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Voices of experience: An empirical investigation of working, changing, and sense-making at a manufacturing firm

Jillian I. M Woodilla, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation addresses the lack of attention to work in organization studies (Barley, 1996), and to change processes as they unfold from the perspectives of those attempting to incorporate changes into their own work. Research was conducted "from the inside" (Evered & Louis, 1981). Two periods of fieldwork during the years 1992-1997 provided qualitative data. Q-methodology was incorporated, allowing analysis to flow back and forth between qualitative and quantitative data. This dissertation is based on an empirical examination of how people made sense of attempts at changing their working practices in a company facing pressure from customers to perfect quality, increase speed, and lower costs. Men and women working in this mature, mid-sized manufacturing firm needed to continue to make product--fluid handling components supplied to several industries--while changes were going on around them. Following a major restructuring in the late 1980s, the organization acquired a reputation for forward-thinking management practices. A planned change initiative focusing on teamwork and on introducing kaizen techniques was begun early in 1997. The dissertation experiments with different ways of representing experiences of working and changing (and not changing) in a manufacturing organization. It presents the following stories: a chronological description of changes in ownership, structure, and management practices; reflections on changes in worklife as told by three employees; an account of a kaizen event; cynical and hopeful ways of talking about the teamwork initiative; and expressions of perspectives on changing. Interpretation considers people's responses to the constant flip-flop of demands, changes in structure and technology, and sense-making on a daily basis and in reference to publicity surrounding the previous restructuring. Although based in a single manufacturing organization, results suggest implications. For organizational behavior researchers, practices of shamming and taking shortcuts deserve research attention. Change practitioners may want to consider sense-making processes in order to highlight what they want people to notice and focus on. This was an ordinary organization, experiencing some success despite ever increasing pressures from outside. Men and women working there continued to do their work, making just enough sense to get through the workday.

Subject Area

Management|Labor relations

Recommended Citation

Woodilla, Jillian I. M, "Voices of experience: An empirical investigation of working, changing, and sense-making at a manufacturing firm" (1998). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9841932.