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The Quality of Work Life-

the Volvo Experience Berth JOnsson

ABSTRACT. Volvo is convinced that there are great workers, primarily consisted of Swedish men in
possibilities to create more effective job design solutions. their most active years. This category of people
The new strategy on production technology and works diminished continuously in importance during
organization was developed i n the early 70s. Since then the 1960s. During the economic boom in
the concept of flexible technology, team work and a 69 the situation became acute. During the latter
spirit of collaboration has diffused to all the d i f f e r e n t
years of the decade, foreign workers became the
product groups.
The base for this development must be new technology, primary group to be hired into industry. In
the capability and knowledge among the employees Volvo today, for instance, about one third of
combined with a managerial approach that mobilizes the blue-collar workers are non-Swedes.
potential of good working ability. The changed During the 1970s, however, the largest group
directions both include moving toward craftsmanship i n entering the labor market has been women.
assembly operations as well as automation in manufac- Almost the total net increase in working popu-
turing whenever feasible. lation is due to women. To a great extent,
women demand part-time jobs. About 90
percent of part-time workers are women. Part-
The Swedish labor market has been described as
time work in Sweden ( 1 - 3 4 hours per week) is
one of that most flexible which ever existed. This
characterized by:
is characterized by a variety of work patterns in
- 1 out of 5 are working part-time - in
terms of working hours which are mainly a func-
industry 1 out of 10.
tion of three changing variables:
- 9 out of 10 are women.
1. the structure of the work force;
- 4 out of 5 are part-time workers in the
2. the legal structure and labor contracts; and
annual increase in labor force (1974-1977).
3. work ethics.
-Part-time less than 20 hours/week is
Variables in Work Patterns
A third category of people that continues to
enter the labor market is young Swedes with a
Changing Structure o f work force more basic education than the earlier generation.
Compulsory schooling in Sweden today is nine
The Swedish work force has increased in hetero- years. Very few people end their education with
geneity very rapidly in the last ten to fifteen compulsory school. Most of them continue
years. The pace of change probably has few studies at the level of secondary education or
parallels in the western world. The structure of higher. The increased heterogeneity of the work
human resources in industry has also changed force has caused some severe problems for indus-
try. For example,
greatly. The potential labor force, from which
- a shortage in Swedish work force and cer-
industry once hired the main bulk of its manual
tain resistance from young Swedes particularly
to go into industry. This tendency dominated in
the late 1960s and early 70s;
Berth J6nsson, Corporate Development, Volvo. - increasing 'absenteeism and the changing

Journal of Business Ethics 1 (1982) 119-126. 0167-4544/82/0012-0119500.80.

Copyright © 1981 by Oelgeschlager,Gunn & Hain, Publisherg,Inc., Cambridge,Mass.
120 Berth Jdinsson

nature of absenteeism on the whole labor hours; six hours including shift-work).
market. From 1970 to !976 the total number of Certain social benefits have had an indirect
people employed in the Swedish labor market effect on the availability of working hours. The
increased by 234,000. In the same period absen- greatest impact has come from the reforms in
teeism increased from 12.6 percent to 15.1 per- the sickness-insurance system.
cent. This means that the increase of people who
were actually working is 132,000. Almost every
second person who is entering the labor market Changing ethics in regard to work
has, in effect, only compensated for the increase
of absenteeism. Increasing absenteeism conse- The evolution of an affluent society like
quently means a greater demand for labor. Sweden's has, naturally, also had an impact on
Causes of absenteeism vary with different ethics concerning work. On the surface, it seems
categories of people; paradoxical that more people are working than
- a labor force turnover rate on a fluctuating ever while opinion research shows that fewer
but high level between 1967 and 1974. Person- people find their job as attractive as it once was.
nel turnover has decreased considerably over the Professor Hans Zetterberg at the Swedish
last three years and is today round 10 percent Opinion Research Institute has shown that fewer
or lower on an annual basis. During the late 60s people today express the view that work gives
it was as high as 50 percent for large scale plants the greatest meaning to their lives compared to
in certain regions. two decades ago. Work has been traditionally a
'life-style' for many people. Today there are
many other 'life-styles' competing with work.
New laws and labor agreements Work gives the necessary monetary base for
people to undertake other life-styles. The most
Over the last few years a number of new labor important general tendency is different leisure
market laws and agreements have been intro- time activities. One would assume that some
duced. Many of these have had a restraining kind of optimization of time and money would
impact on the supply ofworkinghours. Although be the goal. These changes are fairly dramatic
the total number of employees has increased and will undoubtedly lead to different job
steadily, the total number of effective working expectations and a call for reforms in life at
hours is hardly increasing. The options for dif- work.
ferent patterns of working life have become
The most important laws and agreements Different phases of development at Volvo
which have a direct effect on working hours
include the following: Development of job design at Volvo has gone
parentalleave (maternity/paternity)
- through two major phases. Although each phase
- child care leave can be identified with one particular plant at a
study leave
- time, there have been overlaps between plants.
- language training for foreign employees One plant may have started redesigning jobs
- restrictions on overtime later than another, or one particular plant may
- restrictions on shift-work have reached a certain stage in its development
- five weeks of vacation earlier than another plant. Regardless of these
part-time pension
- overlaps and different paces of development,
- work environment law there are some common characteristics of each
- time for union work phase.
- flexible working hours - local agreements In the mid-1960s a number of initiatives was
for white-collar employees taken on a voluntary basis. Programs came out
- part-time work - local agreements (four spontaneously with little notice being taken. We
The Volvo Experience 121

