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Effective Group Problem Solving Cover Contents Preface Chapter One
  Chapter Two Index Catalog Page


Chapter One

How Participation
Improves Problem Solving

Despite the many frustrations that go with conventional group problem solving, studies show that the benefits gained are usually worth the effort. Typically, several concerned and knowledgeable people will outperform one person in solving problems which do not have standard solutions.

Because it increases understanding and commitment, participation increases the likelihood of good solutions and of their effective implementation. Participation helps us to know the whys as well as the whats that are involved. It gives us a personal stake in what happens.

Other benefits of participation are enhanced team spirit, increased respect for an acceptance of the leader, and increased self-respect. We turn now to some concrete evidence.

People Want to Participate

Sirota (1969) surveyed IBM employees in forty-six countries about the type of supervision preferred. Consultation and joint decision making were clearly favored. Samuel (1972) obtained a similar result when he surveyed several hundred employees in nineteen organizations, representing six different industrial settings. Those surveyed indicated a practically uniform desire for greater participation, collaboration, and mutual responsiveness

than they were getting. Lawler, Renwick, and Bullock (1981) found that a group of 2,300 employees wanted significantly more influence over work-related decisions. A survey by IDE Research Group (1981) of 8,828 employees in 134 establishments in twelve countries found a desire for greater involvement in work-related decisions on the part of foremen and middle managers as well as workers.

Surveys show that a large group of priests and nurses also feel this way. A survey of 801 priests indicated that perceived influence in determining policies and actions was the most important factor associated with their satisfaction (Carey, 1972). Seventy-five percent of a group of 197 supervisory and non-supervisory nurses, from all departments and levels in two urban hospitals, indicated that they felt deprived of participation on the job (Alutto and Vredenburgh, 1977).

These and other studies make it clear that there is an increasing demand on the part of better educated and rights conscious group members for a bigger role in defining, analyzing, and solving problems that concern them, both in the community and in the workplace. One survey, in particular, dramatizes this trend: the percentage of employees who rated their managements favorably dropped from 40 percent in 1975-79 to just over 20 percent in 1980-84 (O'Boyle, 1985). Undoubtedly, reluctance on the part of managers to share influence is a key reason for this decline. As Lawler observes: "People are becoming less comfortable with a society in which work organizations are autocratic while the political and other features of their lives are democratic" (1986, p. 19).

Participation Produces Better Results

On the average, several people will produce more and better solutions to a non-routine problem than will a single person. This is the conclusion of a review of research studies that compare individual problem solving with conventional group problem solving (Shaw, 1976). Participation by group members facilitates understanding. Good solutions and challenging goals are valuable only to the extent that they are understood. Participation in goal

setting and in problem solving increases our understanding of what is to be done and of how it is to be done (Latham and Saari, 1979).

Even when solutions or goals are well understood, they have limited value unless they are fully accepted. High commitment distinguishes superior performers from poor performers, highly satisfied performers from dissatisfied performers. Participation in group problem solving is one of the most effective means for gaining commitment. We have abundant research evidence to support this conclusion, as the following studies, conducted in a variety of work environments, demonstrate.

A Pajama Factory

Workers on an incentive piecework system were making pajamas for a market characterized by strong price competition and seasonal style changes. The company had a history of fair dealings, so it had enjoyed good labor relations since its founding.

The economic need for regularly changing the details of work and for shifting workers about was apparent to all. Yet, many workers reacted to change by quitting, or by taking more time than an average new employee needed to reach the standard rate, even though they had only to relearn at the average rate to receive a bonus.

Management decided to study different ways of dealing with change. Workers were divided into four groups matched in terms of skill level, amount of job change required, and degree of group cohesion or "we" feeling. Only minor changes in work and time standards were involved.

The hand pressers in group I were called together and told by the production manager why it was necessary to cut costs by simplifying the product, that sales would be lost if they could not match lower prices. The minor changes in work and the piecework rate were explained. Questions were invited and frank answers were given.

