I am one of those American who is adamantly uninterested in soccer. However, I have to admit that the process of making soccer balls might be interesting. More specifically it can be interesting when a bunch of researchers mess with how it is done.
It turns out that Pakistan is a big player in soccer ball production, as this graph from the Wall Street Journal shows (How Automation Fell Flat in the World’s Soccer-Ball Capital, Apr 28).
As the figure demonstrates, Chinese have been putting pressure on the Pakistanis in part by machine sewing balls while most Pakistani balls are hand stitched (see here for more on that). You would think that would make Pakistani manufacturers anxious for any process innovation that would let them reduce cost and compete with the Chinese.
In that context, enter a group of economists who have better way to cut the faux leather that makes up the ball. Here is their explanation of the innovation (from the Center for Development Economics and Policy at Columbia).
You would think that the manufacturers handed the improved die would be falling all over themselves to implement this technology. But factory floors are not that straightforward. Incentive issues basically undermined implementation (from the Journal article).
Owners were open to the new dies, seeing in them a chance for less waste and more profit. But workers—who are paid by the piece, and saw no benefit from skimping on Rexine—resisted. For one thing, cutters had to spend time learning the new equipment. Even after training, most cutters had to slow their pace of production, until they were thoroughly accustomed to the new technology. In addition, the new dies required slight modifications in the printing process. That cemented opposition from workers, with many either refusing to use the dies or disparaging them to their bosses.
In some cases, that resistance wilted only after workers were offered a bonus—a month’s wage—to become adept at the new technology. …
After more than a year, only five of the 35 manufacturers that were given the dies had adopted them. That was because employers’ enthusiasm for cost-savings ran into workers’ suspicions about how the technology, at least initially, might hobble their productivity. In short, the researchers learned, proven efficiency measures aren’t always a sure thing for manufacturers, particularly if owners’ and workers’ short-term incentives don’t line up.
This is a fascinating example of implementing a process improvement. It should be straightforward to do since it impacts only one part of the process so it is remarkable that most firms did not aggressively pursue it. It also seems that the factory owners were shortsighted; the Center for Development Economics and Policy’s website claims that the bonuses need to get the operators to play ball were small relative the savings from the new technology. Offering some earnings guarantee for the workers while they learned the technique seems like a no brainer.