Research Question

Business Efficiency Needn’t Be the Enemy of Personal and Public Well-Being

Operations managers can take into consideration happiness, equity and sustainability

Few areas of academic business research are as deeply and technically intertwined with the daily doings of actual firms as operations management. 

Researchers in the field often help individual organizations solve discrete and pressing business problems, in health care, manufacturing, transportation, global supply chains, public services and elsewhere. 

Efficiency projects, of course, are as old as industry itself.  And like the rest of society, the study of operations management has only recently begun to fully take stock of the drive for productivity’s impact on the wider world of human well-being. The more brutal impacts — pollution, workplace injuries, discrimination — are well identified, if a long way from being solved. But a whole new raft of unintended consequences has arisen from the modern corporate world’s imperative for speed and thrift:

  • In occupations that involve emotional labor  (think of a flight attendant calming a nervous or unruly passenger)  how to design that workplace when the amount of emotional labor skyrockets, as it did during COVID-19, and how to remedy the disparate impacts this has across different groups of people?
  • In flat organizations reliant on high-cost labor (think software programming)  there is a social component to productivity, as workers must ask each other individually for help. Imagine a large programming crew, each member with his or her own widely varying levels of social and technical skills and production demands. Now design their interaction, which must be voluntary.
  • As society ages and  every product and service has an increasing technology component, consider the scripts needed for a call center handling customer problems, and the productivity measurements in an era when the scripts often don’t solve the user’s problem.
  • Gathering and rapidly moving around vast amounts of people’s data are essential to the modern corporation. On average, 471 third parties have access to an organization’s sensitive data. And only 35% of organizations know whom they’re sharing their data with. Can you build an operation that runs faster — and collaborates with an ever-expanding crew of external partners — but that actually protects people’s privacy?

In a paper forthcoming in Manufacturing & Service Operations Management, UCLA Anderson’s Charles Corbett examines the relationship between operations and well-being, viewing a growing body of research by operational experts and others, including ethnographers who embed in organizations to witness firsthand the human side of efficiency. 

Thinking beyond basic efficiency, at the individual level, Corbett wonders, what makes us happy? At the group level, what’s fair? And at the societal level, what’s sustainable?

Does the Thing Even Work?

Corbett seeks to broaden the views of his field, looking beyond his own discipline. His goal, as he says in the paper: is “To start to chart the perhaps surprisingly many ways in which (operations management) can impact well-being, for better or worse.” 

As a backdrop to individual and acute ill effects, Corbett says in an email exchange, there is the widely felt sentiment that  people spend way too much time and energy dealing with operations that don’t work the way they should. “Many of these are small issues, but it adds up,” Corbett says. “Just making stuff work the way it’s supposed to would vastly increase well-being.”

Corbett divides his examination into five sections, each defined by two of the “10 P’s”:

Pace and Productivity

Corbett wants his field — and the managers who implement operations designs — to distinguish between rapid and rushed. Rushing “leads to chaos, and chaos is demoralizing,” he says. “Making decisions in a hurry leads to more errors and bakes biases into processes. Good operations management slows things down to make better, fairer decisions.”

Scale and speed in the modern workplace led companies to break manufacturing down into a series of simple tasks and then had each worker do as few as one task, many times over, faster and faster. This approach spread from factory floor to warehouse to financial institution back shop and beyond.

Anthropologist Deborah Fink worked in a pork processing plant in the 1990s, witnessing, Corbett reports, “constant pressure to cut faster while also cutting closer to the bone to reduce waste, while workers experience frequent abuse from managers.” Productivity numbers and yield (opposite of waste) may have looked great in such an operation, but the work was miserable.

Poorly implementing a smart strategy can be very bad for worker well-being. Lean operations, Corbett notes, aren’t necessarily faster but they involve reducing slack, and that can increase stress. “Partial implementation of lean leads to the worst outcomes,” Corbett notes. And “the worst-performing plants were those that adopted (just-in-time operations) without human resource and prevention practices. Again and again, quality of execution matters.”

Predictability and Probability

Reducing uncertainty is another important tenet of operations management. But in making operational processes more predictable, companies can offload greater unpredictability onto their employees. Cathy O’Neil, mathematician and author of Weapons of Math Destruction:  How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, “laments how staff scheduling software has been optimized to the point where employees have much less downtime on the job (hence increasing stress) and are given such erratic schedules that their children grow up without routines.” Again, labor supply may have been perfectly matched to the work to be done, but in a way that upends workers’ lives.

Corbett reflects that those at the bottom of the economy and with the least flexibility are those who bear the greatest unpredictability. Operations management researchers need to consider the human and social element and not just the statistical benefits when proposing measures to increase operational predictability.

Process and Prevention

Operations management attempts to create processes that prevent errors from occurring. Errors, in multitude, Corbett notes, yield chaos and demoralization. That human toll is too seldom factored into the cost of errors.

