How employees make decisions, particularly on dealing with out-of-condition grain, can be a major factor in the success of a grain elevator’s quality management system.
If employees do not make positive quality-oriented decisions on the job, the potential benefits — including improving inventory management, operational efficiencies and increasing legal compliance — of a quality management system will not be realized. Employee decisions drive the outcome of daily routines and processes. The quality processes in place at grain elevators assume that employees are following procedures and behaving in predictable ways.
However, one of the most difficult elements of the quality management system to manage and control are personnel actions.
Researchers at Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa, U.S., looked at developing and testing a process to measure the decision-making process of grain elevator employees in a quality decision scenario. They sought to measure the decision choice and the decision process. To that end, they examined what information employees used to make a decision. The research was conducted by Gretchen Mosher, Nir Keren and Charles Hurburgh.
Several significant conclusions were reached, including that employees are conflicted in their decision-making process between preserving the quality of the corn and following company policy and their management’s orders. In addition, researchers said cost to the company was under-emphasized in decision making, indicating that employees are not considering the costs of their quality decision choice to their company.
QUALITY MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS
Food safety issues involving commodity grain have added to building concerns on the safety of food and feed, researchers said. While the bulk commodity handling industry has not traditionally focused on food safety, recent safety concerns have focused attention on the matter.
In response to needs of supply chain stakeholders, grain handlers have started to recognize the potential of quality management systems. They can address food safety as well as inventory management, security and legislative compliance. Traditionally, quality management systems focus on improving a firm’s strategic position and operating efficiency by focusing on customer needs and quality objectives.
The programs look at components such as processes and procedures, machines and equipment, facilities, inputs and personnel.
The method of process tracing was used to measure the decision-making in the study. Process tracing uses a linear model and measures the intervening steps between information acquisition and decision choice. It studies the steps a person uses to make a decision rather than the outcome of the choice.
Decision Mind, a computerized decision-making simulation, was used to enable the process-tracing methodology. The simulation records several key attributes of the decision-making process including sequence of information gathered, the number of items viewed and the decision choice.
The decision-making task for the study was employee decisions regarding the management and storage of wet corn. In the scenario, an employee must decide what to do when a load of wet corn is delivered — follow direct orders from management and dump the corn on an unmanaged ground pile or take action to better preserve the quality of the grain before it is stored.
The factors in the decision-making process included: storage risk, cost to company, customer service and company policy. Although employees may know that dumping the grain into a pile is a poor quality practice, they must also consider company policy and their management’s directive.
Study participants were employees of three large U.S. Midwestern grain handling facilities. Of the 140 invitations extended, 197 responded, with 164 providing usable data. Data was collected over a three-month period in 2010. The sample included 120 males and 34 females, and 10 people who chose not to identify gender.
For each decision simulation, employees read the hypothetical situation and were presented four decision choices. Each choice was given a numerical score with scores less than zero denoting a negative evaluation and a score greater than zero designating a positive evaluation.
All choices force employees to determine which factor had the strongest influence on their decision. A choice that is positive in terms of storage risk may be less positive in terms of customer service or company policy.
In order to quantitatively present the information gathered from participants, a search index metric was used. The measurement calculates the ratio between the number of times information on one decision factor was viewed compared to the other factors. This gave researchers an idea of the employee’s focus while making the decision.
An index value equal to one means the decision factor has equality importance to others in the decision process. Values less than one represent a factor of less importance while values greater than one represent a factor of greater importance.
Researchers found that storage risk and company policy were given significantly more emphasis by employees. Cost to company was given significantly less emphasis by respondents, while customer service was neutral.
Employees are considering quality when making a decision on out-of-condition grain, researchers said, and are also thinking about the expectations of their managers and supervisors.
Cost to company was the only factor that received an index value of less than one. This was not an unexpected finding, researchers said, as many employees’ have a general indifference to their company’s financial bottom line. This is particularly true if they do not see a clear connection between company expenses and their work tasks.
In the decision scenario, the most quality-oriented choice was to not accept the corn, researchers said. However, very few respondents chose this alternative. Rather, many chose to follow the orders given by management in dumping the corn.
“Because dumping corn on an unmanaged pile is fairly typical practice, it was not unexpected that many employees chose this option,” researchers said. “However, an unanticipated number of employees chose options which were in effect ‘non-choices’ because they do not require an employee to make a decision about what to do with the wet corn at the scale, which was the focus of the decision-making scenario.”
Researchers said checking the moisture content in the pile or drying the corn are “non-choices” because in the rush of receiving grain during harvest season, the employee must make a quick decision to accept or reject the load. It is assumed employees who receive grain at the scale do not have the authority to dry corn or delay the receipt of the grain by checking the moisture content of a grain pile.
Drying corn before storage is normally considered a valid quality management choice, but it is not the best quality practice in this scenario. The choice presented to employees was a two-step sequential decision. Before employees could decide whether to dry the corn or to test the moisture content of the pile, they must accept or reject the load of grain on the scale.
The large number of non-choices and the high selection of two non-feasible options suggest the phenomenon known as “free ride,” researchers said. Free ride is when employees fail to correct an obvious safety issue because they figure someone else will take care of it.
In this scenario when an employee fails to reject or accept a load of corn, they are passing along the inevitable choice of balancing company policy and quality concerns to someone else.
Researchers said several significant findings emerged from the study. First, a large number of employees chose to follow the orders from management to dump the corn rather than take steps to better preserve and manage the quality of grain.
An equally large number of employees selected a non-choice of drying the corn or checking the moisture in the pile, effectively passing the choice to someone else.
Employees gave a significantly higher emphasis to the dimensions of storage risk and company policy, suggesting that they are conflicted in their decision-making process between preserving the quality of the corn and following company policy.
Cost to the company was significantly under emphasized in the decision-making process, indicating that employees are not considering the costs of their choice to their company, researchers said.
Customer service was not found to make a significant difference in the employees’ decision-making.
Researchers noted that there are several limitations to the study. The small sample size was from a limited number of grain handling organizations, limiting the generalization of the findings to other organizations within the grain industry.
In addition, the data collection procedures were relatively new to the participants, researchers said, introducing potential measurement error. The scenario examined did not include specific details such as the moisture content of the corn in the pile, the aeration options on the pile, or other specific factors that could influence the decision choice.
The study raised several questions which could be addressed in the future, researchers said. They noted several high priority needs for research in the area including:
Development of other quality decision scenarios to reflect other quality tasks in the grain elevator work environment.
Further refinement and testing of the exiting decision-making scenario with grain handling professionals in other grain handling facilities and in other geographical areas.
Expansion of the project to include larger and more diverse grain handling facilities.
Management of out-of-condition grain is an important component of quality management systems in the grain handling system. A program cannot be successful if employees are not making positive, quality-oriented decisions, researchers said.
“As the importance of quality management increases in the grain handling industry, continued research on the quality decision-making processes of employees will play an important role in improving existing methods for managing grain quality and may also increase the likelihood of the successful implementation of new quality management systems within the grain handling environment,” researchers concluded.