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Macroergonomics is Better Economics – an Interview with the late Hal Hendrick

[Editor's note: This article is reprinted with permission from The Ergnomics Report™, Ergoweb's popular subscription-based online publication. Subscribers have had access to this article since January 11, 2006 — for over 5 years. Stay up-to-date with the ever changing and evolving world of ergonomics, subscribe to The Ergonomics Report™ today. Learn more about Hal's important contributions to ergonomics by reading his obituary.]

Good ergonomics is good economics. The message from the author of this maxim is that the macro approach is even better economics. In January The Ergonomics Report™ asked Hal W. Hendrick, Ph.D., CPE, DABFE, a pioneer of the field, about the evolution and benefits of macroergonomics. His overview revealed a lingering challenge – winning acceptance for the systems-wide approach from companies still wedded to piecemeal solutions.

Dr. Hendrick named the field of macroergonomics, which started 22 years ago as a committee with a wordy appellation – the Select Committee on Human Factors Futures 1980-2000. Emeritus Professor of Human Factors and Ergonomics at the University of Southern California and the Principal of Hendrick and Associates, he is also a past president of the International Ergonomics Association (IEA) and the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES). The "good ergonomics" maxim was the title of his HFES presidential address in 1996.

Dr. Hendrick’s overview starts with Arnold Small, a pioneer of ergonomics in the United States, who voiced the concern in 1978 that changes in society could have a dramatic impact on the field. Professor Small urged the Human Factors Society (HFS), now HFES, to create a committee to assess the trends. Dr. Hendrick was appointed to the committee. Because of his dual background in human factors engineering and industrial and organizational psychology he was asked to focus on developments in organizational design and management.

Profound Changes to the Nature of Work
The committee reported its findings at the 1980 HFS Annual Meeting in Los Angeles. Dr. Hendrick noted in his contribution to the report that several major trends were evident. They began with the rapid changes in technology. "It was clear that this new technology was going to profoundly change the nature of work over the next few decades," he said, recollecting his observations. He listed as pivotal developments the silicon chip, personal computers, automation, rapidly-expanding computer capability and new materials such as fiber optics.

"The second thing I noted was that the workforce population in the United States was aging, and was going to age about a half a year for every year that has passed between 1980 and 2000." He linked the phenomenon to the post-WWII baby boom bulge in the workforce, and explained that it meant dealing with a more experienced, older, more mature workforce.

His report cited research that revealed significant changes in the value system of workers. Particularly for post-WWII personnel, job security and a good paycheck were no longer enough. People prized the feeling that their jobs were meaningful, and not just make-work. They wanted jobs with intrinsic motivation that also offered opportunities for social relationships at work. Real employee commitment and motivation would rest on management and organizational designs that accommodated the different values.

He also noted world competition was changing the picture. After WWII foreign competition began eroding the United States’ virtual monopoly throughout the world on quality products. It was clear the United States would have to compete, and do it efficiently.

The report noted a failure in traditional (micro) ergonomics due to inattention to the macroergonomic design of the overall work system. "We had been very successful at reducing work-related MSDs and other types of injuries, (but) were not reaching the kinds of reductions that managers in their gut and experienced ergonomists … knew should be possible."

The Organizational Design and Management (ODAM) Technical Group of 1984 grew out of the committee’s conclusions. Similar groups were formed in other countries.

ODAM has grown dramatically as a specialty on an international scale. At the 1994 IEA congress in Canada, more ODAM papers were presented than on any other topic and it was one of the major topics at the 2000 IEA congress in San Diego.

By the IAEA conference in Vancouver in 1986 things had progressed far enough that Dr. Hendrick proposed the concept of macroergonomics. The choice of the word and the necessity for the new specialty came together in its name. "(I) coined it specifically for the purpose of getting people to (recognize) that traditional ergonomics primarily focused on the individual operator and work station, or at best, small groups, and that we had not really been addressing the overall work system design factors."

20th Anniversary of Macroergonomics
The Organizational Design and Management Technical Group was renamed the Macroergonomics Technical Group in 1996, and the field celebrated its 20th anniversary – a few months late – at the 2005 ODAM symposium in Hawaii.

Dr. Hendrick defines macroergonomics as "a top-down socio-technical systems approach to work system design, and the carry through to the design of jobs, hardware and software. Though conceptually top-down, in actual practice it tends to be bottom up, middle out and (also) top down in practice, so that it hits all levels of the organization in the process of doing a macroergonomic evaluation." Active participatory ergonomics at all levels is a key factor.

Ergonomics is often criticized as being theoretical, he said, "but that is not true of macroergonomics, which is soundly grounded in general systems theory as well as in socio-technical systems theory." General systems theory says that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, and when the overall system is properly designed to adapt to its environment – and when the parts are in harmony with it – you get a better-functioning system.