Despite good intentions, “inequity is also frequently designed into a process.” UCLA Anderson’s Jane Wu highlighted in a working paper titled, “Innovation for Dummies: Exploring the Role of Metrics in Automotive Safety,” “that automakers who rely heavily on a safety metric linked to side impact dummies (SID) reduced fatalities disproportionately for individuals whose body size is most similar to a SID.” Less so for humans of other shapes.

Many of the examples in Corbett’s research illustrate that the work of ethnographers has been important in uncovering why operations management practices that look good can have ill effects. While embedding researchers in the workplace can help discover problems, the solutions to those problems can also come from the trenches. Involving workers in the design of processes, in order to capture their on-the-job knowledge, is often a crucial yet missing ingredient in process design. 

Sometimes missing for a very human reason. Corbett notes that harried production managers sometimes hide process improvements from executives because they know the brass will simply speed up the process to fully capture the efficiency, yet again raising the level of stress.

Performance and Payment

Driving performance improvements is another core tenet of operations management. Payments are often the carrot to induce improvement. And the way performance is measured and incentives are structured can be linked to happiness and a sense of fairness in the workplace, or the opposite.

“In production environments it is quite common to see displays with a team’s current performance relative to benchmarks such as a target output level or the maximum performance reached during the recent past,” Corbett explains. However, in their book, Engineering Happiness: A New Approach for Building a Joyful Life, authors Manel Baucells and UCLA Anderson’s Rakesh Sarin note that such comparisons can affect happiness among these teams — workers are sometimes negatively impacted by being told that they are falling short of their best performance. 

Likewise, primary care doctors in one study at the UCLA Health system were monitored to see how well they got their patients into preventive care tests and were told how they compared on that score with other doctors. The nudge didn’t improve their performance on getting patents tested, but it did lead to higher levels of reported burnout and job dissatisfaction.

Pollution and Protection

Pollution and accidents are sometimes the unfortunate byproducts of operational processes. Corbett notes that health risks and environmental impacts from industrial activity are not distributed fairly. A study by researchers M.R. Elliot, Y. Wang, Robert A. Lowe and Paul R. Kleindorfer in 2004, found “that predominantly African‐American counties experience higher location risk, meaning larger facilities with more chemicals are located in those counties.” Their study goes on to find that these same facilities — all things being equal to facilities not in predominantly Black areas — “are at greater risk of accidental releases of chemicals and subsequent injuries.” 

“Pollution and (lack of) protection from danger have clear implications for individual well‐being,” Corbett notes.

Overall, Corbett urges researchers to emphasize the importance of understanding individuals rather than treating them as production inputs or statistical objects, acknowledging that he is equally guilty of failing to do so often enough. He suggests that practitioners of operations management could improve the well-being of those impacted by their work by considering the perspectives of other fields on their projects. For example, where someone in operations might initially look at the ride-sharing industry as a challenge to maximize profits, scholars from political science, labor economics and human rights would immediately focus on the welfare of the drivers. 

Corbett also encourages practitioners to use the fieldwork done by ethnographers to gain insights into the realities workers face. Corbett believes that by focusing on these elements, operations management could live up more fully to its potential as a field that benefits everyone involved and creates healthier and fairer and more sustainable work environments.

Featured Faculty

  • Charles J. Corbett

    Professor of Operations Management and Sustainability; IBM Chair in Management

About the Research

Corbett, C. (2023). The Operations of Well-Being: An Operational Take on Happiness, Equity, and Sustainability. Manufacturing & Service Operations Management.

Baucells, M., & Sarin, R. (2012). Engineering Happiness: A New Approach for Building a Joyful Life. Univ. of California Press.

Delbridge, R. (1998). Life on the Line in Contemporary Manufacturing: The Workplace Experience of Lean Production and the Japanese Model.

Drwecki, B. B., Moore, C. F., Ward, S. E., & Prkachin, K. M. (2011). Reducing Racial Disparities in Pain Treatment: The Role of Empathy and Perspective-Taking. Pain, 152(5), 1001-1006.

Elliott, M. R., Wang, Y., Lowe, R. A., & Kleindorfer, P. R. (2004). Environmental Justice: Frequency and Severity of US Chemical Industry Accidents and the Socioeconomic Status of Surrounding Communities. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 58(1), 24-30.

Fink, D. (1998). Cutting into the Meatpacking Line: Workers and cChange in the Rural Midwest. Univ of North Carolina Press.

Hodson, R. (2005). Management Behaviour as Social Capital: A Systematic Analysis of Organizational Ethnographies. British Journal of Industrial Relations, 43(1), 41-65.

Juravich, T. (1985). Chaos on the Shop Floor: A Worker’s View of Quality, Productivity, and Management. Temple University Press

O’Neil, C. (2016). Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. Crown. 

Eubanks, V. (2018). Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and punish the Poor. St. Martin’s Press.

Roberts, S. T. (2019). Behind the Screen. Yale University Press.

Woydack, J. (2018). Linguistic Ethnography of a Multilingual Call Center: London Calling. Springer.

Wu, J. (2022). Innovation for Dummies? Exploring the Role of Metrics in Automotive Safety. Working Paper.

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