MTM – Work design productive and safe

“Place the Table Soccer Unit in the Production Department”

The digital transformation of society and business is not feasible without human beings – everybody agrees on that. However, the issue of whether human beings are the victims or designers of this process is a hot potato. The answer is crystal-clear to Prof. Dr. Sabine Pfeiffer: designers, if they are allowed to fulfil this function. The Head of the Department of Sociology at the University of Hohenheim, Stuttgart, experienced the development of Industry 3.0 first-hand as a trained toolmaker with CNC, CAM and CAD. At the MTM Conference in Stuttgart on 26 October 2017, she wants to stand up for industrial specialists – the workers on the shop floor, whose innovative potential is usually not recognized and is therefore not used. Sabine Pfeiffer made herself available for an interview with MTMaktuell ahead of the conference.

Prof. Dr. Pfeiffer, the German Chancellor repeatedly emphasizes that the greatest challenge facing Germany is digitalization. Do you share this view?
“We certainly have some other things to cope with too, but digitalization is a major development trend.”

What do we still need to do, in your view, in order to deal with this challenge?
“We primarily need to shape employment in such a way that we don’t produce a polarizing labor market. Many business models on digital transformation in corporations are based on American thinking – the best from Silicon Valley. However, the jobs market in the USA with its high percentage of unskilled workers cannot be compared to the German labor market at all. The German economy operates so well because we have theoretical and practical training and many highly qualified specialists in our corporations. That’s our strength – and it represents enormous potential!”

Potential that enterprises are using too little, in your view?
“Yes, there’s far too little thinking on this aspect of things. Just look at the many studies that always come to the same conclusion: Digitalization will make people in production obsolete in the short or long term. However, it’s assumed here that all the employees on the shop floor are completing dull, routine work. Of course, the current wave of technology will replace some work – as other technological waves have done in the past too. But let me repeat my point – there’s enormous potential lying dormant on the shop floor – and I want to bring that to light through my research work.”

What can corporations do to make use of this potential?
“If I look at all the exciting things that people are talking about – the new business models, the new organizational structures, the new working systems – one thing never changes: The specialist working at a machine is the last person to be included in the discussions. He or she just sits at the receiving end of the process – and all the others make the decisions. But it would be possible to obtain so many great ideas from the shop floor level. The buzzword here is “design thinking workshops.” Or place the table soccer unit, which is supposed to boost managers’ innovative powers and creativity, in the production department and see what comes out at the other end.”

Is your appeal primarily directed towards managers at corporations and large companies?
“Primarily yes, but not exclusively. Tapping into innovative potential on the shop floor is an enormous opportunity, particularly for smaller companies. They have to manage without external advisors – who are usually expensive – and cope with the challenges that digital transformation is introducing with their own resources!”

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