Some of these less desirable tasks, for example, have been taken over by robots. Volvo, for example, installed its first robot in 1971. That decision had to be made by the chief executive officer because there were no rules to delegate authority for something that was not profitable, and there was no way to calculate a return on the first robot.
Today a new production organization can be designed in such a way that, to a much greater extent than in the past, it corresponds to the way people wish to organize themselves. Earlier, the heavy, capital-intensive technology had to dominate people, who were really the servants of that system and of that technology. With a new, light, flexible technology, a manufacturer can organize people so that they are in command of the technology—a very dramatic change. Volvo has used this change in programs to develop and promote employees. We have sought to give them training not only in new technologies, such as the lighter, more flexible, and also more complicated equipment, but also in a new responsibility to accept a much greater mandate in minding their own workstations. Volvo has used this approach to extend work cycles from 90 seconds up to 1 or 2 hours, to let the employees organize themselves the way they find appropriate and to do things right and exercise their own quality control. The most common work organization today is a team of 3–12 people who are responsible for a well-defined part of the production. Normally, this includes quality inspection, handling of incoming materials, maintenance, planning, and problem solving.
New technologies also provide opportunities to create more flexible work environments. For example, one of the main problems in large-scale manufacturing or any area of manufacturing that involves large numbers of components—such as the automotive industry—is that of materials handling. Here the available technologies include the self-propelled, computer-guided carriers that help to keep the floor clear of equipment because all equipment is mobile. This technology also makes it possible to change the layout of equipment to fit particular work organizations.
What manufacturers see, therefore, based on the new technology, is a freedom they have not had before. They can either use this freedom to contribute to development of their employees or they can continue to organize their plants in a conservative fashion. Manufacturers will find, however, that the new competitive tool is to organize production so that they can develop their workers. The necessity of employee development represents a major task and a new role for management. Not only does it entail a new kind of technical training but it also includes leadership training that was not even considered a possibility for blue-collar workers 10 years ago. To implement a new management philosophy, Volvo started pioneering plant projects in the early 1970s. The best known of these has been the Kalmar plant. These projects became real and visible symbols for people to learn from and have been the source of experience and productive ideas that have been diffused to other parts of the organization.