Bosch Rexroth, the Netherlands: Towards a balanced flexibility
Bosch Rexroth is a manufacturer of drive and control technology systems. To deal with fluctuations in demand, the company has organised its production process in autonomous teams, broadening the skills of the workforce to increase their availability. As a result, the company is able to match demand and capacity more efficiently.
Bosch Rexroth is a manufacturer of drive and control technology systems (such as hydraulics and electromechanical equipment). The company employs about 700 workers. In 2005, the average age of the workforce was 42.5 years and around 15% were women. The company started in 1954 as a family-owned business under the name Hydraudyne. The company supplied hydraulic systems, in particular for hydraulic engineering works and the dredging industry. Although there was clear export potential for its products, the company lacked the necessary sales channels. Hydraudyne therefore teamed up with the multinational Rexroth, a manufacturer of products for drive and control systems. In 2001, Bosch took over Rexroth. The facility in Boxtel became the company’s head office in the Netherlands and the centre of competence for complex products and services.
Terms of employment, such as working time arrangements, are negotiated with the works council and with the trade unions. In these matters, all employees are free to express their opinions. Bosch Rexroth follows the CAO Metalektro, the collective labour agreement for the metalworking industry. Union density is not registered, but is estimated to be around 10%.
Description of the initiative
Nowadays, companies need to be flexible to anticipate peaks in demand, to handle workers’ sickness absence, and to enhance their competitiveness. The most common form of flexibility is overtime and the use of temporary workers. Bosch Rexroth has initiated other solutions to deal with seasonal fluctuations in demand: it has organised the production process in autonomous teams and has broadened the skills of the workers to increase their availability.
Preliminary work and supporting tasks are largely carried out by the team members themselves. Disruptions in the production process are also dealt with by the team. To generate more temporary capacity, a team can decide to change from a two-shift system to a three-shift system; they may instead decide to extend their working day temporarily. Extra hours are registered in a time-registration system; in this system, a maximum credit of 96 hours and a maximum deficit of 40 hours are allowed. For some tasks it is possible to hire temporary workers, primarily for assembly work that can be divided into different tasks; this allows a temporary worker to assist a skilled worker. To generate more structural capacity, the management can decide to change from a two-shift to a five-shift system; in this case, the works council is consulted.
By means of training, the company has broadened the skills of their workers. To make these skills transparent, a so-called flexibility matrix has been developed: in this matrix, every function is listed with its resulting corresponding competencies. Each employee, and their competencies, is also listed. All employees in operational functions are supposed to be able to fulfil various tasks, especially within the autonomous teams. Most workers within a team should be able to take over tasks from a range of colleagues. The flexibility matrix also serves as a monitoring instrument, indicating whether or not a sufficient number of employees are able to perform a particular job.
Such a policy requires a comprehensive investment in education and coaching: training takes up about 2% of the total labour cost. Training on employee’s work skills takes place in-house, while training on behavioural aspects takes place externally. As a result, about 125 workers are available for many tasks.
The policy on flexibility is negotiated with the trade unions and the works council: if arrangements carry financial consequences, the trade unions are involved; other arrangements are negotiated with the works council.
The greater variety in the tasks they perform means that workers are positive about the increased availability. Coaching stimulates and motivates the workers. However, not all jobs and tasks are suitable for this policy. Sometimes, settling into a job takes too much time and effort. Another constraint is that, for some tasks, passing on the responsibilities or knowledge needed for a job is too complicated. In any case, the opportunities offered by increased availability are limited.
According to the workers, flexible working hours have their pros and cons. More flexibility enables workers to do errands or activities for which office hours or daylight are essential; moreover, working more days sequentially also permits more free time to be taken in a chunk. The extra payment is also appreciated as well. On the other hand, unusual working hours can be a physical burden and are inconvenient for maintaining a social life. Overall, the employees at Bosch Rexroth rate their employer positively: according to a recent poll, workers are satisfied with their jobs and are proud to work for the company. The Bosch employee poll is conducted every two years and focuses on the impact of company policy on all organisational aspects.
The increased availability of workers, flexible working hours and the autonomous teams offer the company management an optimal level of flexibility as they can match demand and available capacity. As a result, the balance between permanent and agency personnel is more favourable. More workers are able to perform direct tasks. The success of the policy is indicated by a reduction in external personnel, such as temporary workers.
Exemplary and contextual factors
The company has succeeded in creating the flexibility needed to anticipate fluctuations in demand. Simultaneously, it offers employees sufficient compensation for their flexibility, more variation in their tasks (due to increased availability), more responsibility (as a result of working in autonomous teams) and tools to manage their flexibility (the time-registration system).
Swenneke van den Heuvel, TNO Hoofdorp