Sparking Manufacturing Innovation: How Temporary Interplant Assignments Increase Employee Idea Values

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Shop-floor employees play a key role in manufacturing innovation. In some companies, up to 75% of all productivity gains are the result of bottom-up employee ideas. In this paper, we examine how employee interplant assignments—short problem-solving jobs at other manufacturing plants within the same firm—influence employee-driven manufacturing innovation. Using unique idea-level data from a large European car parts manufacturer, we show that interplant assignments significantly increase the value of employees’ improvement ideas due to the short-term transfer of production knowledge and long-term employee learning. Both effects are amplified by assignments to plants that have high functional overlap (i.e., plants producing similar products using similar processes and machinery). One implication is that, for the purpose of employee-driven manufacturing innovation, assignments between peripheral plants with high functional overlap can be more effective than assignments to and from central plants. These findings are robust to several econometric tests. Our study provides novel and detailed empirical evidence of manufacturing innovation, and goes beyond previous research on the learning curve (learning by doing) by investigating how interplant assignments affect the value of employees’ improvement ideas (learning by moving).

This paper was accepted by Charles J. Corbett, operations management.

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