High Performance Work Organizations
Since the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) issued its report in 1991, organizations have been urged to become "high performance workplaces" and vocational educators are considering how best to prepare workers for them. What are high performance work organizations (HPWOs)? Do they exist? Are they really the wave of the future and the best hope for organizational survival into the next century? The myths and realities of HPWOs are explored in this publication.
I'll Know It When I See It
The first problem in clarifying the reality of HPWOs is trying to find consensus about what they are. Theorists and researchers of the phenomenon use various phrases to describe its features: "high skills, high wages," self-managed teams, restructuring, reengineering, reinventing. The most common characteristics appear to be as follows (Byrne 1993; Galagan 1994; Marschall 1991; SCANS 1991):
Flatter, horizontal structure instead of vertical hierarchy
Work done by teams organized around processes; teams empowered to make decisions so management is decentralized and participative
Empowered workers with high skill levels and cross-training; rewards for team performance
Collaboration among teams, between labor and management, with suppliers
Focus on customers, quality, and continuous improvement
The new work organizations described in "Reinventing America" (1992) are networked and interdependent; they feature inspirational leadership rather than micro-management. White (1994) characterizes them as "extraordinarily capable people working in teams, equipped with proper technology, focused on satisfying customers and improving performance" (p. 162). However, according to "The New Work Order" (1994), "the basic aims of the high performance workplace-to move away from mass production by improving efficiency and service-are broad enough for the phrase to mean different things to different managers" (p. 76). Two distinct models are emerging in the United States: lean production, which relies on centralized coordination, top-down total quality management, and reengineering; and team production, in which empowered workers make decisions and produce innovations.
Will the Real HPWO . . .
Like the story of the blind men and the elephant, the numbers of HPWOs vary depending on which part of the animal is being grasped. For example, a 1990 survey of 645 large companies found 13% using self-managed groups (Marschall 1991). Appelbaum and Batt's (1994) case studies of 185 Fortune 1000 firms revealed 47% using at least one self-directed team, 66% at least one quality control practice. A University of Southern California study (Dumaine 1994) showed that 68% of the Fortune 1000 use self-directed teams (SDTs). Galagan (1994) cites survey results indicating that 59% of 400 executives are conducting three or more major performance improvement projects. Osterman (1994)...