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Mobility across production sites enhances innovative ideas among employees

Having production employees spend time at other plants within a manufacturing company raises their creativity in the short term and facilitates long-term learning / Study based on the data of a large European automotive supplier

Employees working in production, such as machine operators, plant operators, or production mechanics, play a key role in innovation in manufacturing companies. Such manufacturing innovation often involves the implementation of simple product and process improvements, which can, however, make a decisive contribution to the company’s success. A new study has shown that when these employees spend time at other plants, their ideas improve in quality in the short term (i.e., after one to three months) as well as in the long term (up to three years after the move). The study by the management researcher Fabian Sting at the University of Cologne as well as Philipp Cornelius from Erasmus University Rotterdam and Bilal Gokpinar from University College London has been published as a preprint and accepted for publication by the journal ‘Management Science.’

Using an extensive database of more than 20,000 employee ideas of a large European automotive supplier, the team showed that dispatching employees to other production facilities increases the quality of their ideas in the short term due to the transfer of production knowledge, and also promotes long-term learning. The long-term learning effect is due to a deeper understanding of manufacturing processes; which employees gain by a broadened perspective on production. Both effects are reinforced by spending time at plants that are functionally similar to where the employee usually works, for example plants that manufacture similar products with similar processes and machines. One implication of the study is that, for the purpose of employee-driven manufacturing innovation, moves between highly similar subsidiary plants can be more effective than sending employees from central plants to peripheral plants. This is remarkable, the researchers say, because decision-makers might intuitively be more inclined to send employees from technologically advanced ‘lead plants’ to downstream ‘server plants’ so that knowledge can be passed on from top to bottom. Fabian Sting remarked: ‘In learning, we benefit from variations and changes of perspective, but too much variation can be counterproductive. If the factories are too different, for example in their production methods, we learn less about the underlying production process.’

Employee mobility, for example in the area of management careers, is widespread in many companies. However, previous research has not sufficiently taken into account the mobility of operational production employees. The new study provides detailed empirical evidence of manufacturing innovation through employee mobility. It goes beyond previous research by showing how temporary employee exchanges between plants affect the quality of employees’ ideas for production improvement. Sting concluded: ‘Our study shows that mobility can increase the creativity of production employees. It is very important for companies to understand this in order to use the full creative potential of all their workers. Good ideas do not only come from the research and development departments.’


Media Contact:
Prof. Dr. Fabian J. Sting
Lehrstuhl für Supply Chain Management – Strategie und Innovation
+49 221 470-1029

Press and Communications Team:
Sarah Brender
+49 221 470-1700

Cornelius, P; Gokpinar, B; Sting, F; (2020) Sparking Manufacturing Innovation: How Temporary Interplant Assignments Affect Employee Idea Values. Management Science (in press):