Archive : Where a lack of incentives is a barrier to productivity

By Nick Boulter, Longbridge November 1977 to March 1979, the last year as TGWU shop steward

‘Whenever the track stopped, the steward used to rush into the foreman ‘s office demanding that they got it going again.’ Is this a modern Russian Stakhanovite on a Lada production line? Or perhaps a Japanese worker at Honda? In fact, they are the words of a BL car worker at Longbridge, the company ‘s biggest factory.

In the present crisis in BL, with the need to raise productivity, it introduces the opinions of the one group of people whose ideas on improving productivity are never sought. BL workers may be balloted again on the latest Edwardes strategy, but their own ideas on how changes can be made are rarely sought by the senior management. Indeed, workers are often treated as only an ‘x’ factor, a group to be lectured to, to have new work methods experimented on, and to be maligned, but not consulted.

Over time managements have experimented with different wage systems. Longbridge was built on piecework. Austin saw workers as animals with’Pavlovian’ instincts responding to the money incentive only. The method produced good levels of productivity. But the cost lay in a loss of control by management over wage and hence unit costs. Against the wishes of the workers, the company, by then British Leyland, introduced Measured Day Work (in the early 1970s).

This has led to a great drop in productivity, and the company is now looking at alternative methods of working (such as introducing greater job enrichment ( with union co-operation) and new incentive schemes to boost output. Piecework on the track was tough, a jungle, and required that a man was physically fit in order to cope. The idea of the men was basically to get the maximum output with the least number of men and so bid up the rates. If in a gang of six men, four reckoned they could handle the job, then two were ”squeezed’ out.

It was a dog-eat-dog environment, and few workers would want to go back to it. But it engendered pride and application. One man, not the one quoted above, told me ‘when the tracks stopped, you were shouting at them (the foreman) to get it going because you were losing money. Under piecework, it was the men who really ran the track.’

Eddie who has been at Longbridge for 12 years also told me: ‘There isn’t the pride in the job that there used to be under piecework. Then, when a man did a job, he knew that it was his job, and if he didn’t do it right he was called to the front to do it again, and the whole gang suffered. Whereas today, a bloke does a job, and he doesn’t care if it’s right or wrong. It gets left for a rectifier.’

Under piecework cash is the stick and carrot. Measured day work is supposed to be based on a more scientific approach. Time and motion men, now called industrial engineers, measure the number of men needed to man a track at a given speed. The onus to run the track passes from the self interest of the men to foremen and management. At Longbridge and other BL plants, there are a number of reasons why measured day work (MDW) does not work, in many areas production is down by a quarter on piecework days.

Under-investment in plant and machinery is one reason. And the inability of management and supervision to run and organise the tracks is another. These must be important reasons, after all, Ford’s has always run successfully on MDW. But the men themselves put it down, plainly, to a lack of incentive to work. Instead of being paid on output, payment under MDW is made for being present for a 40-hour week.

One man summed up the attitude that has developed: ‘… there ‘s no incentive to work. Why not take as long a teabreak as you can? If you had the choice of sitting down and being paid at the end of the week, or working and being paid the same amount, which would you do? Its only human nature.’

It is arguable that Longbridge workers have taken piecework attitudes to MDW. Under piecework, shopfloor bargaining was used to bid up the rate for the job, partly through shedding labour. But now the same process of shopfloor bargaining is used to bid up the numbers in each gang. In order to make the job easier. The men again saw this as ‘human nature.’ (The work is, after all, tedious). They readily admitted that there was surplus labour on the tracks. But universally they shared the view that the company was ‘top-heavy with non-producers. Too many ‘ penguins ‘ walking around, taking money out of the company and putting nothing in.’

Their attitude, right or wrong ‘ was that they were not in control of the company, but if that was the way things were developing, then they would get their oar in. But many did this with resentment. One worker,’ celebrating’ his 49th year at Longbridge said: ‘Well, I would like to say, that for the people who have been here and have seen the place as it was, profitable, it was a pleasure to come here. You had a pride in your job, you knew that you were doing a good day’s work for a good day’s pay. But we have gradually seen it deteriorate. It’s a crying shame the way its been let run-down to the extent it is. The worst thing they ever did was to bring in MDW.’

The workers blamed the management and the pay system for the problems. Management were blamed for being out-of-touch, of refusing to talk with the men, and of not being capable of running the system. Workers who have been on the shop floor for many years find themselves with different senior managers nearly every year, who then move on and leave the men to live with the consequences of their decisions.

The men believed that if they were consulted that they could make a valuable contribution. Instead they are only asked to vote for or against management ultimatums. To these workers, the way to bring back a willingness to work hard, and to improve quality, is to reintroduce a cash incentive. (Perhaps Austin had something after all). However, recent attempts by BL to introduce new productivity payments have been rejected ‘as unattainable’ by the men in company ballots, not because the levels set for bonus were too high, but because the payments would be for a factory, or the whole company, and these are scales too large for the men to relate to.

In a factory of 17,000, where men are divided into’shops’ of 500 or so, there is always suspicion that the other shift, or one of the other shops, is not working hard enough. Or that the management might’ cook the books.’ And so the direct incentive to get out on the track and work hard disappears. Instead, the men wanted a bonus system based on the gang or, at the most, on the shop, entities which they thought they could control and relate to, there they could scrutinise output and be paid, for example, for exceeding 80 per cent of a their standard output.

There is still the desire to see BL succeed, their livelihoods and employment are largely bound up to the companies fate. But they believe senior management should approach the men willing to learn and not—-as one man put it—-‘shout at us from the TV.’

Keith Adams

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