call this first phase of redesign the Spontaneous Formulation of a strategy

Trial Period. Work was going on in different
places disconnected from each other and top Pehr G. Gyllenhammar, president of Volvo, has
management's purview. stated:
The motives for change varied from one
department to the other. High personnel turn-
The modern working man needs a sense of purpose
over (sometimes amounting to 50 percent or and satisfaction in his daily work. He feels the need
more), an increasing absenteeism rate, medical of belonging to a team, of being able to feel at home
and economic problems, production losses and in his surroundings, of being able to identify himself
quality problems were some of the forces of with the goods he produces and - n o t least - o f
change. One can identify a number of personal feeling that he is appreciated for the work he per-
initiatives behind these first redesign efforts. forms.
They came from the shopfloor, supervision, Factory work must be adapted to people , and not
manufacturing managers, industrial engineers, people to machines, This calls for innovation both in
the union, doctors, etc. All the personalities in- the field of human relations and as regards technical
volved had some deep concern for people and aspects,
I believe that humanization of work and efficiency
the problem of alienation.
can be compatible.
At the time of the Kalmar project (1971), Indeed, I believe that, in today's society, they are
there was a demand from top management to inseparable.
take a more holistic approach. In this project a
whole new concept was about to be implemen-
ted. The only way to do this was to put together It has often been pointed out that to promote a
all the accumulated experience from the different change process requires the backing of top
plants. The effect was not only that the Kalmar management. Most often it takes more than just
plant was built but also that it opened up com- verbal commitment. In the case of Volvo's
munication between plants and projects in an Kalmar Plant, three basic necessary steps were
interdisciplinary way. taken by Mr Gyllenhammar:
A new strategy started to emerge. We call this 1. He wrote an internal memo to explain his
phase the Sociotechnicat Strategy Period. Since vision of how to design work in an automobile
1971-72, a number of projects have started and assembly plant both in terms of hardware tech-
Volvo definitely has left the disconnected trial nology and work organization;
period. We built on all the experience gained in 2. he gained support from both managers and
the different plants and on active and explicit workers on the final alternative (several sketches
support from top management. No company can had been discussed before the final alternative
afford experimenting on this broad scale. It was decided upon); and
must create a strategy and decide how to go 3. he submitted the issue of investment to
about implementing it in the most efficient the board of directors and won acceptance.
manner. Hence the term experiment cannot The basic shape of the factory emerged from
apply to projects during the second phase. the idea of production teams. Each assembly
We are right now in an advanced stage of the team has its own area of the factory where it
second phase which includes new creative solu- carries out its part of the assembly operation.
tions to flexible hardware technology and the The autonomy of the teams has been empha-
diffusion of ideas to Volvo subsidiaries outside sized through the shape of the building and the
Sweden. By now, change has become institu- supplying of each team with its own personnel
tionalized, with a variety of patterns but with a facilities. The components inventory that sup-
common ground. Learning. and diffusion of ideas plies materials to all the teams is located in the
are occurring continuously. center of the building. The teams are spread out
along the outer walls of the building. Production
began in February 1974. The factory is designed
122 Berth Jdnsson