The pajama folders in group 2 were called together before any specific work changes had been decided upon, and the need for cost reduction was explained as done with group 1. Agreement was

reached that necessary savings could be made through changes in the work; that representatives of the group would collaborate with management in determining the changes; and that these representatives would then master the new procedure, serve as time study subjects for setting a new rate, and assist in explaining the changes. —

The pajama examiners in groups 3 and 4 were exposed to the same treatment as group 2, except that every member participated in planning and implementing the work changes. In view of the pre-study similarity of the groups and the relatively minor work changes made, the dissimilarities in their reactions are striking.

Members of group 1 rejected management's changes, despite the realistic explanations given and management's willingness to answer any questions. They regarded the changes as arbitrary and unreasonable. Their production dropped, from a pre-change level of sixty units per hour to fifty units per hour, and it remained there until the group was broken up for reassignment thirty-two days after the change.

It was discovered later that the production drop resulted from group agreement to "get even" with management for its "unfair action." Three group members quit, there were strong expressions of aggression against management, and grievances were filed against the piece rate (which later study showed to be too generous rather than too "tight").

With dramatic contrast, production rose in the other three groups, from a pre-change level of sixty units per hour, to seventy units per hour within thirty days after the change. No grievances were filed, no employees quit, and group members retained a cooperative attitude toward management. They referred to the changed job as "our job" and the changed rate as "our rate." In addition, the same supervisor who received criticism from group I received support and cooperation as the supervisor of group 2.

The main difference between group 2 (which had representatives participate) and groups 3 and 4 (which had all members participate) was the length of time that output stayed down after the work changes were made. The two full-participation groups recovered at a much faster rate.

There is an important postscript. Two-and-one-half months after their reassignment to other parts of the plant, the thirteen surviving members of group 1 were regrouped and assigned to a new presser job, one that presented about the same level of difficulty as the changed job they had refused to adjust to before the breakup of their group. This time, however, a full participation approach was used. The group's response now paralleled the positive responses that groups 3 and 4 had given to full participation (Coch and French, 1948; Marrow, Bowers, and Seashore, 1967).

What is striking about this study is the dramatic difference that participation made with regard to workers accepting changes which were logically in their best interests. After all, these workers were on an incentive pay system administered by trustworthy management, and all knew that their jobs would be threatened if the company became less competitive in a "dog-eat-dog" market.

Another study in the same pajama factory provides additional evidence about the value of group problem solving for obtaining acceptance of change. The director of personnel research wanted the management staff to accept the hiring of older people. The director had evidence to show that older people had the required skills and aptitudes, but the staff remained opposed. He suggested that the staff undertake a modest research project. Since older workers are inefficient, would it not be useful to determine the cost of continuing the older workers currently employed? They agreed, and undertook the study.

Results obtained by the management staff were contrary to their expectations, but similar to the research director's evidence, namely, that older people are desirable employees. This time, however, staff were willing to accept and act upon the evidence; now it was their evidence (Marrow and French, 1945).

A similar case for participation is made by Fleishman (1965). In a study of veteran workers in a positive work environment, representational involvement significantly reduced production drops that had previously accompanied changes in style instituted by management. Without input, worker dissatisfaction occurred despite the fact that each operator had continued to perform essentially the same basic operations.

An Aerospace Company

A large aerospace company, the primary supplier of electronics for ICBM guidance systems, experimented with participative management as a means of reducing errors and increasing employee satisfaction. Over a four-year period, some forty groups of employees became involved in a group problem-solving approach. In each case, the results indicate the importance of acceptance. For example, a group-set goal to reduce inspection paperwork errors by 50 percent produced a 75 percent reduction over a three-month period in one group; whereas, the same goal assigned individually in another group produced no change. A group of women requested and obtained music in their work area (via tapes and earphones) and their output increased significantly; however, when this same accommodation was extended unilaterally by management to other groups in the department, no changes in output occurred. Members of one of three groups doing assembly work requested that their workbenches be turned around so that they could avoid facing a bare wall. Only the requesting group was noticeably pleased after management made the change for all three groups. The other two groups appeared indifferent.

