improve on these foundations; it would be wrong to say it was easy or that the changes were readily accepted by everyone. It demanded careful planning, close consultation and co-operation, but the real bottom line results have been dramatic.The themes and lessons that emerged from the BCI experience of managing cultural change are relevant to any organisation trying to improve performance through its people.

As a tribute to the real impact of these changes, it is perhaps most fitting to end with a quote from a union shop steward: 'We work in an industry where it is no longer a matter of them and us. We can now get fully involved in the business, where mutual respect is the norm.

We feel appreciated for what we do. Results are shared, there is more job satisfaction and a better service to customers - and all these have led to improvements in the bottom line.'

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