Productivity: What is America's problem?

Dwelling above Commencement Bay in Tacoma, Wash., is a bit like living by an off-ramp of a Japanese freeway. Freight carriers come off the throughway regularly and, though they are ships, not trucks, they bring Japanese-made goods destined for consumers across America. Then they turn around and carry away bulk cargos, mainly grains and unprocessed logs.

Watching this we are forced to ask, what has happened to the United States of America, the ''can-do'' country of the '20s and '30s? Are we destined to become a colony-like economy - a source of raw materials and a market for the manufactured goods of Japan? Will the service industries of repairing Sony televisions and changing the oil of Toyotas and Hondas become our major job providers?

Productivity - that's the key, already well identified by many analysts. But how do we get our work force to produce higher quality products at better prices? Proposed solutions have focused at the level of techniques, such as participative management and Japan's special version of this, the quality circle.

An important question needs to be raised about these proposed solutions. Do they seek to paste over the symptoms while leaving the major causes untouched?

We believe that to a great degree, the answer is yes. Low productivity and poor quality are a reflection of a major change in society's and workers' values over the last three decades. Technical solutions have short-term relevance at best.

Viewed from the writers' seemingly disparate disciplines of management studies and social ethics, the problem seems basically rooted in a long deterioration of personal and social values - the breakdown of America's traditional work ethic and the rise of an egoistic, now-oriented value system molded and supported by several social institutions and patterns.

Here are some indicators of a long-term deterioration of values:

1. Profit has become widely regarded as a dirty word to such an extent that accountants tell us to call it ''earnings'' in the hope it won't be noticed.

2. Welfare programs have been spread over the countryside. These demonstrate a just and good conscience but also a willingness to pay for these present benefits by taxing future generations through government borrowing.

3. Workers have regularly negotiated wage increases which leap beyond both increases in their productivity and the cost of living. Rewards are no longer commensurate with contributions.

When we discussed these reflections with the president of a regional food processing company, he observed that in the work force about 25 percent have the ''old world'' work ethic of high-output, high-quality work. About 50 percent are in between, doing their work as a means of earning a living. The remaining 25 percent are agitators, those who oppose management merely because it is there and who therefore resist management's attempts to increase productivity. The biggest problem is that the chronically dissatisfied workers sway the in-between workers, thereby causing 75 percent of the work force to be low-quantity, low-quality workers.

Why is the first group productive? Is it because they are singled out for participative management encounters? For quality circles? No. It is because their personal values call for them to be productive and to enable the system to work. They respect legitimate authority.

Now we ask: Can the old work values be reconstituted in a substantial majority of the work force?

We acknowledge that value systems have high ''inertia'' but propose that essential values in the in-between group of workers can be changed so that they emulate the productive minority rather than the disruptive minority. These value changes can be affected within the organization through the use of appropriate cues and reinforcements.

Historically American business has relied on the home, the school, and the church to cultivate the values of the work force. Today, that passive approach is insufficient because the effectiveness of home, school, and church to socialize our vast populace has decreased. Management must, therefore, give increased attention to the means of shaping and cultivating values within the organization if the ambivalent group is to become committed.

The approach we are advocating is a long-term attack on the decline in American productivity. Its results will be felt in 10 and 15 years if begun today, and even further in the future if the implementation is delayed. But it seems to us the only sound solution, and the only way to get a long-term reversal of America's slide into an economically colonized status.

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