Again, these results show how the way in which a change is made can have more influence on acceptance than the nature of the change itself. Over the four-year period, production increases averaged 20-30 percent and error reductions averaged 30-50 percent, in twenty-seven of the forty groups encouraged to participate in decision making (Hinrichs, 1978).

The Issue of Fairness

When an issue of fairness arises, what is viewed as being right usually depends upon the background and values of the viewer. Often, what a group leader would prescribe, even with the best of intentions, is not what his or her group would suggest. This difference has been demonstrated many times by running a study in which several groups are given the same "fairness" problem to solve.

One such problem might concern a foreman's assignment of a new truck to one of five drivers. It is not obvious who should get the truck. Each driver could make a claim, depending upon how one values such factors as seniority, amount of driving required, personal health, accident and maintenance records, preference about the make of truck, and the age and condition of each currently assigned truck.

Various groups have produced some thirty different solutions to this problem. They consistently prefer their own solutions, even after seeing the additional advantages offered by other solutions (BNA Films, 1965). In 76 percent of sixty-two groups in which leaders let the group decide, all group members were satisfied with the joint solution and only three percent of the groups had two or more dissatisfied members. However, in twenty-four groups in which the leader was perceived as dominating the decision process, only 4 percent of groups were free of dissatisfaction and 42 percent had two or more dissatisfied members (Maier and Hoffman, 1962). These results reinforce the fact that group member satisfaction can depend more upon an opportunity to participate — to "own" a solution — than upon the nature of the solution itself.

Scanlon, Rucker, and Improshare Plan Firms

Scanlon, Rucker, and Improshare plans provide employees with a form of partnership based on management's willingness to share productivity gains and influence. The success of this approach requires employee participation in problem solving. It offers the opportunity to challenge current ways of doing things, coupled with the responsibility for coming up with good alternatives. Problem identification and problem solving are accomplished in committees composed of both labor and management representatives. The importance of employee participation has been demonstrated repeatedly by the disappointing results associated with plans that have neglected this aspect (Fox, 1978; White, 1979).

The following results are attributed to adoption of the Scanlon plan by an electrical products company in Tennessee (G. Sherman's foreword to Moore and Ross, 1978):

· An average increase of 9 percent in direct labor efficiency;
· An increase of 16 percent in indirect or support labor productivity;
· Halving of the grievance rate;
· Reduction of the quit rate from an annual average of 30 percent to 5 ..percent; and
· Monthly employee bonuses averaging 13 percent of competitive base, in addition to greatly improved employee morale.

Of thirty successful Scanlon plan companies cited by Moore and Ross (1978), seven permitted the pooling of their financial data. They had paid an average monthly bonus of almost 10 percent above competitive base pay to their employees over a period of ten years.

Mitchell Fein (1982) reports an average 24.4 percent improvement in productivity for fifty-seven companies in their first year of using his Improshare plan. Workers were given 50 percent of the money saved.

The U.S. General Accounting Office (1981) made a study of twenty-four firms representing all three plans. It found that those in operation more than five years had averaged almost 29 percent labor cost savings for the most recent five-year period. Additional accomplishments commonly cited were better teamwork and cooperation, faster responses to problems, better product quality, less resistance to change, more employee involvement, and lower rates of absenteeism and turnover.


Traditionally, salespeople have been motivated by having their own territories, being on commission, and being encouraged to outdo each other. Research shows that a group problem-solving approach can produce even better results than this traditional approach.

In one study, a new regional sales manager held regular problem-solving meetings with his group of fourteen local sales managers. In turn, he encouraged them to hold such meetings with their salespeople. His region had been below the top one-fourth of all regions in performance at the time he took over. Within two years, it became the leading division and went on to improve that lead (Likert, 1961, pp. 188-190).

In another study, a consultant used attitude survey data to guide a regional sales manager and his subordinate managers toward a more supportive, group problem-solving approach to leadership. A significant shift in supervisory behavior in the desired direction was shown by a comparison of before and after data supplied by subordinate managers seven months later. Sales had risen from an average level to a point where they were higher than the sales of a larger region which had a 25 percent higher sales growth potential, and this increase in productivity was accompanied by increases in cooperation and teamwork at all levels (Likert and Likert, 1976, pp. 78-82).