for the assembly of 30,000 cars per year, with now become even more marked at full capacity
one shift of assembly workers. production, and the extra investment cost is
An important innovation in the new produc- completely offset. Productivity is around 20 per-
tion system is the battery-powered assembly cent higher than the original target set.
carrier that functions both as a transport device - The team organization and the technolog-
and assembly platform. A central computer ical production apparatus permit a higher degree
keeps track of all the carriers and checks their of influence by employees on their own work
movement along the production process than in a conventional assembly system.
between work areas. They are powered through - The design of the factory has provided a
magnetic tracks embedded in the floor and can good basis for team organization.
be maneuvered manually with operating levers. - Most workers are very positive toward the
Thanks to this carrier, assembly can be carried team organization and have a strong feeling of
out on stationary cars, which is an extremely belonging to their team.
important difference from conventional moving- - The company has delegated responsibility
line-fixed-pace assembly. Moreover, the carrier to the teams to design their own organizations
is designed so that it can be easily tilted by 90 within a certain framework. In a traditional
degrees when components are being assembled organization, all division of the work is planned
on the underside of the car. at a superior hierarchical level in the line organi-
Before and after each work team's area, there zation. At Kalmar, considerable leeways has
are places for incoming and outgoing assembly been left to the teams to decide the distribution
carriers. These buffers make it possible for the of the work. What happens between the time the
team, within certain limits, to work ahead and incoming materials are received and when com-
accumulate time for extra work breaks. The pleted assembly is dispatched is largely up to the
work is arranged so that it takes the same teams to decide. In order to fulfill their assign-
amount of time to carry out the tasks at one ments, the team members must organize their
work station as at another. The basis for this own work. This includes, among other things,
balance of task cycles is worked out with the setting rules for job switching and working
help of method-time-measurement studies, and ahead of extra breaks.
the task packages at the various stations are nor- Though Kalmar may be considered a qualified
mally known as 'balances'. success since it costs around 10 percent more
After interviewing many employees, the than a conventional plant of equal capacity,
Rationalization Council's investigators reached a seven new plants (one in Holland, six in Sweden)
number of conclusions. Since this investigation have been built recently based on the Kalmar
was made in 1976 the Kalmar plant has gained experience. These installations cost no more
more experience and has reached the level of full than conventional plants. Recent statistics from
capacity utilization. The main results up to now Volvo show that their total blue collar turnover,
can be summarized in the following points: which ran 25-30 percent annually prior to
- The total assembly times in the Kalmar 1972, now runs at only 10 percent. Likewise,
plant are less than in a conventional plant. Par- sickness typically ran over 20 percent annually,
ticularly, indirect time (planning, quality control while Kalmar boasts only 11 percent. In both
etc.) is less at Kalmar. In addition, the Kalmar cases, the Kalmar figures are well below Swe-
plant has some advantages that the conventional den's national averages. The 'Kalmar concept'
factory lacks, though it is somewhat more has diffused to a great number of projects.
costly. The extra investment is to some extent The entrepreneurial spirit that Kalmar created is
offset by production advantages, such as a the driving force behind changes of production
smaller number of supervisors, ease of altering technology and organizational design in new and
production arrangements, and low absenteeism old plants. A couple of the most innovative pro-
and turnover. jects will briefly be described.
- The total effect of these advantages has The personal involvement of the chief exec-
The Volvo Experience 123

utive officer throughout the design process has assembling tractors, construction and forestry
had a major impact on the thinking and organi- machines. The two different project groups each
zational climate. For example, he insisted on developed an air cushion platform. Two plat-
moving away from conveyor lines toward a more forms - one in the front and one in the rear -
flexible carrier system not only because it would can easily take a truck or any other heavy
increase the degrees of freedom of the worker product. By using compressed air the truck
but also because it would have a visual, symbolic becomes mobile because of the air pads which
effect. This has resulted in a number of creative keep the platform just above the floor. Any per-
solutions and organizational models in the son can easily move the truck from one 'assem-
different plants. bly bay' to the other. Thus the system is extra-
It should be stated from the beginning that ordinarily flexible and the layout within the
'the vision' of an automobile assembly plant did plant can easily be adapted to new products and
not become a reality at Kalmar. Originally the different needs. The total truck assembly
idea was to have the car completed in a small process includes:
workshop with a few work stations and with - material handling;
some twenty-five people being responsible for - preassembly of engines and gear-boxes;
producing a certain quantity. The vision turned - preassembly of cabs;
the traditional concept upside-down in the sense - preassembly of other components;
that it demanded that material flow be directed - two stations ("bays") for final assembly;
to one spot (the workshop) rather than distribu- - painting and undercoating.
ted along the line. The final solution of Kalmar All in all eighteen operators produce about
was not to have one group of twenty-five mem- 500 trucks annually. The work cycle for pre-
bers assembling the whole car but to have a assemblies and final assembly is around four
number of groups each assembling a certain hours each. At the very least people know how
function of the car (for instance, the electrical to perform within one work area. A few people
function). The visionary area was not dropped have gained experience amounting to eight hours
despite the fact that it was not adopted at Kal- or more. Meetings are held whenever needed
mar. We will see how newer approaches in other with the total group of eighteen members. In the
plants have come closer to solving the problems start-up phase, meetings were quite frequent but
involved. The closest so far is a small workshop lately a meeting every two weeks has been the
for truck assembly and a plant for tractor pattern. In order to test the new concept, 50
assembly. percent of the people were recruited externally;
these had no experience with truck manufac-
turing. Almost all training has been on-the-job.
Toward craftsmanship in assembly operations For the four hour work cycle the learning takes
an average of about sixty hours. The results
The Truck Division in the fall of 1974 planned from the truck workshop have been most
an expansion of the production volume. An encouraging in regard to such objectives as
initiative was then taken to apply some new productivity, quality, rejects, absenteeism, per-
ideas of job design in a small workshop. The sonnel turnover, and attitudes.
vision of Kalmar had been assimilated by the The tractor assembly is based on the same
people in charge of truck operations even idea as the truck workshop. Tractors are as-
though they had not been engaged in the Kalmar sembled in two areas with two teams in each
project. area - each team consisting of eight members.
Some managers and engineers met to see if In the first area the chassis are assembled inclu-
they could apply a system with just one group ding engine, clutch hosing, gearbox, and rear
of people taking full responsibility for the final axle housing. The chassis are painted and then
assembly of trucks. At the same time a parallel in the second area the final assembly takes place.
project was underway to construct a plant for Certain preassembly takes place in the same area
124 Berth J6nsson

