Process improvement and organisational learning: evidence from engineering-oriented small and medium-sized enterprises

Matthews, Rupert Lawrence (2013) Process improvement and organisational learning: evidence from engineering-oriented small and medium-sized enterprises. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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Process improvement has been identified as a central topic of operations management, being relevant to the different functional areas and assisting in providing the benefits operations management aims to realise. While extensive research has been conducted on specific process improvement methodologies, high resource requirement of specific process improvement methodologies make them inappropriate for many Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs). Compared to specific improvement methodologies, organisational learning was identified as an appropriate theoretical perspective from which to analyse process improvement activities within SMEs, leading to the presentation of the following three research questions:

How do engineering-oriented SMEs undertake process improvement?

What is the applicability of the three models of organisational learning within engineering-oriented SMEs?

How does organisational learning contribute to understanding of process improvement within engineering-oriented SMEs?

The research questions were addressed through in-depth, interpretive, interview based case studies with 14 Engineering Oriented SMEs. The six exploratory cases studies enabled the identification of specific process improvement practices that related isolated problems or opportunities with organisational level changes. These activities appeared to require management to implement formalised operational processes to ensure changes were captured within operational procedures and subsequently used by operational staff. Management support and culture then appeared to affect the ability of process improvement practices to provide firm level benefits to the case companies. Without directions by management or acceptance by operational staff, efforts directed towards process improvement tended to have limited impact on the benefits companies were able to realise from process improvement. Findings were then analysed from three conceptualisations of organisational learning identified within operations management literature. This provided theoretically underpinned insight to the exploration of process improvement, emphasising the importance of experience, involvement with external parties and the multi-level nature of organisational culture.

Following the analysis of the exploratory phase, the findings were confirmed within 6 additional engineering-oriented SMEs (2 were excluded). The confirmatory case companies allowed the further exploration of the relationships between the emergent themes in order for the third research question to be addressed. Organisational learning provided justification for the interaction and bidirectional relationship between process improvement and culture. Organisational learning also provided justification for the important role of management, in relation to interpreting the operating environment and adapting how they provided resources to process improvement.

The research thus contributes to operations management theory, by building upon organisational learning theory, in terms of how process improvement is conceptualised, factors affecting the benefits realised from process improvement and the importance of management to provide resources and direction to process improvement activities. Within all the case companies, this involved both providing sufficient resources in terms of training and time to engage in process improvement, but also selecting work that provided firms with sufficient process improvement opportunities. By effectively engaging in process improvement, firms appeared better equipped to compete against larger firms and low cost economies.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: MacCarthy, B.L.
Braziotis, C.
Keywords: Operations research, organizational learning, Engineering firms, small business, management,
Subjects: T Technology > T Technology (General)
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Social Sciences, Law and Education > Nottingham University Business School
Item ID: 13735
Depositing User: EP, Services
Date Deposited: 18 Feb 2014 13:51
Last Modified: 19 Dec 2017 09:43

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