Merchant Marine

Based on long-standing tradition and irrespective of nationality, merchant ship captains and their staffs have maintained social distance from their crews in that they have unilaterally made decisions about the running of their ships. They have created and maintained authoritarian shipboard cultures, nurtured by separate sleeping, dining, and recreational facilities.

Due to the growing contrast between these practices and a trend toward employee participation in industry, Norwegian shipping firms began in the 1960s to have difficulty in recruiting sailors for their ships. Consequently, in 1968, the planning of a program of research and development to improve the quality of working life in the merchant marine was undertaken by a group of researchers in collaboration with representatives from the unions, the industry, and the government. They decided to make and study significant changes in living arrangements, the organization of work, and the sharing of influence on two project ships (Thorsrud, 1981).

These changes were so productive that, over a six-year period, they were introduced on most of the forty-five ships of the firm that owned the two project ships, as well as to many ships of other firms. The Norwegian government initiated significant changes in the training of seamen, their career planning, and the design of merchant ships. And now, "Ship-Meets-Ship" conferences are held periodically so that representatives of different innovative ships can compare notes and enrich each other's practices.

According to Thorsrud, a key aspect of the program is that " . . . sailors were accepted as competent partners with a right to influence their future work environment" (1981, p. 323).

Salaried Retail Sales Clerks

Four department stores from a family-owned chain participated in this study. All four handled the same type of merchandise and utilized the same organization structure and operating procedures. Three were located in large, suburban shopping malls and one was located in a commercialized business district. No sales clerks were paid on a commission basis; however, a computerized record of each clerk's sales per hour was kept. Since surveys had revealed employee dissatisfaction with pay and various policies, management agreed to experiment with the following approaches in three of the four stores, using one (store A) as a control site:

Incentive Only Condition (store B). Sales goals were assigned to each department in store B, based on the previous year's level and on acceptability to the sales clerks. Those who performed best against these goals for the four-week period could choose from a list of incentives (established on the basis of a poll), such as a day off with pay, an outfit at cost, being assistant manager for a day, movie tickets, or being permitted to schedule one's hours of work.

Participation Only Condition (store C). Sales clerks were divided into discussion groups to determine the procedure that

would be used for approaching customers during the four-week period. (A survey had indicated considerable resentment of management's required procedure.)

Combined Condition (store D). Sales clerks employed both the incentive condition of store B and the participation condition of store C. The procedure decided on for approaching customers was the same as that chosen by the sales clerks of store C.

The results were clear-cut. The sales clerks in store D, using both participation and incentives, sold significantly more per hour than the clerks in the other three stores. Neither store B nor store C sales clerks did significantly better than the clerks in store A, the control site.

When the four-week experimental treatments ended, the stores returned to their pre-experiment sales levels. Six weeks after this, store A clerks were given the same incentive/participation treatment that store D clerks had received, with all three other stores serving as control sites. This time, store A clerks sold significantly more than all the other clerks (Neider, 1980).

In one respect, a similar result was obtained from the analysis of six years of data from the principal foundry of a medium size U.S. manufacturer. Workers participated in meetings to define and solve work-related problems, and received productivity bonuses in those weeks in which production costs fell below standard performance costs. Participation and financial incentive, employed together, produced a significantly bigger impact on productivity than either alone.

However, unlike the weaker treatments with the sales clerks, the more powerful forms of participation and monetary incentive used in the foundry each made a significant impact on output, participation being the more important of the two (Rosenberg and Rosenstein, 1980).

When we compare these results to those obtained in studying Scanlon, Rucker, and Improshare plan workers and sales personnel, we see a consistent trend: participation enhances the motivational effects of other incentives.

A Hospital

In a study by Bragg and Andrews (1973), a highly effective hospital laundry supervisor, who used a driving, authoritarian style of leadership, agreed to try a participative, decision-making approach with his group of thirty-two workers. The primary reason for the trial was to see if the work could be made more interesting, since the productivity of the group was already excellent.