as the assembly. Work cycles vary between Since the days of the first volunteer redesign
thirty minutes and four hours and can be exten- efforts in the 1960s, and particularly since the
ded beyond this when a person has learned the Kalmar Plant (car assembly) and Sk6vde Plant
job of the next team. (petrol engine manufacturing) projects were con-
In the two cases briefly described, we can wit- ducted, the pace of diffusion has steadily
ness a logical loop from the first ideas of increased. Through internal seminars and
Kalmar. The likely future development will be a documents an exchange of experience is
dynamic one using a set of learning and organi- achieved to the benefit of participating groups.
zational models. Changes will continue not least Over the last two years the exchange of experi-
in the division of responsibilities between man- ence seminars have involved Volvo subsidiaries
ufacturing personnel, supervision and industrial in Holland and Belgium. The mere fact that two
engineers. non-Swedish operations participated gives a sti-
mulating dimension to the development of new
work structures. Each plant has found its own
Toward a strategy of job design and learning feasible pattern of change. Similar to the
development in Sweden, changes in both
Over the last ten to twenty years the trend in Holland and Belgium comprise the creation of
mass production industry has been to develop more flexible hardware as well as new ways of
more sophisticated engineering methods and organizing work, including group work.
highly advanced hardware technology. The In industrial engineering the concept of 'work
degree of machinization has increased as a conse- cycles' is quite basic. The time it takes to per-
quence and man has become a cog in a big form one well-defined task is the work cycle.
machine. A highly mechanized assembly line The work cycle may vary from a few seconds in
allows a minimum of personal initiatives and certain drilling and cutting operations to several
thought. People are taught how to use preas- minutes in traditional assembly operation. Work
signed tools and given a pre-planned amount of cycles in car assembly have been reduced over
work to perform, which leaves the degree of the last ten year period to somewhere around
freedom of action utterly limited. three minutes. One of the directions at Volvo to
In Volvo today the great majority of jobs are reorganize the job has been to extend the work
mechanized. At the same time the new cor- cycles. However, one set of tasks has not been
porate strategy is to develop production technol- added to another set of tasks randomly. There
ogy and work organization toward two ends: has to be some logic behind the way to organize
craftsmanship and automation. During a transi- the tasks so as to achieve a more meaningful
tion period a number of people will naturally content of work.
remain in highly mechanized jobs. Figure 1 illus- One idea which has been implemented at
trates the pattern of development at different Volvo has been that of combining tasks so that
workshops. So far very little of traditional they either lead to the completion of a product,
assembly work has been automated. component, or subproduct (a complete system
or subsystem). To combine a set of tasks to
achieve some kind of wholeness has appeared to
Press-shop be a key to improving the work concept. By
Body-shop (welding) finalizing the product or a subsystem, it is
REDESIGN Paint-shop possible for a worker to learn how it functions
Assembly work DIRECTIONS Machineoperations and consequently the possibility is created to
4 I,

make quality checks at the spot where the

Craftsmanship Mechanization Automation
assembly takes place. Any corrective actions can
Fig. 1. Developmentat Volvoworkshops. likewise be made at the source of error.
This model has been extended both in a
horizontal way (longer work cycles combined in
The Volvo Experience 125

