Maruti Suzuki Strike: How a Matter of Pride Becomes The Achilles Heel!

[The strike at Maruti Suzuki has brought into attention many issues in Industrial relations. This is the third post in the series that discusses the issues. Here are the links to the first post and the second post.]

The report appearing in the Economic Times of India [Oct 17, 2011] makes an interesting reading as it addresses to the central issue: What widened the divide between the workers and the management?
Here is an excerpt: “The strategic decision to squeeze out maximum possible efficiency from existing plants didn't trickle down smoothly to the shop floor. Striking workers complain about abusive behaviour and even instances of slapping by supervisors, charges the company denies. Workers say the conditions at the Manesar plant were too stringent, while the management can't seem to comprehend the difficulty as the Gurgaon plant has operated under identical conditions for more than 25 years now.” 

The reference to ‘squeezing our maximum possible efficiency’ comes because Maruti Suzuki found that they were in a situation where demand for the cars was outrunning the production capacity. So steps were taken to enhance the production efficiencies. These were resented by workers; but such measures were operational at Gurgaon plant so the management could not understand the resistance of workers.

This raises some interesting issues: Firstly, we have to appreciate that workers, like all of us, have a ‘view’ on how work should be done. So a change needs to be explained and communicated well. 

Secondly, the workers of a new plant dislike being compared with workers at the older [or any other] plant. ‘Do this, look they are doing it, why don’t you do it?’ does not work well. The acceptance of such changes is always a problem. The workers want to discuss their work with their supervisors, not somebody else’s work. But usually the managements are in a hurry and do not have time for elaborate dialogue.

Thirdly, almost all new units begin on an excellent industrial relations note; but somewhere along the road the relationships sore. Maruti Suzuki had ushered in a great era of good manufacturing practices. In seminars, speakers often talked about ‘how it happens in Maruti’s plants.’ They brought in a tsunami of ‘Japanese Management style,’ in Indian industry. There are many people who have seen workers of Maruti making excellent presentations at a time when many managers were still learning PowerPoint. There were problem-solving techniques, quality circles, workers visiting plants in Japan and so on. The Maruti way was held in awe by many a people.

It is interesting how these healthy relationships in a new plant sore over a period and what causes them to go bad. This experience, I believe, is not unique to Maruti – it happens almost everywhere.

One of the popular beliefs is that the managers get increasingly arrogant and ‘controlling.’ This needs an explanation – when you set up a factory, you recruit new workers and train them. The interactions are very high and so is [usually] the sensitivity. The new workers have found a job in a good organisation which is a rarity; companies like Maruti train them very well so they see ‘value-add.’ Workers at this stage readily accept the supervision and show willingness to do any task assigned. There is a sense of pride at this juncture which overtakes all negatives. This situation requires very little people management skill. Arrogance and ‘controlling’ gradually grows and frictions start. It is important to note that the workers have complained of ‘slapping’ and ‘abusive’ language. This is not at all an unusual incident. Korean managers of a company were also accused of similar misbehaviour. Workers get labelled ‘union minded.’ The situation is ripe now for a conflict to set equations right.

And when a conflict erupts, both the parties wish to set all seemingly ‘wrong’ things right.

This is not as if the managers are to be blamed entirely for the situation. The point I am making is that a worker is very receptive initially but turns antagonistic later.
When a new plant is commissioned [like Manesar] the HR policies get tested. Where the workers are recruited young, they have boundless energy that can turn against the employer when not given adequate creative channels. Usually this is ignored. Some organisations in the South India have tried to overcome this problem by recruiting as a matter of policy, workers in all age groups up to 35-40 years. The presence of workers in higher age group, according to them, has a sobering effect on the younger workforce. [There is no evidence that this actually happens, but then managers so often follow their own pet theories!]. Such problems are inherent in the policies. Supportive actions have to be taken. But inability to see deeper problems makes managers attribute motives to the other party which is a recipe for dispute.

The entire situation is akin to the relationship between a father and his son – at young age the sons listen, and later they assert their freedom to do a lot of things, and demand space. When a son comes of age, his father is supposed to treat him like a friend.

Hidden in this metaphor is perhaps one of the answers to the problem.


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