Group meetings were called when there were specific proposals to discuss. Any aspect of managing the laundry could be considered at these meetings, except for union matters and personal grievances. This policy produced twenty-eight meetings in which 147 employee suggestions were discussed during the first fifteen months of the program.

Initial employee uncertainty about this new opportunity for participation gave way within two months to a positive attitude, which increased in strength thereafter. For example, in the thirty-eight reporting periods after the change, the rate of absenteeism for the group was lower than the overall hospital rate thirty-two out of thirty-eight times; whereas, before the change it had been lower only twenty-three out of thirty-eight times. Productivity rose from a pre-change average of fifty pounds of laundry processed per paid employee hour (higher than output in two comparison hospitals) to seventy-eight pounds one year after the change. Productivity later stabilized at seventy-three pounds.

At the time this study was reported, the participation program had survived for three years and was still going strong. The laundry supervisor indicated that it would be easy for him to revert to his old style, but he would miss the satisfaction he had gotten from the participative approach. He added that he had not had to reprimand a single individual since making the change.

The increase in productivity is particularly impressive when we consider that output before the change was already excellent, and there was no monetary incentive involved. This success resulted in the introduction of participative decision-making to the hospital's staff and to a medical records section, with beneficial results in both instances.


A Volunteer Organization

The relationship between leadership and organizational effectiveness was studied in a random sample of 104 local leagues of the League of Women Voters. Effectiveness was defined as the extent to which a league accomplished its goals. This was assessed by twenty-nine judges with broad league experience. They took into account the resources available to each league. Results showed that

· The greater the pressure to participate (from themselves, their fellow members, and their discussion leaders), the more effective the ...league.
· The more a member saw a responsive interest in her ideas, the more ...likely she would be active.
·..The presidents of the more effective leagues were seen as ...understanding the views and sentiments of members better than the ...presidents of the less effective leagues.

As in the preceding studies, an underlying theme is one of shared influence. League members associate the interest shown in their ideas with the amount of influence they feel they can exert (Likert, 1961). The more they feel that their participation is welcome and matters, the more committed they become to league activities.

This relationship between participation in decision making and attitudes toward involvement, motivation, and identification with an organization also held true for a large sample of industrial employees, specifically, 2,100 workers and 380 managers in various Scanlon plan companies (Frost, Wakeley, and Ruh, 1974).

In Conclusion

Research results provide a clear answer to the question: "Why invite participation?" Group problem solving gives us a better grasp of the problems we face, more and better solutions to them, and better commitment to making the solutions work in practice. These benefits, in turn, are associated with the ultimate payoffs of improved satisfaction and performance.

We have looked at only a part of the supporting evidence. A 1975 survey of fifty-seven field studies by the National Science Foundation found productivity increases due to worker participation in 80 percent of organizations studied, and a review of 103 worker productivity experiments by Katzell in 1977 confirmed this finding (Stokes, 1978-79). Additional evidence relevant to the performance of special types of participation groups is presented in Chapters Eleven through Thirteen.

However, a word of caution is in order. Some of the studies reviewed in this chapter involved participative group process in a larger organizational setting, with results reported in terms of organizational outcomes. Although effective group process is essential for successful participative management of an organization, there are other requirements as well. Foremost among these are an organizational climate that supports the sharing of influence and safeguards that protect all organization members from being penalized as a result of gains in effectiveness made possible by their problem-solving contributions.

Typically, managers associate increased output with good bonuses and increased job security; whereas, rank-and-file workers often associate it with reduced workweeks, unexplained job shifts, or termination. At the same time, many supervisors and staff specialists end up finding themselves "rewarded" for helping to create successful self-managing groups by having their responsibilities diminished and their futures made less certain.

Although the subject of this book — effective group problem solving — is a key requirement for overall organizational viability, it is but one of many factors. Lawler (1986) ably discusses the other requirements in his book, High Involvement Management.


Effective Group Problem Solving Cover Contents Preface Chapter One
  Chapter Two Index Catalog Page