a logical way leading to a sense of completeness) demanding are people to adopt new tasks and
and in a vertical way (i.e., integrating other responsibilities (vertical job integration). This is,
types of jobs with the original one). Such jobs for instance, true in group work on some of the
may include: press lines and in a machine workshop (engine
- inspection of incoming material; block department).
- material handling; On the other hand, assembly work in itself
- quality inspection of the product; can be extended to a large extent (e.g., in
- rectifying of errors; Kahnar to around thirty minutes and in the
- tooling and retooling; truck workshop to four to eight hours). The pos-
- maintenance work on tools and machinery. sibility of a large horizontal integration seems to
in several cases at Volvo the logical develop- lead to a division of tasks. In most assembly
ment of a project has included these two steps: groups, for instance, material handling is desig-
(1) extended work cycles; and (2) vertical inte- nated to one particular group member who the
gration adding one or more of the tasks men- group selects. Sometimes this special task is
tioned. A strategy of training has been the rotated among group members each half day or
natural support system to a succesful implemen- a person may keep it a full week.
tation of projects. In some cases the learning has
gone beyond what has been described so far. In
one upholstery department, in some areas of the What are the driving and restraining forces to
press-shop, in one truck assembly, and in one successful implementation?
machine operation (to mention a few), addi-
tional responsibilities have been taken over by As previously mentioned, external and internal
the operators. This could be labeled step three. forces influence new ways of organizing work.
Such responsibilities include: In a recent study at Volvo it has been shown
- participation in production planning; that redesign strategies within the company vary
- participation in rationalization projects; with such factors as management style, social
- participation in hiring procedures; relations, demographic structure, and technol-
- participation in evaluating output; ogy. Consequently, there is no standardized
in technical development
- p a r t i c i p a t i n g model of change which can be used as a norma-
(tools etc.). tive tool within a company or between com-
By using the three step model we will see how panies.
learning develops within a work group. Some general conclusions can, however, be
In Volvo there are two more programs which drawn from the study:
on occasion serve as support systems to the shop- 1. that we will fail if we try uncritically to
floor work. The first one deals with lectures and copy solutions from one country to another,
discussions about the product as such, its func- from one plant to another within the same
tioning and its characteristics. The second type country, or even from one production line to
of program goes into interpersonal relations, another within the same plant;
group behavior, and problem-solving. 2. that when management has a deeply
It should be noted that the total model as just rooted understanding of the local characteristics,
outlined has seldom been completely implemen- our chances of success increase;
ted. However, it shows the possible alternatives 3. that an active and positive management
available. Based on Volvo experience it could be attitude toward change is a prerequisite for
said that each plant and each department has positive results. However, when this attitude
found a procedure of development which fits its turns into an endeavor to impose programs, pro-
own needs. A general observation can be drawn jects and plans 'from above' will tend to fail;
from recent development work. The less com- 4. that management has to be sensitive to the
plex work is in itself (i.e., a minimum of possible fact that the change process will sooner or later
horizontal integration), the more willing and affect several organizational levels, independent
126 Berth Jdnsson
of where the change is initiated; a period of time. The 'package' would include
5. that a process-oriented view should be delegation of responsibilities, integration of jobs
adopted; the important thing is to learn, to where other skills are required, job rotation, par-
study consequences, to understand, to com- ticipation in decision making concerning the job
municate, and to take risks in new trials. Change situation, and changes in physical working con-
requires freedom of action and time; ditions. Isolated trials with the introduction, for
6. that management development with the instance, of simple job rotation, are doomed to
focus on change and on the dynamics of both failure. To be effective, changes in the work
the internal and external social system, will organization must be fully integrated with a
increase the capacity for change; system of joint consultation;
7. that to ensure lasting effects, initiatives for 11. that many changes are undertaken spon-
change must come from the 'line' and not from taneously without the aid of projects, without
white-collar specialists; scientific sophistication, without their being
8. that the role of the behavioral scientists reported to anybody. These changes occur
should be that of the catalyst; simply on the initiative of keen and interested
9. that foremen and industrial engineers have individuals.
an increasingly crucial role to play. Through The process by which job design has developed
training, organizational changes, or participation at Volvo is a pragmatic approach to problem sol-
in joint consultation groups, they have been ving and an appreciation of the potential energy
brought closer to the problems of the shop floor which only man can mobilize. The solutions are
and have acquired a broader awareness of the different in different contexts, but by com-
social requirements related to technical prob- bining inputs from different fields of interest.
lems. experience, and knowledge, the system keeps
10. that changes in the work situation must developing.
include a 'package' of activities introduced over