Macroergonomics has spawned its own methodologies. One, developed by Dr. Hendrick, is best known as MAS – Macroergonomic Analysis of Structure. "It’s a methodology in which you can go in and identify key characteristics of any work system, using this model, and – from that– it tells you such things as whether you should have a lot of higher and lower levels, or whether it should be rather flat in its design, whether you should have a high level of formalization, that is, where the work is regulated by a lot of rules, regulations and procedures, or whether you should have a low level of that, and whether you should be making tactical decisions high up in the organization, with highly centralized control, or highly decentralized control. And then you can compare that with the actual work system." What we find, he added, is that when the work system design does not match MAS it is usually an indication of a big problem.

MEAD – Macroergonomic Analysis and Design – is one of several other methodologies used by today’s macroergonomists. The designer was Brian Kleiner, Ph.D. MGDSL, Director of the Macroergonomics and Group Decision Systems Laboratory Director at Virginia Tech. "Although it also touches on organizational structure, its primary value is a very systematic 10-step way of looking at the work system processes and how to improve them," Dr. Hendrick explained.

Enlarging the Economics with Macroergonomics
Macroergonomics has been around long enough for its benefits to be assessed. "If you take a microergonomic approach and look at the research results over the years, Dr. Hendrick said, successful programs tend to get a 10-25 percent improvement, whether it is in productivity or accident reduction. But when you get the macroergonomic level in there and it is a true macroergonomic intervention, we normally see 50-90 percent improvement. Associated benefits include better productivity and quality, and improved job satisfaction and employee commitment.

Asked for case studies to support the figures, he began with a description of a macroergonomic intervention by Dr. Andrew Imada, Ph.D. CPE, at a large petroleum distribution company in the United States. "He reduced the number of motor vehicle accidents – and we are talking, of course, about those big tankers – by 51 per cent, and reduced their industrial accidents by 54 percent." Lost workdays dropped by 94 percent. The benefits carried over to the home environment, with an 80-plus percent reduction in off-the-job injuries. That was after two years. Nine years on, the motor vehicle accidents had dropped further to 63 percent, industrial accidents to 70 percent, and lost workdays to 97 percent. "This is highly significant because so often when you do organizational interventions, initially you get a rise in performance, but then after time goes on, it gradually erodes." The process of macroergnomic intervention and extensive participatory ergonomics accounts for the sustained results and further improvements, Dr. Hendrick explained. "He was able to install a safety culture within the organization."

The bonus – and another indication of the cost effectiveness of the intervention – was a $60,000 saving in fuel deliveries.

The LLBean company, known best for its outdoor products and gear, supplied the second example. Dr. Hendrick said they were getting ready to introduce total quality management (TQM) in the company, and several people thought his methodology would be useful. "Two years after applying the approach, they had achieved a 70 percent reduction in lost time accidents and injuries, in both their production part of the company as well as the mail order distribution part of the company. … They also found it led to greater employee satisfaction and improvement in other TQM kinds of variables."

The third telling example was one of his own interventions. "Back about 1996, we transferred a major portion of our worldwide graduate program in systems management at the University of Southern California to the University of Denver. … I came over to the University of Denver on a three-year leave of absence for the purpose of establishing a new university college, which would house this large program. So I had had the opportunity to actually design a university college from scratch." He applied MAS, assisted by an IBM group that used a methodology developed by the University of Texas for evaluating the software and hardware needs for the program.

"Because we had the same program at USC, I was able to compare my results of doing that with the way it had been operated at USC. Which, itself, was a well functioning unit because they had fine-tuned it over about 30 years."

"Two years later, compared with the way it was at USC, we had a 27 percent savings in operating expenses, (and) a 23 percent saving in staffing requirements, in other words, a 23 percent reduction in the number of people it took to run the program." Other benefits included a 67 percent reduction in the average processing time at off-campus locations for student registrations and other tasks. "We got these further reductions from this macroergonomic approach to designing from scratch."

A Continuing Challenge
He notes there is now ample evidence that where macroergonomic has been truly applied – with the support of management and labor – the results are consistently dramatic. Yet companies aren’t lining up for a macroergonomic makeover.

Winning them over to a systems-wide approach appears to be a process that begins with micro steps. Typically, according to Dr. Hendrick, a macroergonomist goes into a company to make microergonomic changes and gains credibility when benefits are seen. He or she is then in a position to show what else is possible on a bigger scale, and to suggest changes at the macro level. Describing the approach, Dr. Hendrick criticized it as piecemeal and potentially not as effective as taking the wide view at the outset.

An obstacle to acceptance of the wide approach is management, he said. When managers realize they too will have to make changes in the way they do things, they balk. "Companies are not willing to change unless management is enlightened."

Constant reminders of Dr. Hendrick’s maxim could be their path to enlightenment.

Source: Dr. Hal Hendrick, Ph.D., CPE, DABFE.