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Unlocking work standards through systematic work observation: implications for team supervision
Journal article, Peer reviewed
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Original versionTeam Performance Management. 2013, 19 (5/6), 279-291. 10.1108/TPM-11-2012-0039
Purpose - Companies with routine operations often pursue team-based continuous improvement in the context of standardized work. Continuous improvement requires that work standards are periodically "unlocked", i.e. made objects of reflection and improvement. This paper theorizes and empirically explores a method for unlocking standards which has received little attention in the literature: systematic work observation. We identify which factors constitute and promote a work observation practice that supports continuous improvement. Design/methodology/approach - The paper presents an explorative, qualitative case study of an industrial company, in which systematic work observation is practised. Empirical material was collected from two principal sources: 1) company documentation and teaching material; and 2) interviews with workers, managers and work design experts from three of the company’s major plants. Findings - Systematic work observation supports continuous improvement when there is genuine two-way communication between the worker being observed and the supervisor acting as observer. Through dialogue, the appropriateness of the standard procedure is reflected on. Systematic work observation is supported by frequent day-to-day interaction between supervisors and workers. Frequent interaction builds relationships of trust and a shared purpose. A necessary requirement is that supervisors are technically competent and know the details of the operating procedures. Our results also indicate that supervisors, not fellow workers, should preferably take the role as observers. Originality/value - Systematic work observation as an instrument for continuous improvement has not yet been explored in a serious scholarly manner. Our findings have practical implications for companies that wish to implement systematic work observation.