In the 1957 Tracy-Hepburn comedy "Desk Set," Spencer Tracy plays an efficiency expert charged with improving the productivity of a TV research department run by Katherine Hepburn's character. For most of the movie, he prowls around with a tape measure and stopwatch much to Hepburn's annoyance. Tracy's expert was a caricature of the real thing, of course. But it did play off of the real tension that exists to this day when an outsider comes into the workplace to tell workers how to perform their jobs better.
In the decades since that film was made, employers have become much more sophisticated about how they work with their labor forces to improve productivity, with the result that improved productivity has been one of the U.S. economy's proudest accomplishments. Some of the gains have come from the application of engineered standards—the conceptual heirs of what Tracy's character attempted to impose. Others have come through technology. But beyond that, employers and workers have simply gotten better at working together.
The pressure to step up productivity will only increase in the not-too-distant future, when we aging baby boomers begin to retire and the next, smaller wave of workers takes over. With fewer workers, more will be required of each. Though they'll be called upon to do more, those workers will find there are some advantages to their situation: They can expect to have more leverage with their employers, especially in jobs that cannot be shipped offshore—forklift drivers, order pickers, truck drivers, and so on. That will certainly increase the pressure for enlightened management.
Some of the needed gains will probably come from greater automation. But many others will come from better understanding of workflows and enhanced cooperation between employers and employees. That's why I see a nice juxtaposition between two articles in this issue that at first blush may seem unrelated. Beginning on page 47, we report on how IBM is applying supply chain management principles to its labor force to great effect. In the second, beginning on page 62, we look at automated storage and retrieval systems, and how the utility of those technologies is expanding. It's going to take both better technology and better labor management to wring productivity gains from distribution center operations. The way this story plays out may not be as endearing as a Tracy-Hepburn flick, but the results will benefit workers and employers alike.