25 Feb 2013  Working Papers

Fostering Organizational Learning: The Impact of Work Design on Workarounds, Errors, and Speaking Up About Internal Supply Chain Problems

Executive Summary — In competitive environments, it is essential that organizations develop techniques that increase the willingness of employees to improve organizational performance. This is especially true in complex service organizations, such as hospitals, where employees have a wide range of discretionary activities that they can perform and lower levels of supervision. For this paper, the author conducted a series of laboratory experiments to test the possibility that managers can manipulate specific work circumstances to increase employees' willingness to speak up about problems, regardless of the employees' individual characteristics. Findings show that participants were more likely to contribute improvement suggestions when employees' role orientation was primed to include process improvement as part of daily work activities and when deliberate blockages made it difficult to work around problems in a way that conformed with policy. The study supports the notion that employee positive behavior can stem from deliberate work design, which falls under managers' jurisdiction, rather than solely from self-motivated employees. Overall, the research advances understanding of the influence of work design on two important employee behaviors-improvement-oriented action and risky workarounds that may harm customers. Key concepts include:

  • Small changes in job design can reduce employee silence about organizational problems.
  • Providing employees with time to reflect on opportunities for improvement may be a more productive vehicle for improvement-oriented voice than expecting employees to speak up about problems while they are completing routine work.
  • In addition to having a flexible role definition that includes improvement as part of one's routine work, employees should also be trained to work collaboratively to eliminate internal supply chain problems that their department causes for downstream internal customers.
  • Workers engage in risky workarounds because they feel forced to, due to their desire to complete assigned tasks.


Author Abstract

A potential avenue for organizational learning is frontline employees' experience with internal supply chain problems. However, extensive research has established that employees rarely speak up to managers about problems. They tend to work around problems without additional effort to create organizational learning. This paper tests the premise that managerial action, via work design, can alter this dynamic. We use laboratory experiments to test the impact of three work design variables on proactive, improvement-oriented behaviors, workarounds, and errors. We find that two out of the three work design variables were effective at inducing proactive improvement-oriented behavior. Our results suggest that small changes in job design can reduce employee silence about organizational problems. Furthermore, we test the impact of the variables on risky workarounds and errors to account for unanticipated negative effects of work design to facilitate speaking up.

Paper Information