Article | Management Science | 2012

Specialization and Variety in Repetitive Tasks: Evidence from a Japanese Bank

by B. Staats and F. Gino

Abstract

Sustaining operational productivity in the completion of repetitive tasks is critical to many organizations' success. Yet research points to two different work-design-related strategies for accomplishing this goal: specialization to capture the benefits of repetition and variety (i.e., working on different tasks) to keep workers motivated and provide them opportunities to learn. In this paper, we investigate how these two strategies may bring different productivity benefits over time. For our empirical analyses, we use two-and-a-half years of transaction data from a Japanese bank's home loan application-processing line. We find that over the course of a single day, specialization, as compared to variety, is related to improved worker productivity. However, when we examine workers' experience across a number of days, we find that variety helps improve worker productivity. Additionally, we show that part of this benefit results from workers' cumulative experience with changeovers. Our results highlight the need for organizations to transform specialization and variety into mutually reinforcing strategies rather than treating them as mutually exclusive. Overall, our paper identifies new ways to improve operational performance through the effective allocation of work.

Keywords: learning; motivation; productivity; specialization; variety; work fragmentation; Boundaries; Performance Productivity; Organizations; Research; Strategy; Motivation and Incentives; Opportunities; Market Transactions; Resource Allocation; Performance; Goals and Objectives; Learning;

Citation:

Staats, B., and F. Gino. "Specialization and Variety in Repetitive Tasks: Evidence from a Japanese Bank." Management Science 58, no. 6 (June 2012): 1141–1159.